Writing the Unimaginable

When future generations look back at the fiction of our time, what will they make of the failure to address the crisis of climate change?

An aerial shot taken after the Chennai floods (Wikimedia Commons)
An aerial shot taken after the Chennai floods (Wikimedia Commons)


My ancestors were ecological refugees long before the term was invented. They were from what is now Bangladesh, and their village was on the shore of the Padma River, one of the mightiest waterways in the land. The story, as my father told it, was this: one day in the mid-1850s, the great river suddenly changed course, drowning the village; only a few of the inhabitants managed to escape to higher ground. Our forebears were among them. In the wake of this catastrophe, they began to move westward and did not stop until the year 1856, when they settled once again on the banks of a river, the Ganges, in the state of Bihar.

I first heard this story on a nostalgic family trip, as we were journeying down the Padma River in a steamboat. I was a child then, and as I looked into those swirling waters, I imagined a great storm, with coconut palms bending over backward until their fronds lashed the ground; I envisioned women and children racing through howling winds as the waters rose behind them. I thought of my ancestors sitting huddled on an outcrop, looking on as their dwellings were washed away.

To this day, when I think of the circumstances that have shaped my life, I remember the elemental force that unmoored my ancestors from their homeland and launched them on the series of journeys that preceded, and made possible, my own travels. When I look into my past, the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?

Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge. It is not the same as comprehension, and it does not require an exchange of words: more often than not, we recognize mutely. The first syllable of the word recognition harks back to something prior, an already existing awareness—a moment of recognition occurs when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that which we behold. Yet this flash cannot appear spontaneously; it cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other. The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.

This, I imagine, was what my forebears experienced on that day when the river rose up to claim their village: they awoke to the recognition of a presence that had molded their lives to the point where they had come to take it as much for granted as the air they breathed.

More than a decade ago, I was writing a novel set in the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta, where the flow of water and silt is such that geological processes that usually unfold in deep time appear to occur at a speed where they can be followed from week to week and month to month. Overnight a stretch of riverbank will disappear, sometimes taking houses and people with it; but elsewhere a shallow mudbank will arise and within weeks the shore will have broadened by several feet. For the most part, these processes are cyclical. But even back then, in the first years of the 21st century, portents of accumulative and irreversible change could also be seen, in receding shorelines and a steady intrusion of saltwater on lands that had previously been cultivated.

This was a landscape so dynamic, so alive—not a stage for the enactment of human history but a protagonist itself—that its very changeability led me to innumerable moments of recognition. Yet I would not be able to speak of my encounters in the Sundarbans as instances of recognition if some prior awareness of what I was witnessing had not already been implanted in me, perhaps by the experience of going to look for my family’s ancestral village; or by the memory of a cyclone, in Dhaka, when a small fishpond, behind our walls, suddenly turned into a lake and came rushing into our house; or by my grandmother’s stories of growing up beside a mighty river; or simply by the insistence with which the landscape of Bengal forces itself on the artists, writers, and filmmakers of the region.

But when it came to translating these perceptions into the medium of my imaginative life—into fiction, that is—I found myself confronting challenges of a wholly different order from those that I had dealt with in my earlier work. Back then, those challenges seemed to be particular to the book I was writing, The Hungry Tide; but now, many years later, at a moment when the accelerating effects of global warming have begun to threaten the very existence of low-lying areas like the Sundarbans, those problems seem to have far wider implications. I have come to recognize that the challenges that climate change poses for the contemporary writer, although specific in some respects, are also products of something broader and older, deriving ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.

Considering what climate change portends for our future, the subject ought to be the principal preoccupation of fiction writers the world over. It could be said, however, that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that serious literary journals take seriously. The mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction, as if climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

Climate change may be too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration, yet we have entered a time in human history when the wild has become the norm. If certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed—and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.

The subject of climate change figures only obliquely in my fiction, as well. In thinking about the mismatch between my personal concerns and the content of my published work, I am convinced that the discrepancy is not the result of personal predilections: it arises out of the peculiar forms of resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction.

In his seminal essay “The Climate of History,” the University of Chicago historian Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that members of his profession will have to revise many of their fundamental assumptions and procedures in this era of the Anthropocene, in which humans have altered the earth’s most fundamental geological processes. I would go further and add that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our commonsense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general—for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.

