Life: Making the right mistakes edition

The statement of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture must have sounded crazy to its creators. . . . the idea that this was true. . . must have sounded totally outrageous at the time. This was a leap of faith, in the form of a question that [Taniyama] posed at the International Symposium on Algebraic Number Theory held in Tokyo in September 1955.

I’ve always wondered: what did it take for him to come to believe that this wasn’t crazy, but real? To have the courage to say it publicly?

We’ll never know. Unfortunately, not long after his great discovery, in November 1958, Taniyama committed suicide. He was only thirty-one. To add to the tragedy, shortly afterward the woman whom he was planning to marry also took her life, leaving the following note:

We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.

. . . In his thoughtful essay about Tayniyama, Shimura made this striking comment:

Though he was by no means a sloppy type, he was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this, and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.

—Edward Frenkel, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which is recommended.

What mistakes have you made lately?

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

We believe what we can see: In the Garden of Beasts edition

From Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which is worth getting from the library (this section deals with 1933):

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith [the Consul General] described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship. Messersmith spared no detail—his tendency to write long had early on saddled him with the nickname ‘Forty-Page George.’ He wrote of the widespread violence that had occurred in the several months that immediately followed Hitler’s appointment and of the increasing control the government exerted over all aspects of German society.

People in the 1930s simply couldn’t believe that Germany would act as it did. This might be one reason why cell phones and cell phone cameras are so powerful: it’s very hard to deny video. If cell phone cameras had been widely available in 1930, could the Holocaust have unfolded as it did, in a major Western country? The answer, of course, will always be “maybe,” but I think the shock of seeing footage of Jews and others being beaten and murdered in the streets might have had a powerful effect around the world.

I wonder if we’re on the cusp of seeing cell phone cameras reduce the amount of police brutality in public places, since police will know they’re likely to be taped. Cops don’t like this (see here and here for more).

Although I obviously love reading, it’s relatively easy to deny a written description of an event. It’s much harder to deny a video that shows the people involved. That’s not to say video can’t be manipulated—it obviously can—but sometimes a short video can do what “Forty-Page George” can’t. It’s hard or impossible to “exaggerate” video, even if it can be maliciously edited. We should still read, as “Twilight of the Books” makes clear, but video still changes things (it changes what can happen in fiction, for example; people have been writing about blue movies or explicit pictures for a long time, but the plausibility of something like Anita Shreve’s Testimony depends on widespread access to inexpensive video equipment (see also Caitlin Flanagan’s somewhat misguided but interesting essay on the novel). That’s relatively recent, and we’re still dealing with what it means.)

EDIT: See also this discussion of police and cameras from Crooked Timber.

Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair — Elizabeth Mcneill

Most novels (and memoirs) leave you with a sense of distance, a sense of being at a comfortable remove. Nine and a Half Weeks doesn’t: it’s too graphic, too immediate, too flat. One sees this effect in the first sentences, without any preamble as to who these people are and how they came to be: “The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.” One senses quickening thoughts and pulses in those short sentences, and even in the long one, where semicolons could be periods, and the last descriptor—”he gave me pleasure”—is the really important one. You don’t get the very ironic tone of a book like Alain de Botton’s On Love, letting us see that love is irrational but really understandably so. Alain, the narrator of On Love is basically a needy, endearing, neurotic weakling; his self-consciousness contrasts so much with the man in Nine and a Half Weeks that they’re practically different species.

There are clever phrases in the memoir, as when the narrator says of her lover, “His face turns attractive when he talks;” I like the strange word choice, as if the head is physically turning, or as if he has two, or multiple, faces. A few moments are archaic—the man describes a friend or rival coming over as “This dope” (emphasis in original), which hasn’t been currently slang in decades and stands out in a book that otherwise stands out for not being part of any particular time. The prose holds up, and the narrator has an eye for tedious rituals, as when she tells of a “statistical tale,” where the contrast of statistics and narrative stands out:

In the middle of the statistical tale he’s requested from me—brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, hometown, schools, jobs—I stop and close my eyes . . . please, I think, inarticulate even in my own mind, unable to turn to him and make the first move, please . . .

