Saturday, July 23, 2005

Ian McEwan on Terrorism and Collective Memory


I'm filing this Spiegel interview with Ian McEwan, arguably England's foremost novelist, now for use in my Fall Engl 105 class on English and American Fiction. Students will be reading McEwan's Saturday, and I expect that they'll find a lot to reflect upon and discuss in his McEwan's remarks.

One issue I want to dwell upon at some length in my class is the notion a people's "collective memory" can be a source of strength during trying periods in history. In the course of discussing Londoners' generally calm response during and after the terrorist bombings on 7/7, McEwan notes that the city has a "collective memory" of IRA bombings and the Blitz, in which 43,000 died. This collective memory of previous bombings, he suggests, could explain the "relative lack of panic and terror on the streets" immediately following the attacks.

Having implied that Londoners might be conditioned (not sure that this is the right word) to respond calmly bombing threats McEwan then proceeds to distinguish between the bombing of London during the Blitz and the bombing of Dresden. The primary difference being that the total destruction of Dresden made the "spirit of resistance" effectively impossible. This comparison should provide a way for us to begin discussing Jonathan Safran Foer's treatment of Dresden in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Some reviewers have taken issue with the parallel that Foer's book seems to present between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Allied bombing of Dresden.

Now, I wish I'd assigned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five to read along with Foer and McEwan's novels. I may have to contact the UIC Bookstore to see if I can change my book order. It's not too late to do some syllabus revising.

A larger issue we'll be thinking about in my class is the degree to which it makes sense to talk about a collective memory. Does such an entity even exist. That is, can we define what constitutes a people's collective memory? And if so, how is it shaped? Literary texts, novels in particular, are often discussed as being archival forms that function as a sort of memory. I'm interested in taking this metaphor seriously and asking why we should take a blatantly fictional mode of discourse such as the novel seriously as a type of memory.

Aside from the subject of collective memory, I also want to look at McEwan's criticisms of the anti-Iraq war movement and his condemnation of the free-speech policies that have made it possible for radical Islamic clerics to preach hatred. McEwan predicts that the tolerance of such speech will have to end: "Inevitably, we're going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner. But the problem is that their audience has already been to [terrorist] training camps."

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