“The trouble with him was that he was without imagination”: On a return to American naturalism for the Anthropocene-era novel


An illustration of a scene from Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Via.

“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.” –James Eskridge, mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, an island that is now one-third the size it was in 1850. (Source)

If readers follow the link for the quote above, they will find that Mayor Eskridge says what he says above even as he was talking with President Trump about expediting the funding of a proposed jetty that, he hopes, will help mitigate the now-frequent inundation of his island by the sea.  Even occupying the space that he and his city do, responding as they are to the effects of climate change, the thing itself remains a term, an abstraction.  As Mayor Eskridge says, it is hard to see, which makes it even harder to imagine.  To which I would add that, encouraged at every turn by our culture to live in the Now and give as little thought to the past or future as possible, Mayor Eskridge easily could be–is–all of us in the collective.

Via my Facebook feed yesterday comes this fascinating short essay by Siddhartha Deb, “Stranger Than Fiction,” in The Baffler.  Here’s its core argument:

If [literary] fiction has been unable to come to terms with our steadfast rapaciousness, it is because to truly represent the ravages of the carbon economy involves understanding capitalism, and even nationalism, as failures, and this is not something contemporary fiction is capable of doing. This is why in the context of India, which Ghosh focuses on, there is almost no fiction that depicts the industrial disaster in Bhopal in 1984, or, in more recent years, the displacement of people by dams in central India or the ravaging of tribal communities by mining companies, including the uranium mining carried out in Jadugoda and that the Indian government is attempting to expand, against protests from local people, into the north-eastern state of Meghalaya where I am writing this.

In the United States too, even well meaning liberal fiction, often falling under the rubric of cli-fi, reveals itself as incapable in grappling with this. This is perhaps because to think of modern life as a failure, and to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence. An indie bestseller like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set in an eco-apocalypse, features rhapsodies on the internet and electricity. Marcel Theroux in Far North includes a paean to modern flight as one of the finest inventions of “our race,” even though the effect of air travel on carbon emissions is quite horrific.

Fiction, in other words, suffers from its own kind of anthropocenization, one that owes as much to post-war prosperity in the West and to globalization, which succeeded in universalizing the obsession with individuals, character, and interiority that dominates writing programs and its reviewing culture. Even nature, resource extraction, and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop.

As I read this, I could not help but think back to both my understanding of Bakhtin’s argument about the novel-as-genre’s essential contemporaneity (no matter its setting) in his essay “Epic and Novel,” and to Fredric Jameson’s discussions of modernism and postmodernism in the opening pages of his Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Each in its way indirectly explains, for me at least, the perceived failure of the novelistic imagination that Deb describes here, and they both got me to thinking what form the novel might take in order to grapple with the climatic (and climactic) consequences of the Anthropocene.

I find it interesting and important that the examples of narratives that Deb notes do engage in this grappling are written by Indians or Indian ex-pats, as if to suggest that one direction for the novel might be by way of pursuing to their eco-critically logical conclusions the tropes of the post-colonial novel.  That is a perfectly logical progression: colonialism, above all else, is a clear expression of capitalism, and the consensus seems to be that, all things considered, capitalism as manifested in colonies historically has not benefited the peoples in those colonies.  It may be a bit inaccurate to say that capitalism “failed” those peoples, since the colonial system was never intended to be of benefit to them.  Still, it is but a short leap, in this globalized world of ours, to argue that late capitalism has colonized all of us in some way, even the well-off among us: every time we turn on our smartphones or engage with social media or forget to disable cookies, we constantly supply, for free, the raw ore of data to be mined and processed by algorithms into information used to create or point us in the direction of real and virtual objects designed to shape our decisions and purchases.

As I read this essay, however, I kept returning in my mind to Deb’s phrase elsewhere in the essay, “imaginative fatigue,” and found myself remembering a sentence describing the anonymous subject of Jack London’s well-known short story, “To Build a Fire” (1908): “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.”  It seems to me that part of why writers for the moment have difficulty imagining the Great Climate Change Novel is that awareness of Nature qua Nature has pretty much been bred out of mainstream literary fiction’s DNA for well over a century now.  In view of this, such a novel would have to re-establish and fully embrace, make a priori, Nature’s presence as a character in it–not, however, in a Transcendentalist-like, rather benign way, but, rather, the reminder that ignorance of and indifference toward Nature will not help but lead to our collective impoverishment, if not literal demise, as a species.

Enter Jack London and the Naturalists as a possible model for an American version of this kind of novel.  But before they enter, I need to say a few things about Bakhtin and Jameson.

