Jesse Oak Taylor – The Work of Fiction in an Age of Anthropogenic Climate Change: Review of Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement”

An eagle perches in a landfill on Adak Island, Alaska. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This review is the first in a three-part series on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. boundary 2 also published a conversation between J. Daniel Elam and Amitav Ghosh in March 2017.   

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Jesse Oak Taylor

This article has been peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 editorial collective. 

What is the storyteller’s task in the Anthropocene? This is the question at the heart of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh’s answer is implied in his subtitle: the storyteller must render climate change thinkable, and thus, if not entirely containable, then at least survivable in a more humane manner than what Christian Parenti calls the “armed lifeboat” (qtd. on 143) scenario in which wealthy, nominally-democratic countries seal their borders against rising tides and refugees. The Great Derangement ought to be required reading for every literate citizen of the Anthropocene. It abounds with the kind of insight that is obvious only once you see it, and impossible to unsee thereafter. Whether he is pointing to the pattern of settlement in which the houses of the wealthy line the coasts, inviting the oceans’ wrath, the sheer fact that “the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming” (87), or the inversion whereby “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins are now the first to experience the future that awaits us all” (62-63), Ghosh’s point of view is infectious and estranging in the best sense, never settled, never complacent, never boring. The Anthropocene emerges from Ghosh’s interrogation an inherently imperial condition, both in origin and consequence, one demanding new language, new forms, and new political affiliations if we are to confront it with equity and justice for all.

By contrast with many recent accounts of climate fiction, or “cli fi,” Ghosh reminds us that this predicament is not an unprecedented challenge for the narrative arts. Rather, it marks a return to the storyteller’s oldest practice: “Nowhere is the awareness of nonhuman agency more evident than in the traditions of narrative,” including religious and epic traditions from Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean (64). Ghosh is careful to note that this includes not only “systems of belief, but also to techniques of storytelling: nonhumans provide much of the momentum of the epics; they create the resolutions that allow the narrative to move forward” (64). “Even in the West,” he writes, “the earth did not come to be regarded as moderate and orderly until long after the advent of modernity” (56). Hence, Ghosh imagines, “humans of the future will surely understand that, knowing what they presumably will know about the history of their forbearers on Earth, that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids are inert” (3). However, the central irony remains that “it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human” (66). Telling this old story, in which the Earth is alive, human and nonhuman histories entwine, and collective ecological responsibilities must be taken seriously thus also means untelling a different story, one in which all narrative agency lies with individuated human beings, aligns with the conditions of everyday life, and depends on the linear movement of modernity. The problem is that this other story is the only one we remember, the only one “serious fiction” can tell. Hence, “this era” [that is, our era] which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement” (11).

In making this case, Ghosh offers an ecological history of the modern novel that includes its “rise” alongside liberal individualism, capitalism, the mathematical theory of probability and (most importantly for his argument) European imperialism, all of which compound to render the novel complicit in our present predicament: “When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or Southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed in the novels of Jane Austen” (10). Similarly, he explains, “I have come to recognize that the challenges that climate change poses for the contemporary writer . . . derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the history of the earth” (7). Escaping the “great derangement” isn’t just about incorporating different subject matter into the novel, however. Instead, doing so will entail confronting the degree to which the very idea of plausibility currently rendering climate change unthinkable is both baked into and at least partly derived from the way that modern realist novels construct their worlds and hence the category of “the real” that emerges from them. For Ghosh, the problem is not simply that climate change is difficult to render realistically in fiction because it is difficult to conceive in reality, but rather that it is difficult to appreciate in reality because it violates the conditions of possibility as produced within realist fiction. Key elements of this argument include the novel’s focus on the human (as both narrative agent and scalar determinate), and its emergence alongside uniformitarian geology, industrial capitalism, and the mathematical theory of probability.

The anthropocentrism of the novel is so pervasive as to become almost invisible. It extends not only to a focus on cultivating individuality in “round” characters, but also to the scale of the narrative itself, which is usually anchored on the span of individual lives and the sensory perception of human individuals. By contrast, the Anthropocene presents a “scalar” challenge to the novel because “its essence consists of the phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space” (63). One of the key mechanisms for that expulsion, Ghosh argues, is the realist novel’s generation of narrative interest out of everyday events in a world that accords with the mathematics of probability. He writes, “probability and the modern novel are in fact twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience” (16). This is important because it connects to the distinction (as old as Aristotle’s Poetics) between “possibility” and “plausibility” in narrative. While it seems obvious that realist novels cannot contain impossibilities, Ghosh argues that they also depend on a restricted sense of plausibility, such that the manufactured coincidences upon which many plots hinge, as when Flaubert’s Madam Bovary sees her lover at the opera. Though Ghosh doesn’t say so, this focus on probability also connects to the oversimplification on which novels depend: even sprawling works like Dickens’s Bleak House or Hugo’s Les Miserables, which seem complex and overpopulated as novels, are vastly simpler than the metropolises they depict. Hence, Ghosh concludes, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real” (23).  