Throughout our history, poetry, art, architecture, theater, and prose fiction have responded to war, natural calamity, and crises of many sorts. Why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices? What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, Bangkok, and New York uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they—what can they—do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, the weather took an odd turn in North Delhi. Mid-March is usually a nice time of year in that part of India: the chill of winter is gone and the blazing heat of summer is yet to come; the sky is clear and the monsoon season is far away. But that day, dark clouds appeared suddenly, followed by squalls of rain. Then came an even bigger surprise—a hailstorm.

I was then 21 years old, studying for an MA at Delhi University while also working as a part-time journalist. When the hailstorm broke, I was in a library. I had planned to stay late, but the storm led me to leave. For no particular reason, I decided to make a short detour to visit a friend. But the weather had worsened by the time I found him, so I cut short the visit and headed straight back by a route that I rarely had occasion to take.

I had just passed a busy intersection called Maurice Nagar when I heard a rumbling somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a gray, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction.

I sprinted across the street, toward what seemed to be the entrance to a large administrative building, but the glass-fronted doors were shut, and a small crowd stood huddled outside, in the shelter of an overhang. There was no room for me there, so I ran around to the front of the building. Spotting a small balcony, I jumped over the parapet and crouched on the floor.

The noise quickly rose to a frenzied pitch, and the wind began to tug fiercely at my clothes. Stealing a glance over the parapet, I saw, to my astonishment, that my surroundings had been darkened by a churning cloud of dust. In the dim glow that was shining down from above, I saw an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past—bicycles, scooters, lampposts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls. In that instant, gravity itself seemed to have been transformed into a wheel spinning upon the fingertip of some unknown power.

I buried my head in my arms and lay still. Moments later the noise died down and was replaced by an eerie silence. When at last I climbed out of the balcony, I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld. Buses lay overturned, scooters sat perched on treetops, walls had been ripped out of buildings, exposing interiors in which ceiling fans had been twisted into tulip-like spirals. The place where I had first thought to take shelter, the glass-fronted doorway, had been reduced to a jumble of jagged debris. The panes had shattered, and many people had been wounded by the shards. I walked away in a daze.

Long afterward, I am not sure exactly when or where, I hunted down the Times of India’s New Delhi edition of March 18, 1978. I still have the photocopies I made of it.

“30 Dead,” reads the banner headline. “700 Hurt as Cyclone Hits North Delhi.”

But the unfamiliar weather phenomenon was not a cyclone, and not until the next day was the right word found: “It was a tornado that hit northern parts of the Capital yesterday—the first of its kind. … According to the Indian Meteorological Department, the tornado was about 50 metres wide and covered a distance of about five k.m. in the space of two or three minutes.” This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi—and indeed the entire region—in recorded meteorological history.

Only much later did I realize that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. That metaphor seemed apt: what had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld. And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.

As is often the case with people who are waylaid by unpredictable events, for years afterward my mind kept returning to my encounter with the tornado. Why had I walked down a road that I almost never took, just before it was struck by a phenomenon that was without historical precedent? To think of it in terms of chance and coincidence seemed only to impoverish the experience: it was like trying to understand a poem by counting the words. I found myself reaching instead for the opposite end of the spectrum of meaning—for the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the confounding. Yet these too did not do justice to my memory of the event.

Novelists inevitably mine their own experience when they write. Unusual events being necessarily limited in number, they should be excavated over and again, in the hope of discovering a yet undiscovered vein.

No less than any other writer have I dug into my own past while writing fiction. By rights then, my encounter with the tornado should have been a mother lode, a gift to be mined to the last little nugget.

Storms, floods, and unusual weather events do recur in my books, and this may well be a legacy of the tornado. Yet oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels, though not from any lack of effort on my part. On the face of it, there is no reason why such an event should be difficult to translate into fiction. Why then did I fail to send a character down a road that is imminently to be struck by a tornado?

In reflecting on this, I find myself asking, What would I make of such a scene were I to come across it in a novel written by someone else? I suspect that my response would be one of incredulity; I would be inclined to think that the scene was a contrivance of last resort. Surely only a writer whose imaginative resources were depleted would fall back on a situation of such extreme improbability?

Improbability is the key word here, so we have to ask, What does the word mean?

Improbable is not the opposite of probable, but rather an inflexion of it, a gradient in a continuum of probability. But what does probability—a mathematical idea—have to do with fiction?

The answer is: everything. For, as Ian Hacking, a prominent historian of the concept, puts it, probability is a “manner of conceiving the world constituted without our being aware of it.”