There’s a pervasive fear of dullness running through the memoir. The narrator notes that she and her lover looked like “An attractive, well-educated couple in New York City, average, middle-class, civilized.” That contrasts with what came before and will come after. Or does it? The memoir teases us by making us wonder if the the narrator isn’t so unusual as public discourse would make her out to be. I think the story’s flatness, the unwillingness to engage in direct commentary on what’s happening, points us in this direction, as when the narrator says, “I am standing, nearly on tiptoes, across the room from him, my arms raised above my head. My hands are tied to the hook on the wall on which his one large painting hangs during the day.” She’s hung like a painting and enjoys it. There is no further morality or analysis. Sixty Minutes plays in the background, a reminder of the middle America the narrator feels like she’s leaving behind even when she imagines it as a foil to her own actions.

Images repeat through the memoir. Scarves reappear. The words “like” and “love” are reconfigured like body parts. One senses Nabokovian echoes in the prose that one distantly hears on the first read but can’t make out. The narrator also feels her internal sense of self discombobulating, like a washing machine that shakes itself apart from within. She knows this is happening and imagines the reactions of otherwise course, until she writes of her experience.

We don’t know what the narrator wants beyond the obvious: sexual satisfaction. That she might only want the obvious might be the most frightening thing of all. What if everything else she has—a job, presumed communal respect, literary and political opinions—don’t matter very much? What if your real self isn’t those frontal cortex developments, but something deeper, more primal? I find posing the questions unsettling. The answers implied by Nine and a Half Weeks are more so. The patina of everyday experience conceals so much, especially in the realm of inchoate desire that social life is designed to channel. What happens when the channeling breaks? What happens when we want it to break? I’m reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which also features the discarding of the mind in pursuit of a mental state or feeling very unlike the one most of us presumably inhabit most of the time—the mental state worried about how much money we have, what other people think about us, whether we’ll get the job / life partner / degree / accommodates of our dreams.

The narrator likes the man’s dominance above all other traits, which derive from that dominance. He says of a friend or rival, “he’s got no guts whatsoever.” Note what she likes in the contrast he offers by comparison. He shows mastery by reading Gide in French and Kafka in German, both implying continental expertise and sexuality. Some moments are obvious, as when the narrator reads with “his thick pen solid and comfortable in my hand.” One doesn’t need to be Freud to imagine that the pen is not just a pen. In the same scene, the narrator says, “I write the letter (‘. . . met this man a few days ago, nice start, very different from Gerry, who’s more than happy with Harriett these day, you remember her . . .’)” (sic). The dig at her ex-boyfriend is subtle but present: he isn’t dominant, won’t tie her up, and presumably has settled with a lesser woman.

He demonstrates great knowledge too: “[. . .] whatever else he may do [in] it, this man clearly does read his original-language books in bed; why would anyone want to miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures available? All he’d need is a better bulb, a few more pillows, and a reading lamp. . . .” The room sounds sad and denuded, but it doesn’t matter much, even if the narrator is right about beds, which are good for more than just sleeping and that other thing. He offers commands, as when the narrator says:

He guides my hands between my legs and says, ‘I’d like to watch you make yourself come.’

He is sitting idly, comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, the creases sharp in the freshly cleaned suit. I do not try to move my hands. He waits. ‘You don’t understand.’ My voice cracks. ‘I never . . .’ He is silent. ‘I’ve never done that in front of anybody. It embarrasses me.’ “

She does, of course. That it embarrasses her is part of the point. What embarrasses her in the moment becomes the fodder for memoir, even under a pseudonym, long after. She likes giving power to him, which she does by letting him watch her masturbate. She also does by repeating how much she loves him, but I don’t think he ever says it back. It’s like he doesn’t need to, and by withholding the confirmation of his love he creates a neurotic fear in her. Only at one moment does he crack, when “All at once he is a decade my junior, a very young man asking me to have a drink with him, expecting to be refused.” But that doesn’t last long. Little does in this memoir, including their relationship, whose duration is given away by the title. But the narrator learns a lot in a short period. She says, “If you’ve never screamed, out of control, you can’t imagine how it feels. Now I know how it feels, it’s like coming.” She never goes the Biblical or mythological root and thinks there are things we shouldn’t know. For her, all knowledge is knowledge.

