This paper will explore the representation of self and other in Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin(2006); it will argue that this novel functions as a cultural diagnosis of contemporary Britain’s crisis of identity. What will be seen is that McGregor presents a complex, and philosophically sophisticated meditation upon both the idea of self-identity and the manner of its construction; through Carter’s journey, he incarnates the Hegelian master-slave death-struggle and presents a form of reconciliation between the two that allows both to co-exist within the same conceptual space and at the same time. Ultimately, what will be argued is that Jon McGregor is a young artist of considerable note who has valuable things to say about the possibilities and potential for the harmonious coexistence of cultural selves and others.
The intention of this paper is to explore the contemporary British novel, So Many Ways to Begin, and to analyse how its author, Jon McGregor, conducts an analysis of British identity in the twenty-first century. In order to do so, recourse will be made to distinct sections of the philosophical theories of G.W.F. Hegel – particularly his conceptualisations of otherness, dialectics, and, more specifically, the master/slave dialectic. What will be seen is that McGregor appears to envisage British society and culture as being engaged in a conflict of identity that is rather akin to that of the master and slave in Hegel’s theory. Consequently, it should be possible to make some Hegelian-informed suggestions as to how that conflict of British identity might unfold. To this end, the paper shall first provide a brief summary of So Many Ways to Begin and will then briefly discuss the relevant sections of Hegel’s theories before using them to explore the novel.
Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976, settling with his family in Britain whilst still a child. So Many Ways to Begin was published when he was 30 years of age, in 2006, and is McGregor’s second novel. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was published in 2002 and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in the same year – the first time that an author had been long-listed for his first novel. So Many Ways to Begin tells the story of David Carter, a museum curator who discovers rather late in life that he was adopted, and his subsequent search for his birth-mother is the novel’s principle narrative thread.
Carter is an inveterate collector and hoarder, and his passion for artefacts appears to ironically contribute to a later feeling of self-worthlessness as he contemplates how ordinary and dull his own life is relative to the objects he collects. However, when he finally discovers that his birth-mother was an Irish girl who came as a servant to England towards the end of WWII, and who quickly became pregnant to her wealthy employer, he begins to feel as though his life may have some excitement after all – a hint of the exotic. He finds a woman in Ireland with a matching story, but, with an air of inevitability, the excitement is short-lived as it is quickly established that he could not be the long-lost son, and it is only through the consequent realisation that it doesn’t matter that he achieves some peace. From this, we can suggest that McGregor is exploring the concepts of Britain and Britishness and is seeking to represent in microcosm the way in which contemporary Britain is trying to come to terms with its past in order to understand not only its future, but, of more immediate importance, its present. The key to this reading of the novel is in its settings: Aberdeen, Northern Ireland, and Coventry.
Aberdeen is perhaps the setting with least symbolic importance: it is the birthplace of Carter’s wife, Eleanor, and appears to function as a place steeped in memories from which Eleanor is trying to escape. Northern Ireland, by contrast, is the place steeped in memories to which Carter gravitates, for it is here that he hopes to discover the s tory of his own birth. However, on a different conceptual level, Northern Ireland plays a very important role for ideas of Britishness in this novel, for it is there that British identity has historically been most violently problematised, and Northern Ireland is a place where society is trying very hard to forget its past.
Coventry, on the other hand, exists as some sort of half-way-house between Aberdeen and Northern Ireland: it is the place to where Eleanor runs in order to escape her past, and it is the place from where Carter runs in order to discover his past. Conceptually, Coventry is an interesting place: the entire centre of the city, including its historic buildings, was destroyed in heavy bombings in WWII and was only substantially rebuilt in the 1950s, becoming, in the process, indelibly associated with peace and reconciliation. It thus functions well as the symbol of a society disengaged from its past, where the slate of history has been wiped clean, but is now in need of roots. Through Coventry, McGregor depicts a world in which people have lost, have sought to lose, or have forgotten their consciousness of history. Unlike most places, Coventry is not palimpsest-like: there are few traces of the community’s history immediately visible beneath the surface of the present. This obliteration of its physical history seems to conveniently function for McGregor as succinctly representing the parallel obliteration of traditional British identity post-WWII.
Tradition and modernity, and contemporary crises of identity, are here understood following Alasdair MacIntyre where, in After Virtue (2007), he defines the identity-crises of modernity as being brought about by a rupturing of society from its history and its traditions. MacIntyre sees the modern abandonment of tradition as conceptually casting society adrift, in that all of the parameters used to understand identity no longer have the overarching conceptual framework they once had, and which had been established and validated over a long period of time. It is only through re-establishing an adequate sense of tradition that society is able to ‘manifest itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present’ (MacIntyre, 2007, 223). This grasp of future possibilities, according to MacIntyre, will enable the subject to realise their identity, which is to understand human life as a narrative quest: that is, a quest to realise a life as a narrative with an ultimate telos – a goal that is to be striven for:
It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distraction which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood. A quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge. (MacIntyre, 2007, 219)
With this in mind, David Carter may be seen as a synecdochic representation of contemporary British society and, in his quest to discover the story of his own birth and the lives of his ancestors, he allows the author to hypothesise the possible outcomes of a societal and cultural renegotiation of the past. What is of particular interest, for the purposes of this discussion, is that Carter’s quest takes the form of a conflict: from the moment he discovers that he was adopted, he is constantly at odds with his adopted-mother, Dorothy; he rejects her, and his insistence on endeavouring to discover the identity of his birth-mother is a source of constant heartache for Dorothy. It is this struggle that provides a potentially fruitful point of entry for a Hegelian reading of the text. Before doing this, however, it would be appropriate to briefly sketch the aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that will be referenced.
At the core of Hegel’s philosophy is the idea of consciousness: whilst Hegel’s mode of describing consciousness is famously abstruse, we can very crudely sum it up as being the awareness that the Self is separate from other objects that are within the perception of the Subject. As a progression from this, Hegel believed that self–consciousness is the awareness that the Self can also be an object to another Subject. The Self, therefore, is dependent upon the Other in order for identity and meaning to come into existence. A second important, and related thread from Hegel’s work, is the notion of dialectics, or sublation (the term which appears most frequently in Hegel’s writing). This theory perhaps needs little discussion: it suffices to say that dialectics is related to the notions of development and improvement whereby one state generates its own antithesis, and the conflict between the two usually results in a synthesis that retains the best from both the initial state, or thesis, and its antithesis. It is through this progression of thesis, antithesis and synthesis that Hegel envisaged the whole of humanity moving towards a more perfected state of being.
The ideas of consciousness and otherness, as well as those of dialectics and sublation come together in the Master/Slave dialectic – a short narrative with which Hegel has become synonymously linked and apparently much misunderstood. As it is interpreted for the purposes of this paper, the Master/Slave dialectic describes how two Subjects engage in a struggle for supremacy in order to validate their own sense of Self. Because they both know that the death of the Other would be catastrophic for the existence of the Self, they settle into a relationship of Master and Slave (or Lord and Bondsman – apparently a more accurate translation). The Master is the one who demonstrates that he possesses no fear of death, whereas the Slave is the one who submits in the struggle and settles into a life of relative servitude. Hegel maintains that the Master is the ultimate loser in this struggle, since his sense of Self is ephemeral because he must ultimately come to realise that, no matter what he does, and because of his position as Master, he will always be dependent upon the Other for validation: his position as Master is always reliant upon there being some Other to fulfill the role of slave and thereby validate his existence. The Slave, on the other hand, through his labour, comes to develop a more complex and fulfilled sense of Self and eventually replaces the Master in his position of dominance.
These Hegelian theories will be more fully explored through their use in analysing So Many Ways to Begin. David Carter is at the epicentre of this narrative: although the narrating voice is in the third person, Carter is the one upon whom the vast majority of the text is focussed. Consequently, in this particular text he may be seen as the Hegelian Subject, and it is his development and establishment of sense of Self and self-consciousness with which the reader is most engaged. However, as stated above, Carter is much more than a single character, he is McGregor’s symbolic representation of contemporary British society – so in order to get at McGregor’s critique of British identity we must establish who and what function is the Other to Carter’s Subject.