In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin lists, among the three characteristics that separate the novel from other genres, this one: “the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness” (11).  He will go on to say that, whereas epic is located in an absolute past–a past that is distant even from the narrator–the novel, no matter its setting, achieves its contact with the present through heteroglossia, its multi-voicedness among and even within characters, not to mention the narrator and author:

An individual cannot be completely incarnated into the flesh of existing sociohistorical categories.  There is no mere form that would be able to incarnate once and forever all of his human possibilities and needs, no form in which he could exhaust himself down to the very last word, like the tragic or epic hero; no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet at the same time not splash over the brim.  There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness, there always remains a need for the future, and a place for the future must be found.  All existing clothes are always too tight, and thus comical, on a man.  But this surplus of un-fleshed-out humanness may be realized not only in the hero, but also in the author’s point of view (as, for example, in Gogol).  Reality as we have it in the novel is only one of many possible realities, as it is not inevitable, not arbitrary, it bears within it other possibilities.  (37)

This is a distinctly modern (in its historical sense) understanding of individuals, of course, as befits the emergence of the European novel itself in the 17th century.   As our cultural and socio-political attention shifted toward the doings of individuals and how they conform or not to various paradigms, Nature necessarily began to recede into a literal and figurative background, at least in the European novel.  (Some Latin American and Caribbean critics argue that the cultural productions of those respective regions cannot be understood apart from the brute fact of the land, and I find myself sympathetic to that argument; I’d also include the United States in this argument–it’s certainly true of U.S. literature up until around the turn into the 20th century.)

When this receding of Nature was complete, according to Jameson’s materialist definition,

Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.  It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which ‘culture” has become a veritable “second nature.”  Indeed, what happened to culture may well be one of the more important clues for tracking the postmodern: an immense dilation of its sphere (the sphere of commodities), an immense and historically original acculturation of the Real, a quantum leap in what Benjamin still called the “aestheticization” of reality (he thought it meant fascism, but we know it’s only fun: a prodigious exhilaration with the new order of things, a commodity rush, our “representations” of things tending to arouse an enthusiasm and a mood swing not necessarily inspired by the things themselves). (ix-x)

In such a space, that of individuals fascinated with their excesses of selves, that of culture and built environments becoming our self-made habitats, Nature is “gone,” indeed–not in the sense of having been physically eliminated but in that of no longer demanding much of our attention, except via the occasional cataclysm or alligator eating a poodle in a back yard of recently-reclaimed swampland or federally-designated wilderness areas or, in the case of Tangier Island, Mayor Eskridge’s seeking expedited funding for a jetty to mitigate that island’s inundations by the ocean despite his professed inability to see that which causes him to want to have that project constructed sooner rather than later.  Even at the edge of the ocean, Nature qua Nature has become semiotically invisible to us.  Not seeing, not being able to imagine, is perhaps is a kind of anti-aestheticization.  We didn’t make Nature, only its representations, so we can’t see it.  Except: the point of the sort of novel Deb says we are not producing is precisely that in some sense we have shaped, though we cannot control, the Nature that would appear in such novels.

In the following paragraph from “To Build a Fire,” we can see that the anonymous man bears a striking resemblance to Mayor Eskridge regarding their respective musings on the world they find themselves in:

But all this – the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all – made not impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer to the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head. (Source)

The man is a cipher: about him we know only that he is traveling to meet friends that evening and that he has been warned not to travel alone in such cold weather.  His mind full of ciphers that signify temperatures and, elsewhere in the narrative, times and distances those numbers, but nothing more to him than those things.  (Similarly, Mayor Eskridge knows his city needs a jetty; in an odd way, though, beyond the immediately-obvious reasons, he does not by his own admission see the reason.)  The man in London’s story is far from Bakhtin’s “unrealized surplus of humanness” and thus is able to stand in for most all of us.  It strikes me that such a figure or, rather, many such figures, would be crucial for the final thematic success of a novel whose subject is the consequences of humans’ actions on the planet’s climate: no one person’s decision or decisions have led to the planet’s warming and its overtaxed capacity to sustain us as we would wish; billions of us, scattered all over the earth and unknown to each other, over many, many decades, have collectively acted in our own, narrow, anonymous self interests, quite literally without thinking, and certainly without imagining the cumulative consequences of all of those choices.

Nature, meanwhile, could not be more present in a narrative than it is in “To Build a Fire,” no more full of indifferent, mute significance; we see the man attempt to reduce it to data points (about which we learn, though he never does, that he is badly mistaken) that to his mind do not signify beyond themselves, much less have any sort of bearing on his physical or existential condition.  Yet the man’s failure to survive seems to teach us that our ability to measure Nature will not alone preserve us.  Nature cannot, will not be ignored, and that those who through their actions attempt to do so will perish sooner than they might otherwise.  Nature simply is in London’s narrative; despite some anthropomorphizing by the narrator, Nature is depicted as neither more nor less than what it is.  This sort of depiction, a “Nature is gonna nature” depiction, is what the world of the great novels of the Anthropocene will require, because that is the world we are now living in, whether we desire that or not.

Such a depiction of Nature is clearly well within the capacities of Naturalism as practiced by London.  As Deb notes in the passage from the essay I quoted earlier, “to think of modern life as a failure, to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence,” because “[e]ven nature, resource extraction, and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop” in the contemporary novel, means a retreat from the assumptions of the modern and postmodern novel.  From here on, if the novel is to be true to the world and what we are making of it, Nature–not just climate but topography and, above all, a sense of place (that is, the interaction between the land as found and the people who live there) that transcends nostalgia or stereotype–must Matter.  Naturalism might be able to show us the way toward such a novel.

One thought on ““The trouble with him was that he was without imagination”: On a return to American naturalism for the Anthropocene-era novel

  1. Pingback: Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel | Domestic Issue

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