Reflections on Saturday: the Mighty Story, the Mirror Stage, and Henry Perowne’s Ocular Proof
Early in our inhabitation of Henry Perowne’s mind, we observe him engage in one of many intellectual disputes with his daughter’s worldview: “This notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t ‘live’ without stories, is simply not true. He is living proof” (67). Yet, in its throbbing, irresistible entirety, McEwan’s novel offers instruction in Daisy’s notion, contradicting the verdict of the incisive surgeon through whom we grasp the blood lines of modern London. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this survival-by-story theory emerges in Baxter’s rapturous response to Daisy’s recitation of “Dover Beach,” which contributes to the family’s escape from his trembling hands. In the context of this course, Daisy’s rebuffed lesson calls to mind Jay’s mention of a prominent physician (her name escapes me) who believed she needed to obtain a degree in narrative theory in order to best perform her job as a doctor of medicine. Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever, whose stories of science and love teem with intertwining vignettes, engenders conviction in the merits of this doctor’s professional choices. After all, to heal the sick one must read the story of their fall from health and create that of their return. Medical success depends on acute narratological interpretation. Fittingly, even in his “time off” Henry obsessively reads and produces not only states of physiological disorder, but also intentions, emotions, and the rhythms and reversals of people’s moods. A stranger’s momentary grimace evokes a tale he cannot resist diagnosing. Through such assessments McEwan deftly befogs the line between clinical diagnosis and narrative—artistic even, if not literary—interpretation. Thus, the king of Saturday’s five-act drama exposes a mental blind spot in his failure to perceive his own hungry, mortal reliance upon the lifeblood of the Mighty Story.
Saturday‘s stories render the self radically impermanent, existing in a constant flux of transformation such that every instant, asserting its own biological and environmental recombination of matter, must be read and re-read anew. While refusing loyalty to any one hermeneutic sensibility, McEwan gives vision a particularly powerful showing. His novel contains exchanges that strike me as precious salvations from the alienation wrought by the Lacanian mirror stage. In several viscerally psycho-physical scenes, characters see vicariously, or attempt to see not themselves (Henry deliberately avoids looking at his tired face in the bathroom mirror), but to see into or through the lens of someone else. In the aftermath of Baxter’s invasion, just such a moment results in a soothing cohesion of the kind Henry has been semi-consciously seeking all day long: his wife “lowered her eyes as she orders her thoughts. When she lifts them he sees himself, by some trick of light, suspended in miniature against the black arena of her pupils, embraced by a tiny field of mid-green iris” (245). Of course, Henry’s literal glimpse of himself reflected in Rosalind’s black pupil means more than a “trick of light.” We are meant to understand that this is where he lives: in the eyes of his beloved. Much as his mother has slipped into mental death, Henry variously acknowledges his would-be nothingness in a world without these eyes and the stories produced when they meet his own. Henry’s insistence that “[h]e is living proof” of the dispensability of stories, coupled with the novel’s exploration of visual epistemology, call forth, for me, another association—that of Othello’s notorious demand for “ocular proof.” If Henry Perowne remains blind to the narratives ad infinitum that fuel his psychological life, he does recognize the human need for “ocular proof” of one’s own existence, a “living proof” of the self, which he discovers when he sees—even in the darkness of the bedroom—his lover’s eyes.