You can see that McNeill’s memoir doesn’t sit well with current ideals of equality and mutual respect in all fields. As Laura Kipnis says in “Off Limits: Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?” for, “Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety.” Feminism has taught us to recognize power dynamics, but it should also teach us to recognize points of view. The narrator gets this; she thinks the man’s room is “too plain to be called plain. It’s austere, if you want to be charitable, or chic, if you want to be snide, or boring, if you want to be honest. It is not, in any event, a room you’d call cozy” {McNeill “Love”@9}. So the narrator is aware of angles, points of view, possibilities. I’ve been told I use “or” a lot in my own writing. It’s a useful word for people who perceive many ways of describing things, and here it betrays an openness to experience that the memoir exploits. She has a strong theory of mind that weakens as she awakens to herself.

I should point out that I call the narrator “the narrator” as opposed to “McNeill” or something more conventional because she feels like a fictional person more than a real person (which is strange, given how many fictional characters seem real, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth McNeill is itself a pseudonym. We don’t know who the real author is. The man is never given a name—he’s only given traits, like his penchant for Brooks Brothers and sadomasochism (sometimes, especially when it comes to belts, simultaneously). So I don’t entirely know what to call them, or what to call their madness, if it is indeed madness. Can we find pleasure in madness? The narrator’s point is that many of these normally distinct categories eventually blur. I think that’s one of Tartt’s points in The Secret History too. There is more to be written about the book—its strange tenses, leaping from past to present to future, to what extent we should indulge in or avoid attempting to apply universal lessons—but this gives flavor of it and why its merits still show.

The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more

In “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age,” Charlotte Allen describes the relatively widespread hookup culture:

Welcome to the New Paleolithic, where tens of thousands of years of human mating practices have swirled into oblivion like shampoo down the shower drain and Cro-Magnons once again drag women by the hair into their caves—and the women love every minute of it. Louts who might as well be clad in bearskins and wielding spears trample over every nicety developed over millennia to mark out a ritual of courtship as a prelude to sex: Not just marriage (that went years ago with the sexual revolution and the mass-marketing of the birth-control pill) or formal dating (the hookup culture finished that)—but amorous preliminaries and other civilities once regarded as elementary, at least among the college-educated classes.

She sees such a culture as a result and driver of devaluing marriage, feminism, and biology, citing as evidence Tucker Max, evolutionary psychology, Roissy in DC (who is despicable yet hilarious), women complaining publicly about their husbands, very long-term educations (medical residencies and PhDs now routinely stretch into the early 30s), and delayed marriage. This is mostly a bad thing in Allen’s eyes. Maybe it is mostly a bad thing, but even if it is, I don’t think the hook-up culture being described is likely to stop for basically economic reasons: the equilibrium for it appears to lean toward hooking up for most people and technology is lowering the “cost” of casual sex.

The second one is probably the most interesting, and the first can mostly be understood by reading Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Kathleen Bogle’s Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. The basic problem both describe is that situations in which women outnumber men tend to lead to hooking up, while situations in which the opposite occurs tend to lead to the opposite. But I wonder how much of this is due to technological development driving social change, rather than vice-versa. “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” shows that parental and institutional attitudes towards premarital sex have softened over time, and “Contraception has reduced the chance of unwanted pregnancies from premarital sex, and this in turn has changed social attitudes.”

The parental attitudes issue can be seen in Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss’ 2008 journal article, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). The short version: parents work harder to control and limit their daughters’ sexuality than their sons’, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. They don’t say whether this effect has declined over time, but based on the research in “From shame to game,” I would guess that the answer is yes. Still, if the evolutionary incentive of parents is toward controlling and limiting their daughters’ sexuality, this would help explain why the stigma against extensive sexuality still exists, especially among younger women. And parents might want to limit sexuality because they have to deal with potential costs, like pregnancy, but don’t experience the obvious pleasures. Younger men, on the other hand, don’t get pregnant, and their perceived sexual value doesn’t seem to decline with the number of partners—hence why the double-standard persists, even though, as Allen points out, it is weakening. And technology is probably hastening that, which leads to laments like Allen’s.

