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4 October 2016

How global warming has frozen fiction

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement poses two, thought-provoking questions about how we write about climate change.

By Neel Mukherjee

Amitav Ghosh’s success as a novelist has rather obscured his exceptional non-fiction. Time may have played a part in this; his last collection of essays, Incendiary Circumstances, was published 11 years ago, and In an Antique Land, a classic now, was published in 1992. Ghosh’s fiction works with huge canvases: The Glass Palace (2000) spanned a century of change in Burma; the eye-opening Ibis trilogy, a grand projet if ever there was one, consumed a decade of the writer’s life and dealt with the British-run opium trade between India and China and the trafficking of indentured labour between British colonies. His vision is always of the big picture across geographical and temporal boundaries, of the long, hidden prehistory and surprising linkages of what we now call “globalisation”.

One can see an early foreshadowing of his new book in a long review titled “Petrofiction: the oil encounter and the novel”, which he wrote nearly 25 years ago. There he considers why the global oil trade has produced hardly any notable work in the arts, when a previous global trade with immensely far-reaching consequences, in spices, gave rise to such a rich and prolonged period of literary production. This piece, and its central inquiry, reappears in The Great Derangement as a continuing meditation on a richly productive line of thinking.

Originating in a series of lectures that Ghosh was invited to give at the University of Chicago last year, The Great Derangement, too, begins with a simple question – why have the arts (literature and fiction in particular) been unable and unwilling to grapple with the greatest crisis facing the planet, anthropogenic climate change? – and runs in thrillingly unpredictable directions with it. As he observes: “. . . ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight . . . this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which, “Stories”, delves into literary history. Ghosh’s thesis, borrowed from the literary historian Franco Moretti, that the novel came into being “through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday”, is as much a political statement as literary-historical; the form, by definition, cannot accommodate vast scales of unheard-of weather phenomena. Because “the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability”, he writes, “they are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction”.

Ghosh looks into how and why this deliberately prosaic quality of realist fiction came about, and shows how the notion of probability and the modern novel are twins and what this has meant. He draws from disciplines both far-flung and seemingly antagonistic, such as literary theory and the sciences, and borrows from Stephen Jay Gould the idea of a tussle in the sciences between the geological theories of gradualism and catastrophism, with gradualism eventually winning out. The ramifications of this for the practice of realist fiction are great.

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Then Ghosh introduces an unsettling notion that will not be unfamiliar to readers of science fiction, but incredible, in the purest sense of the term, to minds trained in the very rationality of which realist fiction is a cultural manifestation: the idea of nature as sentient, possessed of the ability to intervene directly in human thinking, to play with us, even. “Uncanny” is often the word used to describe weather events or ­environmental catastrophes in our time, and Ghosh argues that “their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognise something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of non-human interlocutors”. This idea is unsurprising to anyone who has read, say, Solaris, or the more recent Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, but Ghosh’s motives and destination are different. Just when you’re starting to think, “Hang on – science fiction has been dealing in one way or another with climate change, and with sentient non-human forces, for several decades now,” Ghosh beats you to it by addressing the problematic banishment of science fiction to “generic outhouses”.

He poses two thought-provoking questions prompted by this specific discussion. First: “What is the place of the non-human in the modern novel?” And then: “What is it in the nature of modernity that has led to this separation [of science fiction from the literary mainstream]?” His inquiry eventually goes to the heart of post-Enlightenment Western thought. In ten exhilaratingly argued pages that begin with how the materialities of oil and coal have led to very different political effects in the two economies, he moves, by way of a reflection on John Updike’s 1988 New Yorker review of Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt, to commenting on the privileging of the individual over the collective that has occurred in the conception of the novel, both in theory and in practice. The connections are at once inevitable, surprising and dazzling, the conclusion unimpeachable: “. . . at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike”.

In his second section, “History”, Ghosh surprises yet again. We know how industrial capitalism has driven climate change but he tells a complementary story about the important role played by empire. If the largest accumulation of greenhouse gases was caused by expanding industrialisation in the West at the beginning of the 20th century and if Asia’s contribution to this began only in the late 1980s, when China and India embarked on a period of sustained economic expansion, then the imperial powers may in fact have held back the world’s arrival at the tipping point of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide very much earlier, by retarding the economies of Asia through a strategy of handicapping the simultaneous industrialisation of the colonised nations.

This point, which may seem to be standard post-colonial fare, albeit with a twist, is not Ghosh’s endpoint, which lies more in the domain of thinking critically about a consumerist, industrial model of economy and its intellectual underpinnings. The transitions are seamless and have the effect of widening ripples, spreading to ever greater areas of knowledge and intellectual history, and serve to underline just how coherent his wide-ranging argument is.

The final, blistering section, “Politics”, deals with the reasons why “political processes exert very limited influence over the domain of statecraft” in the West, and how the processes of thinking that have turned fiction into narratives of identity, or journeys of self-discovery, have contributed to this. It may seem like a tenuous connection but it is not; rather, Ghosh has put his finger on something burningly important. He shows how “the public sphere, where politics is performed [my italics], has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a ­forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church”.

One of the benefits of Ghosh’s formidable powers of synthesis is his ability to keep returning us to the bigger picture; once again, there is that working on a huge canvas. The Great Derangement turns out to be not a hand-wringing, haranguing, breast-beating essay on global warming, but one of the most powerful critiques of the varied foundational systems of Western thought and the historical supremacy of Western power and culture. Sure, the familiar stuff on global warming is there – what might happen to Mumbai in the event of a category 5 storm; the hubris of building cities by water – but these are just stepping stones to a much larger, more unexpected argument about how the “distribution of power in the world . . . lies at the core of the climate crisis”.

Each page of this book contains a compressed and original idea that could be pulled out to create several theses or books: the political effects of the distinct materialities of coal and oil; the Western modernity’s insistence on its own uniqueness; oil as an instrument for disempowering the people who constitute a democracy; how the collective was marginalised in Western thinking. The Great Derangement bristles with trenchant and dense ideas, expressed with exemplary lucidity and finesse. At a time when the idea of the engagé intellectual is not just unfashionable, but in full-blown retreat, here is a book that triumphantly ­announces its return.

Neel Mukherjee’s novel “The Lives of Others” (Vintage) was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories