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States of flux/states of conflict

The Tangled Confluence’: Hybrid Accounts of Madness in Will Self’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love

‘The Tangled Confluence’ : Folie et hybridité du récit dans The Quantity Theory of Insanity, de Will Self et Enduring Love, de Ian McEwan
Diane Gagneret


Will Self’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love both feature attempts by arch rationalists to apprehend, even understand insanity, which constantly threatens to overturn all established systems of knowledge and belief. Madness is often depicted by Self’s and McEwan’s narrators as a state of unusual confluence, a coexistence of conflicting impulses and ideas, leading them to combine different perspectives or approaches in their narratives, especially those of science and literature. This paper focuses on the subversive strategies of confluence enacted in both works, where various disciplines both converge and conflict over the depiction of insanity; where hybrid, even dialogic narratives attempt to accommodate such a complex and multi-faceted experience, yet also reflect an ever-growing tension between the yearning for stable knowledge and the awareness that madness lays bare some of the flaws in our epistemological categories.

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  • 1 ‘[Descartes] bannit la folie au nom de celui qui doute, et qui ne peut pas plus déraisonner que ne (...)
  • 2 Merritt Moseley, in his review of ‘Recent British Novels,’ comments on the tendency of some contemp (...)

1When charting the evolution of ‘the medical imagination that has tried to explain madness’ (2), Allen Thiher states that no category ever devised by science to ‘explain’, or indeed contain such a multifaceted and unsettling experience, has ever proved fully adequate. As explained by Michel Foucault, the Cartesian paradigm defines madness as the opposite, or the underside of reason, henceforth banishing irrationality from the realm of the rational.1 However, as Thiher further remarks, ‘uncomforted by Descartes, many of our great rationalists [are] obsessed with thoughts of madness’ (Thiher 101). Such seems to be the case, indeed, of a number of ‘great rationalists’ depicted in Will Self’s debut short story collection entitled The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) and Ian McEwan’s sixth novel, Enduring Love (1997), both singled out by critics for their interweaving of science and literature.2 In both works, science is not confined to any particular discipline but stands for a specific form of knowledge endangered by the experience of insanity.

2Madness, often conceptualised as radical otherness, and the epitome of the unknowable, undoubtedly constitutes one of the greatest challenges ever posed to science (derived from scientia, knowledge). Age-old attempts by rationality to define, and sometimes confine, its nemesis are exemplified in Will Self’s rather puzzling title (The Quantity Theory of Insanity), yet another surge of the familiar yearning to contain the uncontainable. Both the theory devised by Harold Ford (the narrator of the collection’s title story), and the diagnosis offered by Joe Rose (the narrator and protagonist of Enduring Love), i.e. de Clérambault’s syndrome, in order to account for the disturbing behaviour of his stalker Jed Parry, are intended as ‘framework[s] of prediction’ (McEwan 1998, 124), ‘offe[ring] a kind of comfort’ (McEwan 1998, 124) in the face of terrible uncertainty. The angst of lacking control and understanding drives these arch rationalists to strive even harder for some form of understanding and control, while at the same time, the confounding experience of madness leads them to acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that such efforts may all be in vain, and to reconsider the ‘frameworks’ structuring their approach to knowledge. Therefore, the enhanced, almost feverish urge to put labels on madness, to have it fall into clear-cut categories, eventually reveals the arbitrariness and instability of such labels and categories.

  • 3 The phrase is used by Misha Gurney, the narrator of ‘Ward 9’, as he reaches the area of London wher (...)

3Both McEwan’s novel and Self’s short stories depict madness as a form of collision, or collusion, of seemingly irreconcilable states and values, which is what creates confusion and anguish in the minds of Joe Rose, or for instance, the narrator of Self’s opening story, ‘The North London Book of the Dead’. Psychosis may indeed be viewed as a state of unusual confluence, since it is often defined as the collapsing of boundaries between reality and fantasy, and the coexistence of conflicting ideas, impulses, even identities. When restricted to the depiction of a natural phenomenon (the flowing together of two or more rivers, streams, fluids), confluence seems to be a harmonious process. When applied to people, levels of reality or states of mind, as in the ‘tangled confluence’3 of both Self’s and McEwan’s fictional meanderings into madness, it has the opposite effect of fostering divergence. In contrast to the fluidity and smoothness usually associated with the process of confluence, McEwan and Self’s dramatisation of strange (sometimes violent) encounters and the play on self-reflexive hybridity in depicting insanity, draw attention to an unexpected kinship between confluence, crisis and the need for reconfiguration.

