When I’m traveling I try to read the New Yorker — a transatlantic flight usually gets me through most of an issue. I was even more interested than usual when I picked up the issue at Heathrow and found the front-cover blurb, “Physics vs Poetry: New fiction by Ian McEwan”. McEwan is thought of as a “science-friendly” writer and has often populated his fiction with scientists and scientific ideas (usually doctors and medicine, as in Enduring Love and Saturday). His new story is called “The Use of Poetry”, but doesn’t quite manage to escape stereotyping his protagonist, the made-up physics Nobelist Michael Beard. McEwan’s Beard doesn’t really get poetry for its own sake; for him, “The Use of Poetry” is mostly for seducing his wife-to-be. At least McEwan is smart enough, and a good enough writer, that his stereotype isn’t quite so simple: his Beard is so smart that he can fake his way into smart opinions about Milton. He doesn’t really get it, it seems, but he can mouth the words at least as well as the supposed literary scholars (who, needless to say, neither try nor succeed at understanding his physics).
And — I’m not sure if this is to McEwan’s credit or otherwise — he stereotypes Beard’s counterpart, his future wife Maisie Farmer, studying English at Oxford when Beard is doing Physics, even more. After University, she becomes a hackneyed post-sixties feminist figure, attending “a group run by a collective Californian women…. Her consciousness was raised.”
McEwan, I think, prefers rationalists to literary types, but draws the divide too sharply. As Peter Coles has been talking about lately, that stereotypical distinction is just wrong. Most of my physicist friends love art, novels, poetry, music — and quite a few of them make it themselves, usually quite proudly if with varying degrees of emotional and aesthetic success.
What makes McEwan’s portrayal of Beard so unappealing is the backhandedness of the compliment behind it: yes, he’s smarter than everyone around him. But somehow even he doesn’t quite get the poetry, even if that’s almost a distinction that doesn’t make much of a difference.