Carter’s character is essentially formed by three things: his relationship with his wife, his relationship with his mother, and his job as a museum curator. His wife, Eleanor, suffers from an extremely nervous disposition, and very quickly after their marriage she becomes almost entirely dependent upon Carter: she rarely leaves the house and appears to be in a constant mental haze as a result of long term reliance upon tranquilizers. His mother, Dorothy, had a difficult time bringing up Carter and his sister on her own following the death of her husband when her children were not even teenagers. She never told her husband that their son was adopted, since his birth neatly fell nine months after one of her husband’s visits home from the front during the war.
Carter’s job as curator in the Coventry museum is of crucial importance in trying to understand this novel. Whereas most young boys in the England of the 1950s would aspire to becoming footballers, train drivers or astronauts, David Carter always aspired to a career in museums: this is long before he ever discovered that he was adopted. As a boy, whenever he visited his aunt Julia’s cluttered house (the woman whose premature suffering from Alzheimer’s will eventually reveal the fact of his adoption), he revelled in exploring the multitude of artefacts and bric-a-brac that Julia had hoarded over the years. On one such occasion the narrative implies a strong link between this penchant of Carter’s and the title of the novel: ‘He edged into the room, his hands hovering over it all, not knowing where to begin’ (McGregor, 2006, 32). This is echoed a couple of pages later:
And it was this [the feeling given by handling the artefacts] that he had spent most of his life looking for: these physical traces of history, these objects which could weigh his hands down with their density of memory and time. Something he could hold on to and say, look, this belonged to my fathers and forefathers, this is some small piece of where I began. (McGregor, 2006, 34)
Given that Carter’s identity and sense of self-as-Subject are formed via his relationships with his wife, mother, and career, then if we can imagine this in diagrammatic form, if Carter is positioned as the central or pivotal figure of the text, then the wife, mother and career occupy three separate, but linked, positions that form a triangle around Carter-as-omphalic-centre. Depending upon which way he turns, there is a different version of his Self reflected back to him. When he considers his career (as indicated in the quotes just mentioned), he is faced with the past: the artefacts reflect back society’s origins; the lives of the ancestors; the passing of time where one generation is replaced by the next. When he considers his mother then he is faced with his present: she reflects back who he is (David Carter), because she was the one who predominantly moulded him into the person he has become. When he considers his wife then he is faced with his future: she reflects back who he is in the process of becoming, as their shared life unfolds before them.
In the Hegelian sense, Carter is involved in a symbolic life-or-death-struggle with each of these three entities, and it is the outcome of each of these struggles that determines not only his character but also reveals McGregor’s opinion about the notions of British culture and identity at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To move chronologically through them (past, present, future = career, mother, wife), his battles in his professional life are rather revealing. In The Philosophy of History, Hegel argues that the discipline of history can be divided into three forms: Original History; Reflective History; and Philosophical History. Original History is that performed by historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides ‘whose descriptions are for the most part limited to deeds, events, and states of society, which they had before their eyes, and whose spirit they shared’ (Hegel, 1956, 1). Reflective History is that which comprises the ‘working up of the historical material’ in order to make it ‘virtually Present’ for pragmatic and didactic purposes (in other words, learning the lessons of the past for improvement of the present) and also critiquing the historical narratives in order to investigate their ‘truth and credibility’ (Hegel, 1956, 4-8). The final form, and Hegel’s preference, is Philosophic History; this is, as Hegel puts it, ‘the thoughtful consideration of [history]’ – in other words the contemplation and exploration of history as a rational process; the detection, articulation and exploration of the presence and operation of Reason throughout the ages (Hegel, 1956, 8-11).