4This paper will focus on the subversive strategies of confluence enacted in The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Enduring Love, where hybrid, even dialogic narratives attempt to accommodate the experience of madness which constantly threatens to overturn all systems of knowledge and belief. It will first be argued that in madness, unusual confluences induce, or derive from crisis, which defines the relationships between characters, as well as between beliefs and modes of knowledge. The study will then demonstrate that in the wake of such crises, the confluence in these narratives reflects an ever-growing tension between the yearning for stable knowledge and the awareness that the experience of madness lays bare some of the flaws in our epistemological categories.

Madness, Crisis and Confluence

5Both Will Self and McEwan seem to imply that at the heart of madness lies a crisis, whether a particular crisis leads a subject to stumble into insanity (as in “The North London Book of the Dead”), or coming into brutal contact with the insane other leads to an individual, and conjugal crisis (as in Enduring Love). Madness is first and foremost depicted as a situation of unexpected convergence, of distressing confluence.

Confluence and collision

  • 4 Later on in the novel, Joe Rose returns to the exact spot where the accident occurred, ‘to the poin (...)

6The sensational, profusely acclaimed opening chapter of Enduring Love takes sudden convergence as its central theme, its recurring motif, and its structuring principle. Alerted by the terrified shouts of a child carried away by strong winds in a balloon, Joe Rose interrupts a romantic picnic with his partner Clarissa and rushes across the field to the child’s rescue; so do four other men, ‘converging on the scene’ (McEwan 1998, 1). This convergence is utterly accidental, yet seemingly unavoidable. The reader bears witness to this compelling scene both through the eyes of Joe himself, and those of a buzzard Joe imagines is watching from above. This bird’s-eye-view only makes the pattern of convergence clearer, sublimating it in the moment prior to collision: ‘the convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. […] I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace’ (McEwan 1998, 2-3; emphasis added). The aforementioned need for science to establish an analytical distance with unaccountable phenomena, this yearning for ‘a state of mathematical grace’, is conveyed by the conversion of the highly symbolic open field into a ‘knowable, limited plane’, and this ‘comforting geometry’ undeniably echoes the ‘comfort’ afforded by scientific frameworks of prediction. But an accident is, by nature, unpredictable, and the balloon accident, the initial crisis in the novel, will have entirely unforeseeable consequences, bringing together two men who were never supposed to meet: Joe Rose, the former experimental scientist turned science journalist, and Jed Parry, who values religion far above rationalism.4 As stated by Arthur Bradley, ‘the collision between reason and pathology is familiar territory in McEwan’s fiction’ (McEwan 2009, 28).

7Confluence is also at the heart of The Quantity Theory of Insanity, whose central story is construed as a report from an international conference bringing together scholars from various disciplines and countries, converging in spite of a striking divergence between their outlooks and methods. As in Enduring Love, some moments of convergence, though accidental and brutal, determine the protagonist’s fate, as when Harold Ford literally bumps into his future mentor and psychoanalyst, Alkan, on the campus of Chelmsford university: ‘we collided in the very centre of the agora’ (McEwan 2006, 131). Confluence, in the guise of unexpected encounters, is again depicted as a collision—and the accident, as in McEwan’s novel, is bound to bring about some form of change. The emphasis placed on the ‘centre’ by both Self and McEwan (‘the centre of the field’ [McEwan1998, 127]) may suggest that they often write at the very point of confluence (both intersection and interaction) between separate characters or levels of reality

8In The Quantity Theory of Insanity, true confluence, albeit unsettling, sometimes seems to be achieved in the wake or in the midst of crisis, for instance when the narrator of ‘The North London Book of the Dead’ encounters his dead mother in the street: ‘The impression I had of Mother in that very first glance was so sharp and so clear, […] that I did not for a moment doubt the testimony of my senses’ (Self 2006, 6). The narrator’s absolute certainty, though possibly a true symptom of psychosis, brings the dead and the living together without apparent contradiction. The confluence, or unlikely coexistence, of opposites may well define the world of madness as depicted here, specifically through constant encounters or sustained coexistence between characters whose intellectual bend, values and belief systems are radically opposed.

A ‘marriage of opposites’5: confluence and conflict

  • 5 The phrase is used in ‘Waiting’, the closing story of The Quantity Theory of Insanity (Self 2006, 2 (...)