One other technologically related issue is there too: porn, and the near-zero cost of its dissemination (cell phones, and “sexting,” can now make anyone a pornographer in under a minute, including those under 18). I remember reading about a study-in-progress in which the lead researcher said,

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

Although I doubt porn has the power that some of its detractors imply, it is also hard to believe that pornography’s sheer ubiquity hasn’t had some effect on how women and men treat sexuality—and, presumably, the effect is lowering the stigma of sex by showing that, regardless of what authority figures say, plenty of people are doing it.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes about “… the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore nothing is permitted.” The quote is hilariously out of context but nonetheless gets closer to expressing something essential about modern sexual politics (and it seems like Europe got there first, as it often does socially): sex changes “things,” that nebulous word, but it in its consensual form it isn’t fundamentally harmful. Everything is pardoned in advance, except maybe pleasure for its own sake, and everything is permitted, contra Kundera. Sex is becoming less harmful all the time. Consequently and perhaps not surprisingly, people are having a lot more of it, since it’s probably still as fun as it used to be (although we all know that there’s nothing like forbidden fruit to spark an appetite: consequently the pleasure of novels that take as their impetus a love that exists even though it can’t or shouldn’t). Who can blame the Manhattan woman who’s had on average “20 sex partners during her lifetime,” according to Allen? I’m reminded of Tony Judt describing early 60s Britain in “Girls! Girls! Girls!:”

Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.

Now very few of us, unless we have unusual religious convictions without the usual hypocrisy those convictions entail (think of Margaret Talbot’s article “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” in which she asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?“), live on Chesil Beach. Instead, we live in Roissy’s carnival, in a world of options, and the real question is whether we understand that world and our own choices in it. The bigger problem than the sex other people might be having is the gap between our behavior and our understanding of our behavior, which, at least to this observer, seems as wide as ever.

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

On Chesil Beach — Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has a June United States publication date, but sent a British copy of this thin novel—novella would be more accurate if less marketable—which manages to be both understated and vibrant. It has an abstract, ethereal feel about a practical, seldom-discussed subject explored without euphemism or pretension, sort of like a fable for hard-eyed adults. Concrete problems of the real world and the ideas underlying those problems come together in prose that, like all of the McEwan I’ve read so far, perfectly walks the wavering line between simplicity and complexity; his sentences always feel as easily understood as they can be and not forced one bit more.

The story follows two young people, who had just been through their marriage ceremony as the first chapter starts, but whose preceding courtship is told in subsequent chapters and interspersed with their present day. “Courting” describes the relationship—they are on the verge of the cultural revolution of the 60’s that would make “dating” more appropriate, and they reflect their elders’ ideals propriety in a way that, say, Kingsley Amis does not. The juxtaposition of this novel and the recently flurry of pieces on Martin and Kingsley is quite interesting, as the novel chronicles the 50’s culture that Kingsley killed and Martin, as far as I could tell, never really had to fight. It’s a world almost as alien to me as that of the Victorians, as prim and proper as a stately matron out of Jane Austen.

Yet Edward and Florence do not share my perception of their zeitgeist, and identify themselves with the spirit of change. Dramatic irony fills the novel, as the reader understands the young marrieds: they do not generate the winds of change so much as they are blown by them. The irony is particularly thick when Edward and Florence mock the staid old people listening to the telly downstairs from their room, even though the values of those old people bind the younger people far tighter than either will verbally or intellectually acknowledge. The names Edward and Florence have an old-fashioned ring to my ears (though perhaps not to British ones), and I can think of only one person, a distant acquaintance, my age named Edward (though he goes by Eddie) and no one named Florence. The pair are as mired in the Nineteenth Century as the burghers they mock and the word “burghers” itself.

I feel sympathy for the two, as well as some empathy I wish I didn’t feel, because one point On Chesil Beach makes is that things change, but maybe not so much as we’d like to imagine, and at some point nearly everyone is in a situation as awkward as that of Edward and Florence, whether it comes earlier or later in life. Today most, but not all, remedy it earlier, and as a result may scorn Edward and Florence. But we cannot judge the past purely by today’s standards; The Scarlet Letter only looks old-fashioned today because it helped changed the climate it describes, as do all forms of cultural production.

The sexual factor can also be read as a metaphor for other feelings of confinement or torpor: “[Edward] was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start[…]” Yet we are reading his story, and while Edward waits for his “real story” to begin, it is evident to us if not to him that it already has. His failure to recognize the way his story is happening all the time is his own fault, and it is not clear that the epiphany I hoped and expected he would have actually occurs: that “real” life is happening wherever you are and whatever you are doing, and that it is your reality whether you accept it or not. The same is true of Florence, who seems to be waiting to do what her parents tell her to. Yet once the two creatures of their time come together, their expectations are a wide chasm apart and their ability to communicate those expectations stunted.