This eloquent and forceful account expands on the burgeoning discourse around “cli fi” in numerous ways, especially in expanding the purview beyond a narrow focus on the contemporary. It also suggests the degree to which climate change (and/or the Anthropocene) may be at odds with the narrative techniques associated with the novel, a point minimized in accounts of the rise of cli fi, which focus on the “cli” while leaving the relevance of the “fi” largely uninterrogated, and provides the basis for vital political interventions that follow later in the book, when Ghosh argues that “we need . . . to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped” (135). Insofar as that “individualizing imaginary” is the product of the modern novel (a point on which Ghosh’s account aligns with that of influential theorists from Ian Watt to Nancy Armstrong), then the modern novel does indeed have some explaining to do. However, this very point exposes one of the more perplexing features of Ghosh’s account: namely, his relentless focus on realism and the realist novel as the only paradigm for “serious fiction.” Ghosh suggest that to depart from this history by including “a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of-weather phenomenon” is to “court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence” and “risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as ‘the Gothic,’ ‘the romance,’ or ‘the melodrama,’ and have now come to be called ‘fantasy,’ ‘horror,’ and ‘science fiction’” (24). Thus, on the one hand he critiques “the modern novel” (by which he means the realist novel) for rendering climate change unthinkable while largely refusing to countenance the very modes of fiction that seem to reject the elements of the modern novel that he takes to task for its deafness to “the archaic voice whose rumblings, once familiar, had now become inaudible to humanity: that of the earth and its atmosphere” (124).

This is particularly odd given that his primary interest is not in literary history, but literary modernity. His book is as much a call for the kinds of novels that should be written today, as it is an account of the genre to date. Thus, its primary object is the landscape of contemporary literature, an era of literary history in which the alignment between “serious fiction” and realism seems especially tenuous. On this point, Ghosh’s case is at its strongest when arguing against John Updike’s dismissal of Abdel Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. In a review, Updike wrote that Munif is “insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like a what we call a novel” because “his voice is that of a campfire explainer” more interested in “men in the aggregate” than “individual moral adventure” (qtd. on 76-77). Ghosh responds, quite rightly, that “it is a matter of record that historically many novelists from Tolstoy and Dickens to Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe have written very effectively about ‘men in the aggregate’” and that “in many parts of the world, they continue to do so even now” (79). To these examples, one might add the example of Walter Scott and the historical novel, which is largely absent from Ghosh’s discussion (an odd elision given that his own Ibis Trilogy is a one of the most prominent recent examples of that genre). However, in pointing to such variety in the forms of serious fiction, Ghosh invites a similar rejoinder to his own case: if the modern novel is deaf to the voice of the nonhuman, then Moby Dick is surely not a novel and neither is Heart of Darkness or anything by Thomas Hardy. Turning to the late 20th and 21st centuries (the period Ghosh singles out for particular censure), what fiction can claim to be more “serious” than the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or Toni Morrison? The same holds true for the rise of science and/or speculative fiction and fantasy in the mid-20th century with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov or others. What about Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, and Kim Stanley Robinson? Indeed, the fact that the Anthropocene is increasingly dated to the mid-20th century Great Acceleration (its signature the residue of the nuclear bomb), suggests that speculative fiction got “serious” at precisely the moment that humanity emerged as a force within the Earth system.

Ghosh himself praises a number of these authors and laments the critical dismissal of speculative fiction, even suggesting that Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick may be remembered when other late 20th century writers “who once bestrode the literary world like colossi” are forgotten (72). However, he also participates in that very dismissal himself when he objects to magical realism or surrealism as modes for engaging today’s weird weather because “these events are neither surreal nor magical” (72). This, he suggests, not only raises “ethical difficulties” in “treating them as magical or allegorical” but also aesthetic ones, because treating them “magical surreal would rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time” (27). Ghosh levels a similar complaint against “cli fi,” which he understands to be “made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future” whereas “the Anthropocene resists science fiction” because “it is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; nor is it located in another ‘time’ or another ‘dimension’” (72-73). Thus, while at times he seems to critique the literary history of exclusivity that holds realism as the canonical basis of the novel, his own criteria for what substantive engagement with climate change in fiction would look like replay that exclusion, suggesting that only realist novels set in the historical present can fulfill the obligation of rendering the crisis both present and real. And yet, his opening example of our predicament comes from Star Wars, when “Han Solo lands the Millennium Falcon on what he takes to be an asteroid . . . only to discover that he has entered the gullet of a sleeping space monster,” a moment in which “something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive” (3). Such moments belie his own grounding assumption because they show how vividly applicable and relevant a story may be, even if it takes place on a galaxy far far away. The problem, in other words, may be less that we need a realist account of the Anthropocene but rather that Anthropocene reality is simply too weird for realism.

