Ian McEwan’s most recent novel Solar (2010) picks up where his last novel Saturday (2005) left off. (His 2008 work, On Chesil Beach, is a novella. It is also one of his best.) In Saturday, McEwan poses the political question: Can an open society resist the threat posed by 21st C. terrorism? The question can be recast in the form of a dilemma. On the one hand, an open society, the novel implies, may be “too open” in that it allows for its own violent destruction at the hands of plotting terrorists. On the other hand, it may become too closed, thereby engaging in a self-protective act that is also self-defeating. Will terrorism win from the outside or from the inside, McEwan seems to be wondering. He hopes neither.
Solar represents McEwan’s attempt to think through that other civilization-ending enemy: ecological disaster. McEwan’s main premise is that lifestyle change is not sufficient; only a technological breakthrough will save civilization from final ruin. Here is where the protagonist Michael Beard, a Noble Prize-winning physicist, comes in. Beard seeks to develop new solar technology that will be cheaper than fossil fuels (the market incentive) as well as more effective than green alternatives (the “civilization-saving incentive”). In the end, he fails, and the failure is a tragedy.
I have subtitled this blog a “philosophical review,” and I mean to explore this sub-genre in the context of the metaphysical lessons about human nature. McEwan seems interested, first of all, in pointing out that a man of genius may not lead a flourishing life. Perhaps you didn’t need to read this blog or McEwan’s novel to figure this out. After all, it seems fairly obvious that geniuses have often lived messy private lives–ones strewn about with divorces, pettinesses, squabbling, pecuniary concerns, and a handful of vices. The German philosopher Leibniz was a polymath but also a nasty fellow. (For more on Leibniz’s fascinating life, read Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic or Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds–two page-turners.)
Still, McEwan’s novel contributes something; it makes more perspicuous the thought that being brilliant is not the same thing as being wise. It asks us to examine why most of us would, if given a choice, select genius over wisdom. (I would not.) In addition, it foregrounds the theme of integrity (integritas), the feeling of wholeness that comes from bringing the various parts of my life into harmony. Beard never achieves anything like integrity; his life is always coming apart at the seams.
Second of all, McEwan mounts the hobby horse of many 18th C. moral philosophers: to wit, the extent to which less-than-moral, immoral, or amoral behavior can nonetheless conduce to moral (or political) ends. Beard’s motivations are “mixed”: he seeks glory and fame, magnificent profits, and something vaguely approaching the public good. I don’t read Beard as being only a self-interested anti-hero but as being a conceptually muddled animal from the first. In his sketch of Beard the man and world-historical agent, McEwan seems to suggest that history is rarely made by men of virtue but by “banally evil” men and women of a middling sort. Welcome to our democratic age.