9When confronted with madness, characters in Enduring Love and The Quantity Theory of Insanity rarely experience confluence as a harmonious state. Self’s evocation of Jim and Carol’s ‘marriage of opposites’ may also be used to describe the union between Joe and Clarissa in McEwan’s novel. A sustained trend among critics has been to describe them as ‘opposites who attract but who also do not understand each other’s worldview’ (Childs 108). As Jonathan Greenberg further explains,

  • 6 This is not to say that the relationship between Joe and Clarissa is purely schematic, or that the (...)

Enduring Love presents a troubled marriage of science and literature: Joe Rose, the narrator and a science journalist, is married—by common law only—to Clarissa Mellon, a Keats scholar. Joe and Clarissa represent, fairly schematically, not only opposing disciplines but also opposing worldviews, even opposing principles: science and literature, reason and emotion, nature and culture. (96)6

10Before the irruption of Jed Parry into their story, Joe and Clarissa seemed to live in harmony (or true confluence) in spite of their fundamental differences. Jed’s intrusion, his insanity, will reintroduce and enhance conflict between them, pushing their relationship to the breaking point. Each character stands for a set of values, and Martin Randall is right to assert that ‘among its many other facets, Enduring Love is a book about competing viewpoints and versions of events’ (in Childs 55). With the addition of Jed Parry to the small circle of protagonists, McEwan charts the evolution of not one, but two marriages of opposites: one between science and literature, and the other between rationalism and religion. The deeper conflict at stake, therefore, is that between not two, but three worldviews, ‘[three] different perspectives: cognition, emotion and faith’ (Childs 15-16), and three competing narratives offered by science (Joe), literature (Clarissa), and religion (Jed). Joe, as he states early on in the novel, relies solely on ‘the facts’ (McEwan 1998, 7), and though he acknowledges that ‘Clarissa ha[s] effected a shift to the essential’ (McEwan 1998, 33) when she tells him, the night after the accident, that what they need to get through it is love, and not scientific explanations, he never seems to fully understand her. Jed Parry also places all his faith and hope in love; however, this form of love is excessive, therefore ‘pathological’, ‘a dark, distorting mirror’ (McEwan 1998, 128), as mentioned in Joe’s assessment of it when he reaches the diagnosis of de Clérambault’s syndrome, also known as erotomania.

  • 7 Several critics have analysed this relationship, including Allen Thiher : ‘Not all forms of madness (...)

11Jed’s faith, however, is not the only ‘other’ of reason in the narrative: Clarissa’s literary mind is seen as equally irrational by Joe, and by putting forward her sympathy for Jed, the novel might be pointing to a specific relationship between insanity and literature7, to a similarity between ‘mad’ and ‘literary’ ways of apprehending and comprehending reality. If, as Thiher suggests, ‘the literary imagination has historically shared certain features of the insane imagination’ (Thiher2), then Clarissa’s viewpoint may have more claims to unveiling the nature of Jed’s insanity than Joe would have it.

12The competing narratives of science, literature and religion, or reason, emotion and faith, all strive to make sense of Jed’s deeply unsettling behaviour and experience, offering different interpretations of love, obsession, and madness. Several characters in Self’s stories also adopt divergent perspectives on insanity: Harold Ford’s determination to reduce madness to a quantifiable social phenomenon through the identification and establishment of ‘sanity quotients’ (Self 2006, 175) may be seen as yet another instance of ‘rationalism gone berserk’ (McEwan 1998, 70). By contrast, although he is by no means a religious man, the narrator of ‘The North London Book of the Dead’ indulges in ‘an exercise in magical thinking’ (Self 2006, 9) and accepts the premise that ‘when you die you move to another part of London, that’s all there is to it’ (Self 2006, 11). He is aware that this might make people think he is ‘the victim of an outlandishly complex delusionary state’ (Self 2006, 9), and so he keeps the startling revelation to himself, but does not question its validity.

13It thus seems that such a complex, wide-ranging and unsettling experience as madness calls for the confluence (as cooperation, or complementary action) of several epistemological attitudes, and for the attempt to elaborate a confluent, or hybrid narrative out of these conflicting perspectives and stories.

Madness, confluence and reconfiguration(s)

We were running towards a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. (McEwan 1998, 3)

14Thus does Joe record the tremendous impact of the initial convergence of Enduring Love. If madness itself is to be analysed as ‘a catastrophe’, that is to say a complete reversal not only of the ‘fates’ of characters, but of their ways of apprehending reality and turning events into stories, any narrative of madness inevitably ‘buckle[s] into new shapes’. The confluence of various disciplines and forms of storytelling therefore serves a purpose of reconfiguration (of forms of narrative and knowledge) in McEwan’s novel and Self’s stories. Both authors indeed strive towards such ‘new shapes’ through strategies of generic confluence and interdisciplinary outlook, thus offering not only hybrid, but also dialogic, and self-critical accounts of madness.

Hybrid accounts of madness

  • 8 ‘A novel about the workings of the mind, wherein the mind becomes the brain’ (Roth, 2). According t (...)
  • 9 According to Bradley, due to their staunch belief in science over religion, Martin Amis and Ian McE (...)

15A clear sign that both The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Enduring Love have indeed been received by some as ‘new shapes’ in fiction is several critics’ contention that these works may have inaugurated, if not new genres, at least new subgenres: Enduring Love has been branded the first of ‘neuronovels’ by Marco Roth,8 and labelled a ‘new atheist novel’ by Arthur Bradley.9 As far as Self is concerned, stories such as ‘The North London Book of the Dead’ prefigure ‘a new type of fiction that draws on the interconnected traditions of realist, satirical, and fantastic writing to produce a generic hybrid: urban visionary satire’ (Maczynska 2010, 58).

16Both Enduring Love and The Quantity Theory of Insanity may perhaps most accurately be described as generic hybrids, since both texts interweave several forms of writing, to the point that some passages are truly confluent, in that one form can no longer be distinguished from the other. Thus, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ seems to start as a report by Harold Ford from the special interdisciplinary conference he is attending in Denver, about his address to the conferees. However, it appears that a considerable section of the story might consist of a form of scholarly article, or even of Ford’s speech itself. Is the story an autobiographical account of the life and career of Harold Ford, written while attending a conference on the revolutionary theory he came up with, or is it the story he tells his assembled colleagues at this same conference? The ambiguity conferred on the text by the apparent simultaneity of the spoken and written word disappears at the close of the story, as Harold Ford writes down new, ever more cryptic equations related to his observations at the conference. A similar progression may be observed in chapter 5 of Enduring Love, where Joe announces that he is starting work on a new ‘piece’ (McEwan 1998, 48) about the evolution of the relationship between literary and scientific culture from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. What appear to be his musings on the subject for the next paragraphs (therefore part of the narrative itself, as a communication of his main ideas for the article to the reader) turn out to be his actual first draft for the article, as indicated by a late clue: ‘the less confident I became about this argument, the faster I typed’ (McEwan 1998, 49).

  • 10 Each of these chapters may be viewed as fragments of an epistolary novel.

17Other experiments in generic hybridity include the aforementioned laying out of equations in ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’, or the inclusion of two letters by Jed Parry and one by Clarissa, respectively in chapters 11, 16 and 23 of Enduring Love.10 The equations and the letters are some of the ways in which characters try to make sense of the experience of madness in both works, and, as will be explored in further detail, these confluent narratives seem to constitute an attempt at combining angles and perspectives to reach some form of epistemological stability, if not certainty.

18Many critics have commented on the generic hybridity of Enduring Love, which ‘merges and mixes genres ranging from the novel of ideas, through the love story, to the detective thriller’ (Clark & Gordon 2004, 65). Sean Matthews further applauds ‘the effectiveness of Enduring Love’s generic interweaving’ (in Childs 94). The Quantity Theory of Insanity does exhibit similar generic hybridity, but also amounts to a case of generic liminality, according to M. Hunter Hayes who states that ‘the book as a whole imparts an impression of a fractured novel’ (Hayes 21), mainly because Self has his characters cross over from one story to the next, thus spinning an intricate web of structural and thematic echoes. Zack Busner is not the only character to appear in various stories (‘Ward 9’, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ and ‘Waiting’) ; Simon Gurney, introduced as Misha’s father and predecessor as art therapist in ‘Ward 9’ (Self 2006, 89), turns out to be one of the disciples of Alkan listed by Harold Ford in ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ (Self 2006, 133). Janner, eventually referred to as ‘The Anthropologist’ (Self 2006, 92), is both the central character of ‘Understanding the Ur-Bororo’ and a lurking presence at the Denver conference on the Quantity Theory (Self 2006, 194).

