Literary Review

Outside imagination

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable; Amitav Ghosh, Allen Lane / Penguin Books, Rs. 399.  

There was one negative consequence of Amitav Ghosh’s major international success as a novelist in recent years: it obviously prevented him from writing any extensive book of non-fiction. This, for admirers of In an Antique Land (1992), was a matter of serious regret. But the drought is over: The Great Derangement is here.

Ghosh’s book is about droughts — and cyclones and floods. It is about climate change and thinking (or not being able to think) about it. This set of concerns should not surprise anyone who has read Ghosh’s recent novels, especially The Hungry Tide (2004), but it is a natural development of authorial concerns that distinguished Ghosh’s earliest works too.

As a major cross-generic work of non-fiction, In An Antique Land was partly about those other human routes, links, stories that are erased by dominant discourses. These small human voices behind and under the Empire-Enlightenment-capitalised ‘Human’ had also concerned Ghosh in the two novels that he had published before In An Antique Land, and they were turned into a brilliant sci-fi narrative in the novel that followed: The Calcutta Chromosome (1995). What we speak is not just our speech, as one character suggested in that novel.

With The Great Derangement, Ghosh moves from hidden human voices to the many, and even more obscured (but by no means powerless) non-human voices that echo us when we speak. And he basically asks the question: when can we learn to listen to — let alone speak with — the non-human voices of the earth that have always spoken to us as ‘humans,’ and will do so with greater urgency in an age of ‘unthinkable’ climate change?

Like most people who try to stay abreast of an accelerating world, I occasionally read books on climate change, though probably more to assuage my conscience and pamper my intellect than because I feel that I, or the books, can make a difference. Usually, the books are full of facts, numbers and figures, which are impressive, but oddly deadening. Even though Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is informed by research in the area — and in related areas like the evolving fields of Dark Ecology and Non-Human Studies — he hardly uses numbers and figures, and never succumbs to academic jargon. Instead he approaches the topic with what human beings have always used to think with most naturally and powerfully: stories.

This does not just make the book immensely readable, it also sustains Ghosh’s main axis of argument. For the book is a three-legged stool. One of the legs is the fact of climate change and our inability to think about it. The other two are its relationship to fiction and politics.

Ghosh argues that contemporary culture has largely failed to confront climate change, partly because of the historical elision of various modernities in favour of the one monolithic paradigm of European modernity, currently being toted even by supposedly West-sceptic ideologues, such as those of Hindutva. And recent fiction has failed in particular, because of its self-definition of being ‘en avant’, not despite it.

In this book, climate change is not viewed just as a crisis of ‘nature’, but also as “a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”. Not only does Ghosh (expectedly) break with the romanticism of earlier environmentalist thinkers, he also (unexpectedly) critiques the ‘moralism’ of current ones, and offers convincing grounds for it.

Climate change is uncanny, because, as is the case with the uncanny in Gothic fiction, it is the “mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms”. But being too powerful, grotesque, dangerous and accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, elegiac or romantic vein, climate change has not been fully confronted in literature, particularly in the novel, where the realist “concealment of its scaffolding of events” is essential. Magic realism, Ghosh shows, also fails in this context.

At its simplest, Ghosh’s three-legged argument can be put in these words: the uncanniness of climate change is rendered even more unthinkable in contemporary culture because of historical developments that have turned both fiction (especially the novel) and politics into just “a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery” for many people.

Ghosh illustrates this development by stitching together widely separated narratives, such as that of the construction of ‘Nature’ and the ‘Human’ in the light of Enlightenment discourses and the powerful argument that our shift to the oil economy (from a coal one) has had drastic consequences not just for climate but also for literature and politics.

As Ghosh points out, referring to Timothy Mitchell, the economy of drill-and-pipeline oil flows is far less in the hands of large numbers of workers than coal extraction and transportation used to be. This has affected literature and politics, the latter because no matter how many people march on the streets, “they cannot put their hands on the real flows of power because they do not help to produce it. They only consume.” (Roy Scranton)

This is as much a book about fiction (which Ghosh considers essential to the currently ‘unthinkable’ task of imagining other forms of human existence) and the tragedy of ‘post-political spaces’ where politics, including that of religious fundamentalism, has been “largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power” and, like fiction, become a forum for the secular venting of opinions, “a baring-of-the soul”. The main stream of Ghosh’s argument is replenished by minor tributaries that are interesting on their own; for instance, when he discusses the relationship of genre fiction (as science fiction) with literary fiction. Even his two-line aside on Karl Ove Knausgaard says more than entire (predictable) articles that I have read on “one of the literary icons of our age”.

Like a river in spate, this is a book one travels on precariously and obsessively — thinking, trusting, terrified.

Tabish Khair is a poet, novelist and critic based in Denmark.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable; Amitav Ghosh, Allen Lane / Penguin Books, Rs. 399.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 4:56:39 AM |

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