The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later.--I. McEwan, The Children Act, 6.
This court is a court of law, not of morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law to the situation before us--a situation which is unique." The Children Act, (26).
In commenting on Stoner, I noted, inspired by some reflections by Adam Smith, that the classical age of the novel (exemplified by the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, etc.) ends with the alteration of the laws and norms governing marriage (in particular the ease of divorce) and which, thereby, alter the character of (bourgeois) love.* It does not follow, of course, that in our post-classical age, (marital) love plays no further role in the novel (witness the popularity of Stoner). But the novel cannot be wholly animated by it without (say) a touch of knowing comedy. We might say, then, that Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, is a taut homage to the classical age of the past.
Luckily for the contemporary novelist, even with no-fault divorce, moral dilemmas (and crimes) abound. Where the philosopher designs stylized, thought experiments in which we abstract away from nearly every lived detail in order to isolate a single moral variable (say, to test intuitions, or to explore the consequences of a principle, or to engage in casuistry, etc.), the artificial world of the novel can explore dilemmas in richer psychological, social, and political (etc.) detail (recall this post on Javier Marías The Infatuations); a skilled (post-classical!) novelist can maintain our interest as much in fine-grained scrutiny of the phenomenology of individual decisions as in (say) the nature of complicity in systemic injustice (exemplars are: Sophie's Choice; Elizabeth Costello, On Beauty, The Triple Mirror of the Self, etc.). While the rigorous thought experiment uses precision to banish uncertainty and ambiguity, the novel is no less precise in deploying uncertainty and ambiguity to enrich our moral possibilities (not to mention entertain and distract) by way of exploration of unique cases that are simultaneously, in one sense, also exemplary; as McEwan slyly notes (cf. 27 & 89) the novel shares this latter feature with the law, especially in circumstances that allow the application of the "doctrine of necessity" [or a Benjaminian "state of emergency" [recall]]. (In case you missed it McEwan reminds the reader of the role of "blind luck" (30) in shaping the preconditions for the practice of virtue.)
So much for taxonomy.
Without doubt McEwan is one of the most high profile post-classical novelists (e.g., Atonement, Amsterdam, Saturday, etc.) of recent years. The Children Act revolves around Fiona Maye, a celebrated, child-less family court judge, who we encounter in the middle of her first marital crisis to her "professor of ancient history" (who, fancies an affair with a statistician, Melanie). [I was relieved to learn it was not one of his students.] The scene is interrupted by an urgent call; she is confronted with an emergency case involving a family of Jehova Witnesses that refuses a potentially life-saving blood transfusion to a cancer patient (the seventeen year old boy, Adam). The unfolding moral circumstances of the case, and the Judge's relationship with Adam, sustains the reader's interest through the rest of the novel.
For, while Judge Maye claims in one of her opinions that having "at the centre of one's life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love" (15) as one the key "ingredients" of "welfare," her self-understanding suggests that in her private affairs, she is primarily focused on the "conventionally correct." (5) In fact, McEwan's focus is not really on dissecting late marital love; even the Judge sees the "stupidity and dishonesty of the exchange" (24) with her once "bohemian academic" (18)--this is not a classical novel. For, Maye is less worried about the loss of marital love than to become the "object of general pity...a form of social death" (57). We inhabit a world in which work, status, and the social role(s) of sympathy are taken more seriously than love.
As an aside, that the Judge is introduced as thinking that she has a "firm grip" (5) on the conventionally correct, unsubtly forewarns experienced readers that the Judge will transgress at least one such convention. With a further nod to a "Shakespearean touch" -- Nor custom stale her infinite variety (17)--, we are left to ask if the Judge will share Cleopatra's tragic fate or if she will be more like the haunted Enobarbus. [I won't spoil the fun.]
Either way, McEwan reveals that memorizing the "speech of Enobarbus by heart" is not a recipe for practical wisdom as the Judge, an accomplished amateur musician, deals with intimacy, and the lack thereof, in marriage or, as the novel unfolds, in relating to the needs and desires of the people she judges and whose fates she helps shape. The inability of literature to offer moral education to those not quite prepared to receive it, it is by now a familiar trope in literature (although I know respectable philosophers that resist this position).
Indeed for all her exposure to, even immersion in the arts, Judge Maye's "self-pity" (43), even if recognized by her, is not an attractive spectacle. McEwan portrays her as more attractive and interesting as a Judge than as a wife. She becomes, in fact, more fully alive in her visit to Adam's hospital room, where in a scene of exquisite delicacy she sings (Britten's version of) 'Down by the Salley Gardens' while the precocious Adam accompanies her on the violin. The scene is comic and absurd, but McEwan pulls it off with panache and conveys the suggestion of unexpected intimacy between the young, dying Adam and the Judge.
But the novel falls apart on the final pages, and it is signaled by a bit of bad writing that, not coincidentally, involves another performance:
Her own playing looked after itself. As her fingers touched the keys [of the piano], she heard herself as though she were sitting at the back of the audience, as if all that was required of her was to be present. Together, she and Mark entered the horizonless hyperspace of music-making, beyond time and purpose. She was only faintly aware that something waited for her return, for it lay far below her, an alien speck on a familiar landscape. Perhaps it wasn't there, perhaps it wasn't true. (198-9)
The problem here not is the thought that is being conveyed -- experiencing the escapism of self and situation during/of (joint) performance, while registering a faint apprehension --, but rather the manner; I hope a reader can correct me, but nothing in the novel prepares us for that horizonless hyperspace. Neither Judge Maye (who is, perhaps, a bit enervated by some alcohol) nor the implicit narrator has expressed any interest in mathematics (or Star Trek, or the internet) and its connection to art, music, or aesthetics.
That's to say, McEwan's inability to find the right words for conveying the what it's like of performance tells us something about the limitations of his aesthetics. Like the contemporary philosopher, the post-classical novelist is excellent at, and right at home with, casuistry (read the book, which lends itself to class room teaching), but words fail him when he has to describe the phenomenology of aesthetic experience.