By Stefano Cisternino
In recent years, many writers have incorporated climate dynamics into the plots of their novels, driven by the need to tell the story of the ecological crisis. This mental posture, on closer inspection, simplifies the complexity of the phenomenon. We struggle to overcome it, however, because the apocalypse is a place that, paradoxically, makes us feel quite safe.
Driven by the need to tell the story of the ecological crisis, in recent years many writers have tried to bring climate dynamics into the plots of their novels. Thus, literature too, like the cinema, has begun to give space to the theme. Critics have framed this new fiction as eco-fiction or climate fiction.
Both are sub-genres of science fiction that tell of future catastrophes, and do so mainly in two ways: with dystopia and the post-apocalyptic novel. Exponents abroad are numerous, from Margaret Atwood to Ian McEwan via Cormac McCarthy. Over time, the two sub-genres have become so widespread that they have taken on a dignity of their own with respect to science fiction. As critic Carla Benedetti noted in La letteratura ci salverà dall’estinzione (Literature will save us from extinction), the two strands ”are certainly effective in making us think the climate disaster that threatens us is possible, breaking down the removal that has long made it hidden despite its scientific evidence, but they appeal to only one feeling, the fear of the catastrophe that awaits us. Moreover, contemporary dystopias – according to Ursula K. Heise, Professor at the University of California – although they try to shake up the status quo, end up confirming it, so often recycling the worn-out scenarios of past apocalypses as to make them almost reassuring.
On this theme, a book by comparative literature researcher Marco Malvestio, Raccontare la fine del mondo (Narrating the end of the world), was recently published. The issue is more or less seen in these terms: ’One of the great problems of the discourses around climate change and the Anthropocene in general is […] the tendency to represent them as phenomena […] endowed with a more visible and more easily contextualised catastrophism than these phenomena actually have’. To make it clear, the apocalyptic metaphor has certainly been useful to impress the public and politicians, but to understand the enormous implications of global warming, something else is needed. ’Activists, journalists, and storytellers,’ Malvestio continues, ’are often poised between two opposite poles: trying to recount the many and often unspectacular aspects of climate change as it is happening, or dramatising it with images and stories that, however eloquent, have little to do with it.’
We have spoken about the cognitive difficulties of human beings in understanding the climate crisis before. Now, the matter becomes a little more problematic. The climate crisis is a concatenation of phenomena, largely invisible to our eyes, which we cannot reduce to a linear on/off, beginning/end pattern. An iceberg breaking loose, a storm of exceptional violence, hotter and hotter summers, all these are local occurrences of something planetary and complex; of a hyperobject that human beings have extreme difficulty in representing – the philosopher Timothy Morton would add.
But what does he mean when he speaks of a hyperobject? Einstein’s discovery of spacetime, plutonium life, and global warming, all are hyperobjects. By this conceptual category, the English philosopher means ’entities widely distributed in space and time’. To give you an idea, the time with which the radioactive emissions of plutonium halve – that is, the time with which this element loses its radioactivity – are 24,100 years.
The peculiarity of hyperobjects is that they have certain characteristics that comprise our ability to understand them: they are viscous, due to the fact that they silently attach themselves to the beings with whom they are in relation (we have been affected by global warming for about 200 years, but have actually been aware of it – and acting accordingly – for only a few decades); they are non-local, because they cannot be perceived in their entirety, but only as a sum of partial phenomena (each local manifestation of global warming is not global warming itself, but only a part of it). Moreover, they insist on different time scales to those to which we are accustomed as human beings (7% of the carbon molecules emitted to date will still persist in the atmosphere for about 100,000 years; to make a comparison, the entire history of mankind that is studied at school goes no further back than 5,000 years, i.e. when writing was invented).
As it is, hyperobjects challenge the cognitive capacities with which we have understood and analysed the world so far. But apparently, we still use the old millenarian apocalypse story to explain and narrate the climate crisis. Why?
We love tragedy more than comedy
The apocalypse narrated by John in the last book of the New Testament tells the story of the end of the world. When the seven angels of the apocalypse sound their trumpets, the waters will turn ’bitter’, the creatures of the ocean will perish, the moon and stars will fall from the sky – burning ’like a torch’ – and finally, the sun will incinerate all mankind. In short, not exactly a pretty sight. But throughout history, we have always been drawn to it.
Over the centuries, the apocalypse has in fact been taken up in literary, philosophical, and artistic texts, so much so that it has become an adjective that has entered everyday spoken language. Today, it is one of the most frequently used qualifiers, indiscriminately, to indicate any type of catastrophe. Apocalyptic scenarios, apocalyptic thoughts, apocalyptic films, and literature are commonly written about. Even scientists’ warnings about the consequences of global warming are often branded as apocalyptic (with almost always negative connotations). Carla Benedetti writes: ’The apocalypse has provided a form of imagination and a pattern of thought that has been very influential in the West.’
How so? Why has the apocalypse fascinated and still fascinate us so much today? Or, as the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges points out, “why does the end of things attract us?” Why does no one sing the dawn anymore and no one sings the ocaso? Why does the fall of Troy attract us more than the vicissitudes of the Achaeans? Why do we instinctively think of defeat at Waterloo and not of victory? Why does death have a dignity that birth does not possess? Why does tragedy enjoy the respect that comedy does not? Why do we feel that the happy ending is always fictitious?”
“The apocalypse has always been widely accepted in the imaginations of writers because it would be linked to the idea of the end as an act accompanied by meaning.”
Writer Giorgio Manganelli tried to answer these difficult questions in a now unobtainable book, Literature as Lie, which critic Salvatore Ferlita thought (given the times) to dig out. Manganelli’s theses certainly do not conclude the discussion, but they are a reasonable attempt to answer these questions, at least in part. The apocalypse has always been widely accepted in the imaginations of writers because it would be linked to the idea of the end as an act accompanied by meaning. Put another way, the apocalypse would be perfect for giving meaning to something that continues to seem, despite everything, outrageously senseless to us: the extinction of human beings. The end of the world.
The concept of apocalypse also implies, in the background, a certain anthropocentrism: the feeling of human beings feeling ’chosen’, special, compared to other living beings; especially those of us from Western culture. Think about it: how many mass extinctions have been recorded in the history of our planet? Hasn’t the real, concrete, and violent experience of many peoples throughout history also been apocalyptic?
This also explains why it is often said that it is easier to think about the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The end of the world is a place we have inhabited for centuries and in which, paradoxically, we even feel comfortable. The end of capitalism, on the other hand, would be a leap for us, a new road that challenges our limited imagination. It forces us to find alternatives to the way we understand and narrate ourselves and nature.
Well, how do we get out of this mess? There is no single answer to this question. Some have spoken of the need for a true evolutionary metamorphosis, others of completely reformulating our imagery. Surely we have a moral duty to find new ways of narrating the changes we are experiencing. Because, as the musician Francesco Bianconi has written, ’the end of the world will not happen with explosions and cataclysms. Not even with asteroids, plagues, world wars, viruses, earthquakes. Above all, the end of the world will not happen. It is already happening’. In conclusion, confronting the abyss man simplifies, idealises, and with beautiful Love Heart Honeymoon Sunglasses hums the words of R.E.M’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).
By: Stefano Cisternino
Photography: Stefan Stefancik