  • 11 ‘I was a journalist, a commentator, an outsider to my own profession. I would never get back to tho (...)
  • 12 Possibly a playful and satirical anagram for Lacan.

19Perhaps not surprisingly (in view of the title chosen for the collection), many characters in The Quantity Theory of Insanity are academics, a status which Joe Rose, in Enduring Love, was denied but keeps aspiring to.11 Self uses such characters to channel a highly satirical critique not merely of academic prose, but also of the occasional hubris of academia as regards knowledge, the very epitome, or acme of which is the Quantity Theory itself. The presumption by science to reduce madness to a set of quotas, and predictable numerical variations, is shown to be ludicrous throughout the masterful satirical piece that is the collection’s central story, where Harold Ford, prior to designing the theory, derives coordinates from very graphic inscriptions left by gay men in public toilets all over London in his obsessive, manic search for Alkan12; he then enters the service of a Scottish dilettante and compiles studies for him ‘to draw out the underlying similarities between humans and cows and to suggest ways in which the two species could be brought closer together’ (Self 2006, 148). The story contains many such examples of Self’s renowned ‘irreverently comic tone’ (Maczynska 72), his penchant for satire and occasional employment of farcical or absurdist situations; by contrast, Ian McEwan is seen by many as ‘a deeply serious writer, even when writing in a comic vein’ (Childs xi). However, both authors interweave science and literature, and include sections of academic prose into their work to tackle, albeit through pastiche and/or parody, ‘what might colloquially be called the ‘big questions’ (Childs xi).

20Indeed, the novel and the short stories are not merely hybrid, but dialogic, since both may be said to insert in the text a form of philosophical dialogue. The confluence, or coexistence of conflicting disciplines, perspectives and interpretations, reveal a form of epistemological unease as regards insanity. In the context of this dialogic position, experiments with genre, especially with academic prose, have a highly subversive edge to them, since they not only convey and combine different points of view on madness, knowledge and the knowledge of madness, but also question the very possibility of any objective ‘theory of insanity’, and the validity of our epistemological approaches.

A ‘fissure in ideology’13

  • 13 ‘Madness is a fissure in ideology’ (Thiher 261).
  • 14 We are drawing on Emily Horton’s account of the Sokal hoax (Horton 687).

21In 1996, prominent physicist Alan Sokal published a spoof scientific defense of cognitive relativism in the highly esteemed literary journal Social Text. This pseudo-scientific paper entitled ‘Transforming the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, now referred to, along with the controversy which ensued, as ‘the Sokal hoax’,14 aimed at defending the normative conception of scientific enquiry against postmodernism’s notion that science is just another social practice, producing ‘narrations’ and ‘myths’ no more valid than those produced by other disciplines. Ian McEwan and Will Self resort to similar ‘hoaxes’ in Enduring Love and ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’, but since the driving force behind the exercise is a representation of madness, the goal has been reversed: scientific and academic pronouncements of objective knowledge are to be challenged, their foundations undermined and their status as yet another type of story reasserted.

  • 15 Works by members of the Quantity Theory of Insanity group thus include ‘Daddy, Mummy’s Mad’ ‘Good’, (...)

22The case of McEwan’s first appendix to Enduring Love is particularly interesting when compared to the Sokal hoax, since, as recorded by McEwan himself in a piece for the Guardian entitled ‘Fooled You’, and as further elaborated upon by Laura Miller, many readers and critics originally thought this ‘spoof psychiatric case study’ (Horton 707) to be genuine. One might indeed be ‘fooled’ by this ‘recast[ing] of the nub of the narrative […] couched in the clinical prose of an academic paper’ (Ryan in Childs 46), since the structure and style of this paper entitled ‘A homo-erotic obsession, with religious overtones: a clinical variant of de Clérambault’s syndrome’ carefully conform to what might be expected of such a report. Just as Self ends his title story with a bibliography (though a ‘spoof’ bibliography), McEwan goes as far as to complete his appendix with a rather substantial list of references, all of which, as opposed to Self’s farcical titles,15 are genuine. However, as opposed to the British Journal of Psychiatry, the British Review of Psychiatry (from which this paper was allegedly reprinted) does not exist; and, as many critics have pointed out, the authors’ names (Robert Wenn and Antonio Camia) form an anagram of the actual author’s name: Ian McEwan.

