"Selective in Your Mercies": Privilege, Vulnerability, and the Limits of Empathy in Ian McEwan’s Saturday
The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Since September 11, 2001, a number of critics, including Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak, have outlined a greater need for empathy, most specifically from those who were targeted on that day. The logic of this argument is that those who were victimized should use their newfound vulnerability as a means of ‘resonating’ with the other. Ian McEwan’s Saturday problematizes precisely the scenario to which these theorists allude. The novel illuminates a desire to empathize, to recognize empathy’s importance, while unintentionally demonstrating just how difficult it is to enact. The protagonist, already existing in a state of heightened alert, is confronted by an other in whom he recognizes anger and hatred, but also suffering. Arguably, these should prove optimal conditions for the exercise of empathy. The novel, however, demonstrates the problematics of just such an exercise. For while Saturday may declare the need for empathy and extol it as a cornerstone of Western secularized society, the text simultaneously reveals how easily its application can be perverted. The seemingly benign and benevolent actions of the novel’s neurosurgeon emphasize the blind spots of privilege and the co-opting of empathy to assert a superior moral stance over that of the other. The dialectics of the novel thus suggest that a retrenchment of differences is a more probable response to violence than a recognition of shared vulnerability.
McEwan, Ian; Empathy in literature
English Language and Literature
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"Selective in Your Mercies": Privilege, Vulnerability, and the Limits of Empathy in Ian McEwan’s Saturday.
College Literature, 40(2),
The Johns Hopkins University Press.