This critique is not intended to dismiss Ghosh’s argument altogether, tossing both baby and bathwater into the runoff from a melting glacier. Ghosh’s account does far more than most to situate the history of the novel within the emergence of the Anthropocene, and its culpability therein. At the same time, this paradoxical feature of his argument raises a question about his opening premise: namely, that the future readers he imagines combing the archives of contemporary fiction for evidence of climate change might not seek in vain. Neither Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) nor Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989), are likely appear in a genealogy of “cli fi,” and yet both explicitly feature strange weather as a signal of their historical moment, a moment that aligns with the publication of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989), the first work to popularize concern about global warming. Charles Dickens’s works are obsessed with the manufactured atmosphere of mid-Victorian London. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick not only provides an extensive account of “nonhuman forces” like the whale (and the ocean) but also offers a detailed portrait of an extraction economy in its account of New Bedford. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss situates its narrative within geological and evolutionary time and concludes (much like Ghosh’s own The Hungry Tide) with a cataclysmic flood that has been forecast throughout the book. Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ derives much of its narrative interest from the forces of wind, water, and storm. I could go on, but the key point is this: evidence of anthropogenic climate change is not absent from the history of the novel. Hence, when future readers living in “a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable” look to the literary archives of modernity I think it highly unlikely that they will find no “traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance” (11). Instead, I suspect that they will find those traces and portents everywhere. The real question is why we don’t.

If the foregoing examples highlighting the centrality of nonhuman forces within the modern novel is surprising, that is because readers approach these works with different expectations, focusing on individual characters and their domestic pursuits rather than the historical and/or geomorphological settings in which they appear. The problem, then, may not be so much with novels (or novelists) as with readers, a turn that expands culpability for the climate crisis in ways that parallel the paradoxical position of consumers and citizens enmeshed within a toxic system that exceeds us on all sides. The storyteller can only take us so far; we must also be prepared to listen. My point is thus not simply that Ghosh is insufficiently reflexive in situating his own aesthetic categories in relation to the very history he outlines, but rather that the relation between climate, atmosphere, and other nonhuman forces within the modern novel is actually reflective of the way those forces impinge upon human life itself, hovering in the background until the occasional cataclysm when they rush in and steal the show. Ghosh is right that a particular understanding of the novel (an understanding that some works of course support more fully than others), of which John Updike is an exemplar, and which emerged most distinctly in the work of Henry James. However, contrary to what its proponents have suggested, it is not and never was the only one: there are as many counterexamples to the realist-novel-as-vehicle-for-exploring-individual-consciousness as there are exemplars of it. To overplay its dominance of the novel form is thus to minimize all of these other currents swirling around in the history of the novel, currents that could well have carried us in very different directions: the might-not-have-beens of the Anthropocene.

Ghosh is a professional writer. I am a professional reader. It is thus hardly surprising that he would attend to the challenges of authorship, while I would be drawn to those of interpretation. However, livelihoods aside, there is a good reason to think more seriously about the position of the reader—and hence the capacity to reinterpret familiar works in a new way—in confronting the “great derangement.” A reader (or viewer) encountering a work of art is in a position of constrained freedom, limited not by the author’s intent but by the properties of the work itself. You can make of a work what you will, but only in terms of what the work itself affords. The same is true for the world: we cannot reinvent the Earth, even in the Anthropocene. Instead, we must make what we can of what it is, while embedded within it. Our embeddedness includes not only planetary systems, but also the webs of economics and ideology in which we are situated. We will not be given a new system, or a new story, that will make the Anthropocene easy. Instead, we must find our way, re-working the remnants left to us by the history that has brought about our present predicament. Shrugging off outmoded and toxic schemes of value, repurposing forms, genres, and histories, are all central to this work. Ghosh concludes with his hope for the future: “I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes that those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature” (162). In this, Ghosh and I are in full agreement.




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