In the case of David Carter, his relationship with history is predominantly characterised by his desire to collect and possess it, to catalogue it, and to exhibit it in a particular form or sequence (to control, through his curatorship of exhibitions, the way in which the public experience it). When he is only eight years of age, the reader learns that:
Soon after those first museum visits with Julia, he started collecting things for himself […] which he found on the bombsites […]. He brought them home, brushing the dried mud from them with an old toothbrush, looking for the maker’s marks or other inscriptions, looking for something which would give these objects a story, attaching small labels with the date and place where they were found and lining them up along his windowsill and his desk. (McGregor, 2006, 35)
Carter thus falls into the second of Hegel’s categories: he is a Reflective Historian working up the data in order to make it virtually present. However, he fails to formally engage with history on an intellectual level, relying instead on his emotion and passion to carry him through – McGregor appears to condemn this type of history, in a manner that has echoes of Hegel.
The reader sees this symbolically unfold later on in the novel when, with Carter now a senior member of staff at the museum, he has an affair with Anna, a young and attractive assistant curator. Although they do not consummate their passion, when Anna’s husband finds out he almost beats Carter to death (McGregor, 2006, 250-1). Shortly afterwards, Carter is made redundant from the museum because, despite his seniority, he is the only one without formal university qualifications and Anna supplants him (McGregor, 2006, 280-2). This episode with Anna, and Carter’s subsequent redundancy, suggests that this novel is aimed at establishing that society’s approach to history must transcend the emotional or fetishistic (represented in Carter’s passion for artefacts and lust for Anna), and aspire to philosophical contemplation and intellectual rationalisation (represented in the primacy of academic qualifications).
This excessively emotive response to history is mirrored in Carter’s relationship with his mother, who is the next chronological entity that reflects back a version of himself and which is strongly associated with his present being rather than with the past. With history, through his curatorship in the museum, he adopted a subordinate stance which Hegelian theory would identify with the slave rather than the master: Carter sees his existence (in his career) as being concerned with the preservation of some truth contained within the historical objects he handles; he feels duty-bound to serve these objects and what they represent, and his public persona is in many ways defined by this servitude. His relationship with his mother, however, is almost exactly the opposite: with her he takes a position of dominance. When he belatedly discovers the fact of his adoption the power balance between Carter and Dorothy inverts: where she once controlled and influenced his life as his mother, he now repeatedly berates and humiliates her. He refuses to talk to her for long periods, he constantly makes her feel guilty for not having told him, and when she comes to meet him after work he marches home in silence so quickly that she must scurry along to keep up with him (McGregor, 2006, 124-7).
Carter’s supposed victory over his mother, like the master’s over the slave, is pyrrhic. Where his private persona was once greatly defined by the personality of his mother, who functioned as the dominant independent consciousness that reflected back his own sense of Self, he is now, in the absence of a birth-mother to take her place, faced with the fact that, as Hegel puts it in The Phenomenology of Spirit, ‘what now really confronts him is not an independent consciousness, but a dependent one. He is, therefore, not certain of being-for-itself as the truth of himself’ (Hegel, 1979, 117). If we can map the terminology of Hegelian dialectics onto this novel then Carter’s being, or self-consciousness, at the conclusion of the novel is a synthesis of his Self/Other relationships with his career (thesis) and his mother (antithesis). His career may be termed the thesis because it is the original state of his being; his fascination with historical objects is the aspect of his personality to which the reader is first introduced. His relationship with his mother, and the subsequent search for his birth-mother, may be termed the antithesis because his predilection for historical enquiry and fetishisation of the past brings him into conflict with his original state of being.
The synthesis, with which McGregor presents the reader at the conclusion of the novel, is in the relationship Carter experiences with his wife, Eleanor. The power-balance in their relationship oscillates: initially, Eleanor is the more manipulative one, manoeuvring Carter into helping her escape the tyrannical rule of her mother in the family home; then she becomes almost wholly dependent upon him, as the mental scars inflicted by her mother cause her to retreat from the world into a 25-year, tranquilizer-induced, mental fog; finally, however, immediately following the disappointing realisation that the woman in Northern Ireland is not his mother and that he will probably never find her, it is only through his sexual-union with Eleanor, the orgasmic climax of Carter’s narrative, and the post-coital conclusion of the novel, that he achieves mental resolution:
What do you want to do now? she asked. He smiled and closed his eyes for a moment more. David? she said, nudging him again. He opened his eyes and looked at her.
