Will Our Dysfunction Eclipse Our Brilliance?

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Ian McEwan's 2010 novel Solar asks what's probably the most pertinent question of our time: will our dysfunction eclipse our brilliance?


In the first piece I ever posted on Beams, I quoted HL Mencken's opinion that in great literature, the protagonist is a personification of the setting. Of course there are exceptions to this, but when it works, man oh man, do the fireworks ever start popping in my brain. 


book cover of Solar, by Ian McEwan(Warning: Spoilers abound. And read the novel! It's awesome! Then come back.)


Solar introduces the reader to Michael Beard, a British nobel laureate physicist, famous for "the Beard-Einstein conflation" - a bit of science that isn't fully explained, and if it were, I probably wouldn't understand it anyway. But we can trust it's something really hard that only someone really smart could have come up with. Much less in their twenties. 


In the year 2000, he's in his fifties. Since coming up with the Conflation, he's been making his living as a Public Figure of Science, giving lectures, appearing on talk shows, sitting on boards, and heading up an institution where he only makes token appearances. His fifth marriage (to a much younger woman) crumbles, thanks to his wife's infidelity with a beefy, bullying contractor. Beard's no paragon of virtue, having cheated on her multiple times, and brought his previous marriages to an end the same way. 


An accident brings about the death of an assistant in a way that could easily be construed by investigating police as murder on Beard's part. So he arranges the evidence to point to his wife's lover, and gets away with the frame-up. 


Five years later, Beard's turned a corner, dedicating himself to solar technology. Four further years later, he's about to unveil it. But his ideas were largely taken from that assistant killed earlier in the novel. Beard claims the innovations as his own, seeming to believe his own story. 


Nearing what would surely be an historic moment in modern civilization - an entire town being fully powered by solar energy - Beard's world closes in. The man he sent to prison is released, and comes looking for him. The father of Beard's assistant seeks a legal injunction, having found a cache of his son's notes. The two new women in Beard's life both claim him and are ready to square off, and both seem like new disasters of different kinds. He's avoiding his doctors' pleas for further tests for the splotchy growth on his skin. And his heart stutters and thumps from his steady diet of booze, sugar and deep fried grease.


Beard is us. Exceptional in our knowledge, short on wisdom. With the solution to some of our most crucial problems conceivably within reach, and the magnitude of our self-involvement, short-sightedness and penchant for instant gratification being the exact thing that might kick out the stool from underneath our feet a mere second before we can cut the rope we've spent decades stringing around our collective neck. 


Editors: Chela Davison, Trevor Malkinson

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  • Comment Link Greg Jemsek - Author, Narrative Therapist Thursday, 13 September 2012 01:49 posted by Greg Jemsek - Author, Narrative Therapist

    An intriguing and compelling premises for a book, and even more attractive when considering the already demonstrated skills of Mr. McEwan. If we are to move from knowledge to wisdom, it won't be because we're "brilliant". It'll be because we recapture our capacity for restraint, for working outside the spotlight, for staying tethered to the parts of our awareness where wisdom resides - buried too deeply, much of the time, underneath our desire for recognition, fame, and short cuts to both. Sounds like Mr. McEwan agrees with the Tolkien .hobbit (can't remember which one) who wisely proclaimed that "short cuts make long delays" .

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 13 September 2012 16:46 posted by TJ Dawe

    Greg - I couldn't agree more. The big question remains - how do we do this - individually, and collectively? And will we do it in time? Or is our short-sightedness, our pig-headed inability to make sacrifices once we've reached a certain level of prosperity, and our unwillingness to listen to other points of view and make decisions based on evidence - are these flaws so inherent in us as a species that we're doomed to self-destruction every so often, as the world heals itself of us, and we slowly come back to repeat the cycle?

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Thursday, 13 September 2012 19:20 posted by Michael Milano

    TJ - I fear we’re doomed. In the past 50 years or so we’ve become consumers. Our sole purpose is to consume. We work so we have money. Money to buy things. To consume. Not to nurture. Not to grow.

    There is a TV ad that exemplifies this consumerist fever. I new phone is available through a cell carrier. All of a sudden you see people destroying their perfectly good phones in order to give them the “need” to buy the new, cool phone that just came out. You need this new phone to be cool, hip and current. Without it you’ll be left behind. Consume.

    It also seems to me that as a society we’re caught up in status, recognition and fame. People want to famous. No matter the reason for the fame. Snookie from the Jersey Shore is famous for being a boozy, trampy caricature. She doesn’t care. She’s rich and famous. That’s all that counts.

    Until people are willing to dig deeper. Past all our insecurities and need for validation. Until then we’ll be doomed to repeat this cycle you allude to in your response. Politicians and people in power need to lead this paradigm shift. But they won’t because their power and wealth is based on this system we have now and they won’t give that up easily. Without people leading the charge, this kind of change cannot happen in time.

    It reminds of a passage in Dancing in the Streets when the author talks about the suppression of the communal celebrations. How these celebrations were great equalizers, if only for their duration. Everyone was equal during the collective joy. The problem was the people in power did not want to be seen as equal. As a result the celebrations were repressed. And yes the need for collective joy has caused people to celebrate anyway, Mardi Gas, etc., but this kind of change we’re discussing needs way more spark to catch fire.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 15 September 2012 01:32 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - that's my sense too. And in spite of the short sightedness and self-centredness that pervades so much of our world, there are very encouraging signs too - a revival in gardening and urban agriculture for one. More common inclusion of multiple ethnicities in media and advertising. Hybrid and electric cars. The widespread embrace of yoga and organic produce. But I fear that forces of selfishness will win. I hope not, but that's what my observation of the world tells me. And that I'll probably see this happen in my lifetime.

    Despite that, I'm determined to do what I can to tip the balance in the other direction.

  • Comment Link Greg Jemsek Tuesday, 23 October 2012 19:08 posted by Greg Jemsek

    Michael and TJ - I find myself having to fight off “paralysis” if I let my desire to know the answers to the big questions we’re considering in these posts get in the way of the small wisdoms I might be discovering in the meantime: the wisdom of communal celebration, renewal of urban gardening, etc. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask those big questions, but the piece that I took away from watching your TED video, TJ, was the small wisdom epiphany you had about working collectively. I reckon that in order to not be distracted, we just have to keep responding to these small epiphanies and find ways to do so without the projected anxieties of the big questions stopping us in our tracks. The anxiety I have the most difficulty with is lying (I wrote my own blog post on this ), but plenty of others qualify! And I find by just writing about it, and reading posts like the ones both of you have put up on related "big questions", gets me back on track.

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