Probability and the modern novel happen to be twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience. Before the birth of the modern novel, wherever stories were told, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. The Arabian Nights, The Journey to the West, and The Decameron proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another. This, after all, is how storytelling must proceed, inasmuch as it is a recounting of “what happened”—for such an inquiry can arise only in relation to something out of the ordinary, which is but another way of saying “exceptional” or “unlikely.” In essence, narrative proceeds by linking together moments and scenes that are in some way distinctive or different.

Novels proceed in this fashion as well, but what is distinctive about the form is precisely the concealment of those exceptional moments that serve as the motor of narrative. Novelists achieve this through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers.” According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so dear to nineteenth-century novelists; they are a mechanism designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control; to give it a regularity, a ‘style.’ ” Through this mechanism, worlds are conjured up through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative.” The novel takes its modern form through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground.”

Thus was the novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday. But why should the rhetoric of the everyday appear at exactly the time when a regime of statistics, ruled by ideas of probability and improbability, was beginning to give new shapes to society? Why did fillers suddenly become so important? Moretti’s answer is:

Because they offer the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life … fillers turn the novel into a “calm passion” … an aspect of  [Max]

Weber’s “rationalization”: a process that begins in the economy and in the administration, but eventually spills over into the sphere of free time, private life, feelings, aesthetics. … Or, finally: fillers rationalize the novelistic universe, turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all.

In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert satirizes the narrative style that entrances the young Emma Rouault: in the novels that were smuggled into her convent, it was “all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves.” All of this is utterly foreign to the orderly bourgeois world that Emma is consigned to; such fantastical stuff belongs in the “dithyrambic lands” that she longs to inhabit.

In a striking summation of her tastes in narrative, Emma declares, “I … adore stories that rush breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in Nature.”

Commonplace? Moderate? How did Nature ever come to be associated with words like these?

The incredulity that these associations evoke today is a sign of the degree to which the Anthropocene has already disrupted many assumptions that were founded on the relative climatic stability of the Holocene. Unlikely though it may seem today, the 19th century was indeed a time when it was assumed, in both fiction and geology, that Nature was moderate and orderly: this was a distinctive mark of a new and “modern” worldview.

The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as unmodern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.

Indeed, these habits of mind held sway until late in the 20th century, especially among the general public. “As of the mid-1960s,” writes the historian John L. Brooke, “a gradualist model of earth history and evolution … reigned supreme.” Even as late as 1985, the editorial page of The New York Times was inveighing against the asteroidal theory of dinosaur extinction: “Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of events in the stars.” Professional paleontologists, the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes, reviled both the theory and its originators, Luis and Walter Alvarez: “ ‘The Cretaceous extinctions were gradual and the catastrophe theory is wrong,’ … [a] paleontologist stated. But ‘simplistic theories will continue to come along to seduce a few scientists and enliven the covers of popular magazines.’ ”

In other words, gradualism became “a set of blinders” that eventually had to be put aside in favor of a view that recognizes, as Stephen Jay Gould writes, the “twin requirements of uniqueness to mark moments of time as distinctive, and lawfulness to establish a basis of intelligibility.”

Distinctive moments are no less important to modern novels than they are to any other form of narrative, whether geological or historical. It could not, of course, be otherwise. If novels were not built upon a scaffolding of exceptional moments, writers would be faced with the Borgesian task of reproducing the world in its entirety. But the modern novel, unlike geology, has never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable. The concealment of its scaffolding of events continues to be essential to its functioning. It is this that makes a certain kind of narrative a recognizably modern novel.

Here, then, is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.

What this means in practice is that the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which operates outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.” Within the pages of a novel, an event that is only slightly improbable in real life—say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend—may seem unlikely. The writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.

If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life. For example, a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when an unheard-of weather phenomenon strikes.

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion where serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outbuildings that were once known by names such as the Gothic, the romance, or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

So far as I know, climate change was not a factor in the tornado that struck Delhi in 1978. The only thing it has in common with the freakish weather events of today is its extreme improbability. And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and yes, freakish tornadoes.

The superstorm that struck New York and New Jersey in 2012, Hurricane Sandy, was one such highly improbable phenomenon: the word unprecedented has perhaps never figured so often in the description of a weather event. In Storm Surge, his fine study of Hurricane Sandy, the meteorologist Adam Sobel notes that the track of the storm, as it crashed into the East Coast, was without precedent: never before had a hurricane veered sharply westward in the mid-Atlantic. In turning, it also merged with a winter storm, thereby becoming a “mammoth hybrid.” The storm surge that it unleashed reached a height that exceeded any in the region’s recorded meteorological history.

Indeed, Sandy was an event of such a high degree of improbability that it confounded statistical weather-prediction models. Yet dynamic models, based on the laws of physics, were able to accurately predict its trajectory as well as its force.