Their ability to communication is stunted because they have none of the light and heat they need to grow. On Chesil Beach demonstrates the dueling realities and sensibilities of Edward and Florence, although with slightly more sympathy for Edward. His vision is myopic, however, and he confuses the story of his sexual life with the story of the rest of his life; though the former is certainly an important part of the latter, it is not necessarily the most important part, and the strength of its importance seems more important before it begins than afterward. The anticipation makes the beginning of the latter harder to confront: “[Edward] felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.” We only learn about it through the narrator, and Edward cannot or will not say it to Florence, who cannot speak of her own fear and dread to Edward. They are caught, and caught by themselves.

The idea of the trap is always there, as is the laughable idea of them as a modern couple. Take this description of Florence’s reality: “As [Florence] understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.” In other words, she is still mired in an ignorance as profound if not moreso than those telly watchers she and Edward looked down on. Nor is she better than Edward, and combined they represent the product of a society valuing propriety above all else—and they buy into that society. Florence cannot discuss the events the unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of medical precision and human compassion, neither of which the main characters can summon, and the appropriateness of a distant voice of knowledge becomes apparent when it slips into the characters’ thoughts with more dexterity than novelist of the Nineteenth Century.

The comparisons to the Nineteenth Century are deserved, as the larger swirls of how history develop are a macrocosm of the way those swirls affect people’s lives. McEwan has long been concerned with how past implicates present. On Chesil Beach shares the concerns with the past and one’s relationship to time that haunt McEwan’s Atonement, a meaty novel I discussed briefly in conjunction with John Banville’s The Sea. The Great Gatsby also examines the way we construct the past and the way it remains with us; for On Chesil Beach’s Edward, the past was a time of ignorance he could not fully overcome, while Jay Gatsby idealizes the past and hopes to bring himself back to the golden age with Daisy Buchanan. Despite the divergence of views of Gatsby and Edward, that lost early time drives them. Something about these retrospective books lends themselves to awesomely lyrical writing at the end; though I won’t reveal the last page of On Chesil Beach, the last two paragraphs of Gatsby are worth rereading:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

On Chesil Beach does not have the hint of wistful, rueful optimism present in the penultimate paragraph of Gatsby, but I could hear Nick Carraway in Edward’s reminisces about the blurring of memory over time. The scope of On Chesil Beach widens at the end, and as it does so it also shows the way Edward’s early feelings of shame deaden as time lengthens. The same technique is used, and is slightly disorienting and equally appropriate, in Atonement, and the brief sensation of disorientation, like the changing perspective that happens in a fast glass elevator, gives way to enhanced understanding and the realization that life, regardless of the petty indignities of the moment, goes on.

The power of On Chesil Beach comes McEwan’s aesthetic command in telling a story of misunderstanding as old as time but infrequently chronicled, at least as far and as wide as my reading goes. His narrative technique employs a clever variation on the omniscient viewpoint in a way similar to but different from the way he wrote Atonement, and it conveys the uncertainty of the characters while informing and clarifying for the reader. We are left with a central scene from a life, but not a still life, for the motion of the characters’ minds and the aftermath of their encounter reverberates through time. Their encounter is symbolic of the inchoate changes in the larger society and Western world. The time and place stultifies Edward and Florence, but like Edward, society is on the brink of change, and as the narrative viewpoint undergoes a reverse telescope, we see Edward moving toward a reality bigger in some ways but still very small in others. On the scales of time, how heavily does an awkward night made so by circumstance weigh? To Edward, it would appear the answer is “not too heavily,” unlike Gatsby. Too bad Edward and Florence could not even form or consider the thoughts behind my question. If they could, perhaps they could move toward understanding.

This post is intentionally written in a style that should recall On Chesil Beach while still being more opaque than the book because I don’t want to describe exactly what happens: the unfolding of the story should be the privilege of the author. I describe some aspects of On Chesil Beach, but I do not want to be so clear as to give a synopsis. The framework underlying the story is partially described here but should not detract from the finished product of the story. Call this a commentary on the commentary.


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