We run into hurdles of all kinds when trying to deal with the climate crisis. There are of course the many economic and political challenges that come in the way of every attempt of ours to respond to this problem: the challenges posed by our complete dependence on the carbon economy on the one hand, and by political systems sustained by such an economy on the other. But more than that, it’s the crisis of the imagination that limits, even hampers, our understanding of the subject. We lack the language — the metaphors, the imagery, the words — fit enough to engage with disaster scenarios like melting glaciers and rising sea levels. And whom do we blame for this crippling deficiency if not our greatest wordsmiths?
Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, The Great Derangement, is a j’accuse issued against all those literary writers who abdicated their social responsibility by being indifferent to the climate crisis — by far the greatest predicament facing humanity. Why did someone like John Updike, for instance — a writer of superhuman erudition and curiosity — never address this subject in his writings, most of all in his novels?
The modern novel has always been adept at looking inwards — it celebrates the Self and regards the “collective” with suspicion, even distaste. And climate change isn’t something you can write about without looking out at the world. At one point in The Great Derangement, Ghosh cites a few lines from one of Updike’s reviews, where the latter defines the novel as an account of an “individual moral adventure” that is unconcerned with “men in the aggregate”. While this may sound like the form itself has certain inbuilt limitations, Ghosh rightly takes issue with such a narrow view of how the novel can be defined.
As he writes: “...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’.”
So why should contemporary novelists — or, in Updike’s case, near-contemporaries — be any different? And why is it that the coming climate catastrophe barely figures at all on our cultural radar?
The 20th-century split between the high arts and sciences is another explanation that Ghosh offers in this context, though he fails to mention the great “Two Cultures” debate between C.P. Snow and F.R. Lewis. As many would remember, Snow was the one who advocated the miscegenation of the arts and sciences, while Lewis, with puritan resolve, dreamed of a literary sphere free from the certitudes of scientific theory. Today, any work of fiction grounded in science or technology is relegated from the literary mainstream to what Ghosh identifies as the lower cultural rungs of sci-fi or genre fiction. That in itself is one aspect of the larger problem.
Writing about nature — natural catastrophes in particular — is another. One of the most intriguing bits in this book involves an autobiographical account of the author helplessly trapped on a Delhi street after the city is impacted by a rare weather phenomenon. On 17 March 1978, the national capital was struck by a sporadic tornado, which turned parts of the city upside down and led to some 30 fatalities. (That we rarely get to read about this freak event, in magazines or books, further testifies to Ghosh’s central thesis.)
One of the most intriguing bits in this book involves an autobiographical account of the author helplessly trapped on a Delhi street after the city is impacted by a rare weather phenomenon.
“Glancing over my shoulder,” he writes, “I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction.” Crouched on the floor behind a parapet, Ghosh bears witness to “an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past — bicycles, scooters, lamp posts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls”.
It’s a powerful scene of devastation, expertly described. Still, the author admits that he has been, for all these years, at pains to translate this first-hand experience into the fictional domain: “... no tornado has ever figured in my novels.” And here we return to the creative anxiety that hinders writers from depicting grand catastrophes in literary fiction — a condition that the author of the present book, by his own admission, also suffers from.
In the latter half of the book, the focus shifts from literature to the history and politics of the climate crisis. The attempt throughout is to actually establish links between the cultural, historical and political interpretations of this subject — an approach pioneered by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose work Ghosh routinely draws upon in The Great Derangement.
Another recent document explored a similar approach. It was written not by a poet or novelist or historian, but by a religious leader. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter on climate change, called Laudato si’, was acclaimed the world over for its clear-sightedness and honesty. It remains required reading for anyone choosing to seriously engage with this subject. The closing pages of Ghosh’s book present a comparative literary analysis of sorts, with the Laudato si’ held in contrast to that other landmark climate-change document of our age, the Paris Agreement.
“The Encyclical,” he writes, referring to the Pope’s letter on climate change, “is remarkable for the lucidity of its language and the simplicity of its construction; it is the Agreement, rather, that is highly stylized in its wording and complex in structure.” The level of complexity and postmodern chicanery found in the Paris Agreement — one sentence in the document, Ghosh tells us, runs to 15 pages — are all products politico-corporate machinations, of vested interests pushing their case. The Agreement is composed with the kind of language that draws its vocabulary from Orwellian doublespeak. As The Great Derangement emphasises throughout, the crisis of language is at the heart of every human predicament. And now, if our writers are not leading the way, we’re more than doomed.