- Sadism Demands a Story: Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers
Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers operates on two levels. It is an unheimlich tale of gothic horror that turns on sadomasochism and ritualized murder, but at the same time—and I will focus on this aspect of the novella—it is an engaged meditation on the historical, cultural, and psychoanalytic narratives that uphold an economy Kaja Silverman terms the “dominant fiction [that] solicits our faith above all else in the unity of the family, and the adequacy of the male subject” (Male Subjectivity 15–16). This fiction, Silverman explains, manifests itself as “the ideological system through which the normative subject lives its relation to the symbolic order and [quoting Ernesto Laclau (24)] it is the mechanism by which a society ‘tries to institute itself as such on the basis of closure, of the fixation of meaning, of the non-recognition of the infinite play of differences’” (Male Subjectivity 54). It is a narrative pattern that Laura Mulvey famously recognizes as sadistic in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” her influential 1975 essay on film and the objectifying male gaze (14–26).
In an early review Christopher Ricks draws a particularly telling link between McEwan’s position as author and that of Mary, one of his protagonists, grieving over the body of her dead lover: [End Page 957]
The last page of the book grants access to Mary bewilderedly “in the mood for explanation.” “But she explained nothing.” There is a great pathos in this ending, and it comes from the coinciding—perfectly honourable—of Mary’s doubleness with McEwan’s. He too is in the mood for explanation, but is willing, at least for now and at least in the face of the pain which he has imagined, to explain nothing.(14)
My aim is to engage the ongoing critique of the political role of psychoanalysis in feminist theory by extending and explicating what McEwan—perfectly honorably and perfectly appropriately—chooses not to explain, and so the essay that follows is a close reading of The Comfort of Strangers as an exploration of the violent psychic dreams through which we imagine ourselves into existence as gendered subjects. In line with this psychoanalytic perspective, I read McEwan’s decision “to explain nothing,” mirrored as it is in Mary’s inability to articulate her argument, as a traumatic breaking off of the text in the face of the unnameable horror that has occurred.
My critical framework is the Freudian account of the family romance and the shaping force of sadomasochism as they are foregrounded by McEwan, and also Lacan’s remapping of Freud’s psychic topography. That topography is, I suggest, significantly mirrored in the mysterious topography of Venice, the city in which the novella is set. McEwan’s text is exemplary for my purposes because it self-consciously inscribes the “dominant fiction” with a sadistic savagery that unmasks its origins in psychic structures and exposes the dangers of failing to recognize the role of the psyche in the formation of social reality. 1 My point of departure is psychoanalysis, but I have found myself “looking back” (Rich, “When” 35) not only to Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure,” itself a discussion of the Oedipus complex, but also to another seminal essay, Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” that also shares McEwan’s concern with gender and violence and that was also published in the decade before The Comfort of Strangers. Rich, whose poetry provides McEwan with his epigraph, sees the “re-visioning” of the past as a means of restructuring a male-dominated and self-destructive culture, while Mulvey sees the narrative of psychoanalysis as a political weapon for exposing the sadistic force of “the unconscious of patriarchal society” (14). 2 McEwan’s story, [End Page 958] culminating in a sadomasochistic murder in which perverse perpetrators and “innocent” victims are alike complicit, is an expression of what Freud terms the “merciless violence” the superego can come to exercise over the ego, a violence which can spiral into “a pure culture of the death instinct” (Freud, Ego 53). The driving force behind the sadomasochistic...