23‘Blur[ring] the line between the fictional and the factual’ (Ryan in Childs 46), the McEwan hoax reminds the reader that even a scientific paper is fundamentally a story; in his own ‘parody and pastiche of academic prose’ (Hayes 189), Self, though he does conform to certain academic standards, makes it abundantly clear that the bibliography, in particular, is entirely an invention, therefore a fiction. The satirical titles in this list of references, and a numerical reference marker for an endnote which turns out not to exist, are evidence that Self subverts the academic jargon he assumes, and the story and collection create only an illusion of scholarly authority. Whether the gesture is branded ‘sly’ (Ryan in Childs 46) or ‘impish’ (Hayes 34), Self and McEwan are intent on exposing objective knowledge, of insanity and of life and the world at large, as an illusion. This is what the confluence between fact and fiction seems to achieve here, while the confluence between different forms of stories breeds epistemological uncertainty.

24As rightfully stressed by David Malcolm,

Epistemological questions, how much one can know, how one can know anything – are frequent in McEwan’s novels. […] This concern with the difficulties of knowing and understanding the world is very prominent in Enduring Love, which takes the form of a kind of epistemological thriller. (2007, 175)

25This epistemological fiction, contrasting different kinds of knowledge and considering both the limits and the possibilities of knowing the world, constantly insists on the need for people to apprehend events and recapture experience through stories, while underlining the artificiality and fundamental unreliability of these stories. The confluence of perspectives fosters and maintains, in both works, ambivalence and ambiguity. The unreliability of the stories we are told derives from the unreliability of the narrators themselves, who experience a reversal of status: in ‘Ward 9’, Misha goes from being the ward’s art therapist to becoming a patient himself, and comes to question his own perceptions of reality over the course of his story. Even a man as rational as Joe seems to lose his footing as Jed Parry invades his and Clarissa’s life further and further.

26Indeed, as Joe’s research on Parry turns into a full-blown obsession, as his version of events raises increasing doubt, then disbelief in Clarissa, and even the police, the reader may begin to see him as he sees himself at one point in the novel: ‘like a mental patient at the end of visiting hours’ (McEwan 1998, 58). While critics such as Sean Matthews go as far as detailing the ‘seven types of unreliability’ (in Childs 90) of Joe as a narrator, many have underlined that ‘for a while the text remains in an interesting state of ambiguity—who is mad, Joe or Jed? Alternatively, who has the correct analysis of Jed’s behavior, Joe or Clarissa? The scientist or the literary scholar?’ (Bewes 429-430). And indeed, as a novel about the different narratives, theories and beliefs people use for interpretation, Enduring Love might be expected to offer resolution, or sketch a solution to the conundrum. According to most critics, Joe’s perspective does eventually prove right in the novel, therefore analysed by some as ‘an overwhelming endorsement of Joe’s scientific rationalism against both Jed’s religious fanaticism and Clarissa’s sympathetic literary sensitivity’ (Bewes 2000, 430). However, the validation of Joe’s diagnosis in Appendix I is undeniably undermined by the paper’s status as a fake, and Appendix II is yet another letter from Jed, whose irrational love does indeed endure. Enduring Love thus embodies the persisting potential for multiple perspectives by offering not one, but three endings; this irresolution, or resistance to closure, may remind us that all narratives, whether literary, journalistic or scientific, are merely constructs.

27The same resistance to closure is observed in ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’, whose final sentence, an incomplete hypothesis, leaves it to the reader to fill in the blank penciled in by the ellipsis: ‘the task now is to derive an equation which would make it possible to establish whether what I suspect is true. Namely that as more and more insanity is concentrated around educational institutions, so levels of mental illness in the rest of society […]’ (Self 2006, 196). McEwan’s and Self’s subversive strategies of confluence do seem to compel readers to make their own hypotheses in the face of phenomena that escape the definitive grasp of science, and elude objective knowledge. By exposing labels and categories as mere artifices, both the novel and the short stories invite us to explore this ‘fissure in ideology’ laid bare by the confounding experience of madness, to overturn previous certainties and beliefs, even perhaps to engage in our own ‘exercise in magical thinking’.

