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Romance at Majdanek: The Survivor's Dilemma in Ian McEwan's Black Dogs

Seoul National University the Journal of Humanites
Journal of Humanities
Publication Date
  • Communication
  • Philosophy


This essay focuses upon a specific incident in Ian McEwan's Black Dogs in order to characterise his technique and ethical positioning. In the scene the narrator, Jeremy, goes on a "dare" with Jenny to the concentration camp Majdanek. Unable to identify with the enormous suffering of the victims, he is relieved to be "liberated" from the camp; he makes a sexual advance on Jenny which is reciprocated, and results In three days of lovemaking at the nearest hotel, then eventually marriage and a family. I attempt to explain why McEwan presents such a morally ambivalent scene to communicate his vision of a future that promises to redeem historical violence through personal love. The scene blatantly transgresses critical thought on the Holocaust. For instance, Saul Friedlander advocates a "distanced, or allusive realism," following from Adorno's Negativity. McEwan follows this approach in describing the innumerable victims' shoes, not their actual suffering; however, this effect is subverted by Jeremy and Jenny's repudiation of the actual suffering by having sex. Neither does the scene accord with the more recent trauma theory of writers such as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, who stress the communicability of suffering through testimony, and the consequent affirmation of life in the midst of death. Jeremy and Jenny's behaviour cannot be justified in these terms, since their affirmation of life follows a rejection of empathy for the dead. This scene needs to be contextualised in terms of McEwan's whole writing career, which has been accompanied by controversy over his choice of violent and unpleasant subject matter. In turn, his career needs to be contextualised in terms of Britain's postwar period; in particular it is symptomatic of the dismantling of values in the wake of the war and Holocaust, which reached a critical point in the seventies, the beginning of his career. In McEwan's most successful and mature writing moral values develop arbitrarily from the characters' actions in response to their circumstances. He traces the conflict between the individual's unconscious impulses and society, and in so doing, he presents the abject within ourselves, shocking us into self-recognition of what we repudiate in others. This is his achievement in the scene at Majdanek: he shows how in attempting to create a future we betray the past, even though we are attempting to redeem the past.

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