Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel


One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

I don’t think that depictions of humans in these novels will quite be reductions to types, as in medieval narratives and epic–we have come to like our round characters, after all–but neither do I think these novels will often if at all engage in some Proustian development of character.  Nature, as these novels’ co-protagonist, could not care less about, say, whether a character is introverted or extroverted and how that might affect his or her behavior and choices, no matter how much we readers might care.  Indeed: Nature does not care, cannot care, is indifferent not by choice but by, well, nature.  It cannot be otherwise.  We may thus see a return to what might be considered, now, an old-fashioned kind of characterization but which, given the return of Nature to its preeminence in human life, might now be reassessed and be found not just meaningful but genuinely of value: what Faulkner in his Nobel Prize address, called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”  Looking at that list, there’s not a heck of a lot of room for the specifics of personality or psychology, Bakhtin’s “unrealized surplus of humanness.”  One has these attributes, or one does not–though it is true that one may have these attributes and yet choose not to exercise them in favor of some other principle (or lack thereof).

Faulkner’s list is certainly traditionalist if not masculinist in places, but (at the risk of coming across as sounding a bit traditionalist myself) I find myself wondering if Anthropocene novels might also be just as suited to explorations of those old verities and truths of the heart traditionally associated with the feminine: care, nurture, conception (especially in its older senses of understanding and imagining), a tendency to value the collective over the individual.  By which I mean that writers might also explore these traits through their male as well as their female characters.  (I note in passing that, as readers of Faulkner know, these particular verities and truths get very little play in his work.  Make of that what you will.)

My larger point here is that people will still matter in these novels . . . just not so much as to cause us to forget (because they will not have forgotten) that they live in a world that they have made at least indirectly but can no longer ignore, much less believe they can control.  It will be an older kind of novel, one not afraid to examine seriously the distinction between wants and needs, one whose economy is determined by how best and most fully to live within Nature’s means.

In the Anthropocene novel, then, Nature can re-command our genuine respect arising from a sense of wonder and mystery.  Indeed, it might not be such a bad thing for our descriptions of Nature to recover their King James/Old Testament meanings of fear and awe–and, yes, if not a movement/return toward a more culturally-ingrained religious belief, then at least toward a secularism that has ceased to believe that Science and Technology, having helped us get into this mess via granting us permission to deny and exceed limits, will save us from ourselves, a secularism that accepts that Nature always will remain to some extent unexplainable.

In his essay “The White Bird,” John Berger’s discussion of beauty (and, thus, Art) as originating in rare moments in Nature (I’ll be quoting from it as it appears in Selected Essays), is worth considering in this context, because I think it provides a way for the Anthropocene novelist to achieve those emotional states without committing the modernist/postmodernist error of rendering Nature inconsequential.  Also, if one reads between the lines, one can see by implication what Berger thinks the proper role and value of Science is in such a work:

Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature.  Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom.  Peasants, sailors, nomads have known better.  Nature is energy and struggle.  It is what exists without any promise.  If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good.  Its energy is fearsomely indifferent.  The first necessity of life is shelter.  Shelter against nature.  The first prayer is for protection.  The first sign of life is pain.  If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose was a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable.  The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine.  Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows.  Over the shanty town the moon rises.  I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context.  Reflect upon more everyday examples.  However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of.  This is why it moves us.


Art [by contrast] supposes that beauty is not an exception–is not in despite of–but is the basis for an order.


Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature.  Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally.  Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one.  It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply . . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer. (362-363; 364, italics are the author’s)

The idea of place, the interactions (ideally harmonious) of people with the physical space they inhabit, their reciprocal interdependence, becomes interchangeable with Berger’s definition of Art as “an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally.”  A real-life example that comes to mind here is Dan Barber’s discussion of the dehesa region of southern Spain in his book The Third Plate, in particular the meditation on the meaning of the word tierra.  Literally, that word means “land,” but within this context the word incorporates soil, plants, animals, and how people there have learned, over the course of hundreds of years, to manage the balance of all of this to produce its acclaimed cheeses, olives, and hams.  Tierra would be a good substitute for “place,” then.  Neither Barber nor the people he interviews for this section make this way of living seem romantic or easy; the accepting of these limitations and the giving-up of shortcuts, though–this deliberate choice to live within Nature’s means and to protect and maintain those means–results in superior, sustainably-produced foods, though in lesser quantities than could be produced via other means.

I have gone on much longer than I had intended, but I do want to make sure my larger point in the paragraph above is clear, and in so doing reiterate that Naturalism’s brute existential physics remains as a subtext in this discussion.  The Anthropocene novel is not, nor should it necessarily be, some sort of explicit call to return to the land.  Nevertheless, such a novel will always have as its basic dynamic a tension between quantity and quality, with Nature’s means serving as its mediator.  We should be clear that, while the description of the dehesa in Barber’s book is, I would say, a beautiful one in Berger’s sense of that word, we also need to be clear-eyed about the origins of that beauty, how it was attained and what sustains it: living within Nature’s means requires that people make choices about all kinds of things that late capitalism in myriad ways asks us to ignore or forestall, or persuade us to believe that we don’t have to choose at all.  Agricultural practices in the dehesa fly in the face of the ethos of late capitalism, with the result that quality is attained at the expense of quantity.  Analogously, Berger does find beauty in nature, but even as he lists examples of beauty he reminds us that it does not follow that Nature itself is beautiful: “I offer dramatic examples [of beauty] so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context.”

There will be beauty in Anthropocene novels, but it will be rare–and the people who populate them will not always know how to organize a response to it.


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