First, thank you all for your kind and supporting words and respectful dicussion regarding the election. I will try to reply to each comment but there are so many it might take a few days!
Now for a book reivew!
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh began life as a series of four lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in 2015. The resulting book is broken up into three sections: Stories, History, and Politics. Each section focuses on its given topic, but as you would expect, there is much intermingling and a definite argument is developed throughout.
The Great Derangement is a unique book in the tower of climate change books. Ghosh is, after all, a novelist, not a scientist or a journalist. And his book, while taking on big subjects like capitalism, empire, militarism and politics, can actually be read as literary criticsim. The criticism is not so much of specific texts, though he does make an insightful analysis of the the Paris climate change agreement and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ encyclical, but focuses more on what he sees as the failure of literary fiction to address climate change. Ghosh also has a valuable position of being a non-western author whose work has had success in the west. Born and raised in Calucutta, India, he now lives in New York and offers a cross-cultural perspective that is not often found in climate change books, at least ones in English.
In his argument Ghosh ties the development of the novel to the rise of industrialization. As industrialization grew, so did the middle class and so did the belief that we had tamed nature. The novel turned to realisim and a narrative that was as reliable and predictable as middle class life. There was no longer any place for the wild and exceptional. This made me think of how many times I have heard authors tell a story about something so weird that they could not put it in a novel because it would be unbelievable. Our ideas of what constitutes realism in a novel have no room for the weirdness that is real life. It is a failure of the imagination according to Ghosh.
Ghosh acknowledges that climate change is a major subject in science fiction and fantasy novels, which is good because at least someone is writing about it. However, there is the sticky genre issue that pushes science fiction and fantasy to the side and marks it as not literary or serious, not worthy of mainstream attention. It didn’t used to be this way. As the novel was developing science fiction and fantasy were not seperate from literature. Their separation from the mainstream was a slow and gradual process brought about by a growing division between science (nature) and culture. When industrialization became advanced enough that people believed nature had been conquered, when being free also meant being free from the unpredictable tyranny of the natural world, then culture became a wholly human thing that had no room for fantasy and wild imagination. The aim of literature turned to the “real” and portraying the everyday mundane events of a bourgeois life.
This is not to say that climate change has been completely ignored by literary fiction. Ghosh cites Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Liz Jensen’s Rapture as two novels that have overcome the challenge of depicting climate change in literary fiction. But why does it even matter that there are so few novels that have been able to address climate change? Because literary fiction’s inability to do so makes it complicit:
Is it possible that the arts and literature of this time will one day be remembered not for their daring, nor for their championing of freedom, but rather for their complicity in the Great Derangment? Could it be said that the ‘stance of unyielding rage against the offical order’ that the artists and writers of this period adopted was actually, from the perspective of the Anthropocene, a form of collusion? Recent years have certainly demonstrated the truth of an observation that Guy Deord made a long time ago: that spectacular forms of rebelliousness are not, by any means, incompatible with a ‘smug acceptance of what exists…for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity.’
One of the pleasures of Ghosh’s book is his calm, measured tone. He is matter-of-fact about the reality of climate change — his goal here is not to convince his readers it is real, he assumes we are all in agreement on that. Nor is he out to make accusations or get anyone riled up, though he employees strong arguments that the west’s empire-building colonial military dominance, forged during the Enlightenment, is the root cause of climate change. There is a depth of compassion and understanding as he assesses the literary landscape and finds it wanting. He even admits that he is guilty of not writing about climate change in his novels too. He offers no solutions other than suggesting we all have to work together to figure it out because it will only be solved by a collective, not individuals:
The struggle for action will no doubt be difficult and hard-fought, and no matter what it achieves, it is already too late to avoid some serious disrutptions of the global climate. But 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 than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of this 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.
Ghosh provides much food for thought. He challenges us to create a different kind of literature, one that embraces the imagination and includes both the human and nonhuman, one that opens up possibilities and envisions more ways of being human than literary fiction currently allows. It is a challenging and invigorating argument and I wonder, will writers take him up on it?