Writer and distinguished supporter of Humanism
“My own view of religion is that people must be free to worship all the gods they want. But it’s only the secular spirit that will guarantee that freedom.”
Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England. He studied English at the University of Sussex, and then studied for an MA in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, where he also took the famous creative writing course taught by novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.
His earlier works tended towards the macabre, but his mature novels are more introspective, more humane, and more interested in the “political, moral, social, comic, and other possibilities”, as McEwan has said. Atonement, for example, considers the devastating and irrevocable effects on many lives of one action, and Saturday explores a single post-9/11 Saturday in London through the consciousness of Henry Perowne, a successful but anxious brain surgeon. McEwan has said on “ the purpose of the novel”:
I think, of all literary forms, and perhaps of all artistic forms, it is the most adept at showing us what it is like to be someone else. The novel is famously good at revealing, through various literary conventions, a train of thought, or a state of mind. You can live inside somebody else’s head. Within one novel you can live inside many different people’s heads, in a way that you of course cannot do in normal life. I think that quality of penetration into other consciousnesses lies at the heart of its moral quest. Knowing, or sensing what it’s like to be someone else I think is at the foundations of morality. I don’t think the novel is particularly good or interesting when it instructs us how to live, so I don’t think of it as moral in that sense. But certainly when it shows us intimately, from the inside, other people, it then does extend our sensibilities. It is also, as form, very good at marking out that relationship between the individual and a society, or the working out of a relationship – the interpersonal is very much its subject.
McEwan has also shown in his writing and in interviews his interest in science. His 2010 novelSolar features scientists and global warming, and a feature on his 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach, in The Independent in April 2007, entitled “Ian McEwan: I hang on to hope in a tide of fear” described the connections and contrasts he makes between science and the arts:
“In our perilously changing world, where should we seek salvation? In science”, declared Ian McEwan… “Artists may not refine the theory or advance the technology that will grapple with climate change, but they can deepen the self-knowledge of the selfish but potentially co-operative beasts who have crossed a fateful, collective shadow-line. “How do you talk about the state we’ve got ourselves into,” he asks, “as a very successful, fossil-fuel-burning civilisation? How do we stop? That really does become a matter of human nature. There’s all the science to consider, but finally there is a massive issue of politics and ethics.”
McEwan…likes the company and outlook of scientists as an antidote to lazy arts-faculty despair. “Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style,” he says with a tinge of scorn. “You’re not a paid-up member unless you’re gloomy.” But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will”. “Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can’t be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not.”
…For all the storytelling confidence of scientists who try to uncover the biological roots of personal emotions and social beliefs, McEwan keeps faith in the special tasks of art. “I hold to the view that novelists can go to places that might be parallel to a scientific investigation, and can never really be replaced by it: the investigation into our natures; our condition; what we’re like in specific circumstances.” … We talk of the carbon-cutting, resource-saving sacrifices this generation may have to make on behalf of its successors, and McEwan comments that such long-term altruism “does go against the grain a bit”. All the same, he adds: “I cheer myself up with the thought of medieval cathedral builders, who built for the future – or 18th-century tree-planters, who planted sapling oaks which they would never enjoy. Here, it’s much more dire; but we’re bound to think of our children, or at least our grandchildren.
“It is difficult to do favours to people you have never met,” he says. “But we give money to Oxfam, to charities, to victims of the tsunami and so forth. These are not people who are ever going to repay those favours, or even know who bestowed them.” Unlike his characters, doomed to a kind of soul-extinction in their solitude, McEwan believes in making the last-ditch gesture that might save a world. “The worst fate would be to conclude that there’s nothing we can do about this, and so let’s party to the end.”
In a 2002 interview, Faith and doubt at Ground Zero, McEwan expressed responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with which many humanists would identify:
…I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe for a moment that our moral sense comes from a God… It’s human, universal, [it's] being able to think our way into the minds of others. As I said at the time, what those holy fools clearly lacked, or clearly were able to deny themselves, was the ability to enter into the minds of the people they were being so cruel to. Amongst their crimes, is, was, a failure of the imagination, of the moral imagination. You cannot be cruel to someone if you fully understand what it is to be them. You have to somehow screen that out. You have to say to yourself, “They’re not really humans.” Or you have to bring into line some sort of powerful ideology or some crazed religious certainty in order to blot out that human instinct … I think religion actually is a morally neutral force …I think it so completely absorbs and reflects human nature that it does just as much good as evil. I don’t think it’s a particular force for good. I don’t think it’s a particular force for evil, either. I think it simply channels what we are into sort of available and acceptable form. But now and then, people rise up and perform terrible things in its name, just as people perform extraordinarily fine, courageous things in its name…
My own view of religion is that people must be free to worship all the gods they want. But it’s only the secular spirit that will guarantee that freedom…
When those planes hit those buildings and thousands of innocent people died and tens, twenties, hundreds of thousands of people started to grieve, I felt, more than ever, confirmed in my unbelief. What God, what loving God, could possibly allow this to happen? I find no resource at all in the idea, and it saddened me to see, hear, listen to priests tell us that their “sky god” had some particular purpose in letting this happen, but it was not for us to know it. It just seemed to me sort of irrelevant, at least. And I could probably think of stronger words for it – an offense to reason really. We have to understand the events of September the 11th in human terms. … The healing process, too, is one that’s in our hands. It’s not in the hands of the “sky gods.” It’s only for us to try and work it out.
His work has earned him worldwide critical acclaim and many awards, among them the Somerset Maugham Award (1976) for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany ‘s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction three times, winning the award forAmsterdam in 1998. Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award (2003), the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Saturday. In 2007 he was one of the recipients of the 28th Annual Commonwealth Awards of Distinguished Service which recognise individuals who have advanced and enriched society through their outstanding contributions. In 2004 and again in April 2007 he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, awarded for a living writer’s “continued creativity, development and contribution to fiction on the world stage.”
McEwan’s attack on Islamism in June 2008 provoked a backlash. Defending his friend and fellow writer Martin Amis against the charge of racism and condemning religious hardliners, he said “I despise Islamism”and “I don’t like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” He defended his stance in a letter to The Independent on 27/6/08.
In 2011 Ian McEwan also became a patron of Dignity in Dying, saying:
The issue is not really of death but of how you live out that last chapter, those last sentences. To do it calmly with all the people around you that have mattered and you love, in familiar surroundings should be a wonderful thing. Not to be writhing on a hospital bed or sitting glumly several hundred miles away from home.
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