28The ‘tangled confluence’ of Self’s and McEwan’s narratives leads the reader to the heart of ‘a tangled web of epistemological doubt’ (Clark & Gordon 20), for as much as disciplines and stories converge in an attempt to gain understanding and knowledge of a multifaceted experience, madness still seems to defy traditional forms of categorisation. The use of subversive strategies of confluence allows both authors to question the boundaries usually set between various literary genres, as well as between facts and fiction; in its pursuit of the puzzling singularity of insanity, literature deploys a singular, hybrid mode of knowledge constantly calling for epistemological reconfiguration. Therefore, the reliance of both works on science serves a satirical and subversive purpose, inviting the reader to ‘cros[s] a threshold of re-conceptualisation’ (Self 2006, 145-146). Both authors could therefore be said to reverse the Cartesian process by privileging epistemological doubt in their literary exploration of madness, and encouraging us to think in ‘new shapes’.

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1 ‘[Descartes] bannit la folie au nom de celui qui doute, et qui ne peut pas plus déraisonner que ne pas penser et ne pas être. […] Désormais la folie est exilée’ (1972, 69).

2 Merritt Moseley, in his review of ‘Recent British Novels,’ comments on the tendency of some contemporary authors ‘to pump up the portentousness of their books by dragging in ideas like the heat death of the universe, the quantum theory, and so on’ (Moseley 679) According to him, Self’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity ‘is a relatively innocuous example’ (679), whereas McEwan’s ‘employing scientific ideas in Enduring Love . . . fully justifies itself in this absorbing, moving novel’ (679).

3 The phrase is used by Misha Gurney, the narrator of ‘Ward 9’, as he reaches the area of London where the psychiatric hospital he has been appointed to work in is located: ‘the tangled confluence of Camden Town’ (Self 2006, 20). As this paper will demonstrate, however, this description applies not only to the space of London or Heath hospital itself, but to the space of both the collection of stories and McEwan’s novel.

4 Later on in the novel, Joe Rose returns to the exact spot where the accident occurred, ‘to the point where our fates converged’ (1998, 127).

5 The phrase is used in ‘Waiting’, the closing story of The Quantity Theory of Insanity (Self 2006, 253), and may also be an intertextual echo to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793).

6 This is not to say that the relationship between Joe and Clarissa is purely schematic, or that the ideas they stand for rob them of any substance as characters. McEwan was adamant that his reworking of the novel of ideas in Enduring Love should rely on a strong narrative shelter, and characters with sensual presence and psychological depth (in Groes 126-27).

7 Several critics have analysed this relationship, including Allen Thiher : ‘Not all forms of madness, but many are related to literature, especially in so far as both madness and literature enable us to believe in and be moved by what in a sense does not exist, by fictions, imaginations, hallucinations, inner voices’ (Thiher 2).

8 ‘A novel about the workings of the mind, wherein the mind becomes the brain’ (Roth, 2). According to Marc Porée, Will Self’s later novel Umbrella (2012) may originally seem to belong to the category of neuronovels, though he eventually asserts that it does not: ‘On the face of it, Umbrella abides by the (uncodified) rules of the genre’ (Porée).

9 According to Bradley, due to their staunch belief in science over religion, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are ‘New Atheist novelists par excellence’ (Bradley 22).

10 Each of these chapters may be viewed as fragments of an epistolary novel.

11 ‘I was a journalist, a commentator, an outsider to my own profession. I would never get back to those days, heady in retrospect, when I was doing original doctoral research on the magnetic field of the electron, when I attended conferences on the problem of infinities in the renormalisable theories . . .’ (McEwan 1977, 77).

12 Possibly a playful and satirical anagram for Lacan.

13 ‘Madness is a fissure in ideology’ (Thiher 261).

14 We are drawing on Emily Horton’s account of the Sokal hoax (Horton 687).

15 Works by members of the Quantity Theory of Insanity group thus include ‘Daddy, Mummy’s Mad’ ‘Good’, by Adam Sikorski, and ‘Repressing People Who Laugh Alone: Towards Effective Public Transport’, published by Harold Ford in a journal entitled The Bus.

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Electronic reference

Diane Gagneret, « The Tangled Confluence’: Hybrid Accounts of Madness in Will Self’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love », Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 52 | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, connection on 27 June 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3579

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About the author

Diane Gagneret

Diane Gagneret est doctorante contractuelle à l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon et membre de l’IHRIM (Institut d’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités). Son travail de recherche, sous la direction de Vanessa Guignery, porte sur les relations entre la thématique de la folie et les questions de genre (sexué et littéraire) dans la littérature anglophone contemporaine, et particulièrement des œuvres de Sarah Kane, Janet Frame, Jenny Diski, Ian McEwan, Anthony Neilson et Will Self.

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Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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