But calculations of risk, on which officials base their decisions in emergencies, are based largely on probabilities. In the case of Sandy, as Sobel shows, the essential improbability of the phenomenon led them to underestimate the threat and thus delay emergency measures.

Sobel goes on to make the argument, as have many others, that human beings are intrinsically unable to prepare for rare events. But has this really been the case throughout human history? Or is it rather an aspect of the unconscious patterns of thought—or “common sense”—that gained ascendancy with a growing faith in “the regularity of bourgeois life”? I suspect that human beings were generally catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism—a regime of ideas that was supported by scientific theories like those of Charles Lyell, and also by a range of governmental practices that were informed by statistics and probability.

In the era of global warming, nothing is really far away; there is no place where the orderly expectations of bourgeois life hold unchallenged sway. It is as though our earth had become a literary critic and were laughing at the likes of Flaubert, mocking their mockery of the “prodigious happenings” that occur so often in romances and epic poems.

This, then, is the first of the many ways in which the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era be named the “catastrophozoic.” (Others prefer such phrases as “the long emergency” and “the Penumbral Period.”) It is certain, in any case, that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.

Poetry, on the other hand, has long had an intimate relationship with climatic events: as Geoffrey Parker points out, John Milton began to compose Paradise Lost during a winter of extreme cold, and “unpredictable and unforgiving changes in the climate are central to his story. Milton’s fictional world, like the real one in which he lived, was … a ‘universe of death’ at the mercy of extremes of heat and cold.” This is a universe very different from that of the contemporary literary novel.

I am, of course, painting with a very broad brush: the novel’s infancy is long past, and the form has changed in many ways over the past two centuries. Yet, to a quite remarkable degree, the literary novel has also remained true to the destiny that was charted for it at birth. Consider that the literary movements of the 20th century were almost uniformly disdainful of plot and narrative; that an ever greater emphasis was laid on style and “observation,” whether it be of everyday details, traits of character, or nuances of emotion—which is why teachers of creative writing exhort their students to “show, don’t tell.”

Yet fortunately, from time to time, there have also been movements that celebrated the unheard-of and the improbable: surrealism for instance, and most significantly, magical realism, which is replete with events that have no relation to the calculus of probability.

An important difference exists, however, between the weather events that we are now experiencing and those that occur in surrealist and magical realist novels: improbable though they might be, these events are neither surreal nor magical. To the contrary, these highly improbable occurrences are overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real. The ethical difficulties that might arise in treating them as magical or metaphorical or allegorical seem obvious. From the writer’s point of view, it would serve no purpose to approach them in that way, because to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.

It is no coincidence that the word uncanny has begun to be used, with ever greater frequency, in relation to climate change. No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us. On the face of it, the novel as a form would seem to be a natural home for the uncanny. After all, have not some of the greatest novelists written uncanny tales? The ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Rabindranath Tagore come immediately to mind.

But the environmental uncanny is different from the uncanniness of the supernatural precisely because it pertains to nonhuman forces and beings. The ghosts of literary fiction are not human, either, of course, but they are certainly represented as projections of humans who were once alive. But animals like the tigers that prowl amid the dense forests of the Sundarbans and freakish weather events like the Delhi tornado have no human referents at all.

There is an additional element of the uncanny in events triggered by climate change, one that did not figure in my experience of the Delhi tornado. This is that the freakish weather events of today, despite their radically nonhuman nature, are nonetheless animated by cumulative human actions. In that sense, the events set in motion by global warming have a more intimate connection with humans than did the climatic phenomena of the past—this is because we have all contributed in some measure, great or small, to their making. They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.

All of this makes climate change events peculiarly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to Nature: they are too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, elegiac, or romantic vein. Because these events are not entirely of Nature (whatever that might be), they confound the very idea of nature writing or ecological writing: they are instances, rather, of the uncanny intimacy of our relationship with the nonhuman.

More than a quarter-century has passed since Bill McKibben wrote, “We live in a post-natural world.” But did Nature in this sense ever exist? Or was it rather the deification of the human that gave it an illusory apartness from ourselves? Now that nonhuman agencies have dispelled that illusion, we are confronted suddenly with a new task: finding other ways in which to imagine the unthinkable beings and events of this era.

This essay is adapted from Amitav Ghosh’s forthcoming book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of the Ibis trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize), River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire. His other books include The Circle of Reason, In an Antique Land, The Glass Palace, and The Great Derangement. This essay is adapted from his new book, Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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