The best humor is probably the self-depreciating ones, and Englishmen are good at it. Ian McEwan’s new story The Use of Poetry 98t/24/huty/12467/06in last week’s The New Yorker can be read as such: Michael Beard, an Oxford student of sciences, who later “won Nobel Prize in physics”, is an apparent philistine and cares little about arts and poetry. Yet, being a big fat man with strong lust for life, especially the love of women, and equipped with superior intelligence, he makes himself more or less a Milton scholar in the process of pursuing a “dirty” and pretty Oxford girl who majors in English and specializes in Milton. In the end, Beard knows more about Milton than this girl does – and as it turns out, in many ways, he has a more poetic and sentimental personality.

For me, this nice little story demonstrates a kind of ongoing anxiety those who study humanities may have: all their high thinking is no match for a scientific philistine’s logic mind, or a common folk’s vulgar lust;  purity of heart is not a prerequisite for truth-seeking.

I call the story self-depreciating because Ian McEwan studied English at college. Besides, being a graduate of the University of Sussex, he writes about Oxford.