I want to go home, he said. (McGregor, 2006, 343)
His desire to return to Coventry, the implication that he is determined to abandon his raking over the cinders of the past and to live contentedly with what he has, suggests that Carter’s future happiness has been achieved through the figure of Eleanor.
What Eleanor comes to represent at the conclusion of the novel is the synthesis between Carter’s past and present. Through her, his fetishization of the past, via his boyhood hobby and later employment in the museum, his seemingly insatiable desire to label, organise and catalogue it, has been revealed, through the impossibility of understanding even his own past, as being a fruitless pursuit. His sense of moral dominance over his mother, the ease with which he can repeatedly humiliate her, coupled with his inability to supplant her with his birth-mother, results in an existential nausea brought about by a sense of being free floating without the moral compass that the mother-figure traditionally embodies. Eleanor, however, provides the conceptualterra firma he appears to lack: as Other, she is alternatively both master and slave to his Self; as wife, she is his past and his present and becomes his future; she is manipulated and she is manipulator; dominant and dominated. In a Hegelian sense, Carter’s relationship with Eleanor at the conclusion of the novel appears to be the conceptual locus from which a new beginning can occur. Both their tethers to the past have been severed: Carter has abandoned the search for his family history, Eleanor’s mother is dead, their daughter has left home for university, and they have once more discovered their physical passion for each other.
This paper began by suggesting that the novel So Many Ways to Begin can be read as a parable-of-sorts concerning the current state of British culture and identity. So, what does the author, Jon McGregor, appear to say? There are doubtless many more interpretations of the novel than the one offered here, such as the possibility that McGregor endorses the total abandonment of history, or else he endorses passive resistance to repressive labour roles in an aggressive capitalist system. However, with the teleological philosophies of Hegel and MacIntyre outlined above, and the importance of the notion of the quest, it seems convincing to argue that McGregor’s decision to narrativize the problem of British identity indicates a similar belief on the part of the author to that of Hegel and MacIntyre, in that identity crises are only resolvable when identity is understood as a teleological and episodic process/quest which necessitates an understanding and framing of past, present and future. The British society depicted in his novel is one suspended between its past and its potential futures. Britain, it appears, is still trying to come to terms with the perceived relative worthlessness of its current culture and achievements when compared with those of its more illustrious forbears from the time of empire. When we see David Carter trying to manipulate, taxonomize and control history, both in his work and in his personal life, it evokes contemporary Britain’s struggle to explain the apparent moribundity of its morals and culture. However, in the synthesis between Carter and his wife at the novel’s conclusion, McGregor appears to suggest that the path of moral and intellectual progress for Britain lies in the shift from reflective history to philosophic history.
As stated earlier, Carter appears to represent the reflective historian. His life’s work is focused on the collection and verification of historical data in order to serve a socially didactic function; however, by the novel’s conclusion he appears to have been transmogrified into a philosophic historian who is comfortable in the application of Reason to history and who is comfortable with the idea of Reason (as it is applied from the present into the past, rather than vice-versa) as being an a priori framework within which the data of the past can be understood. What this means for contemporary Britain, as So Many Ways to Begin is here interpreted, is that social and cultural progress is achieved firstly by developing the rational understanding of the Self and by secondly projecting this as a priori Self onto the historical Other. In the novel, David Carter only achieves intellectual harmony when he can reconcile himself with being temporarily suspended, rootless (like his hometown Coventry), between the past and the future. In his union with Eleanor, a similarly rootless character, he represents McGregor’s vision for the shunting of British culture from the railroad tracks of the past, with its predetermined and inescapable destinations, to a fertile originary hub from which there are so many ways to begin.
MacIntyre, Alasdair (2007). After Virtue (USA: University of Notre Dame Press).
McGregor, Jon (2002). If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (London: Bloomsbury)
McGregor, Jon (2006). So Many Ways to Begin (London: Bloomsbury)
Hegel, G.W.F. (1956). The Philosophy of History (UK: Constable and Company)
Hegel, G.W.F. (1979). The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press)