The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

04/10/16, New Statesman

The international success of Amitav Ghosh as a novelist has rather obscured his exceptional non-fiction work. Time may have played a small part in this; his last collection of essays, Incendiary Circumstances, was published twelve years ago, and my personal favourite, In An Antique Land, a classic now, was published in 1992. Ghosh’s fiction works with massive canvases: The Glass Palace (2000) spanned a century of change in Burma; the eye-opening ‘Ibis Trilogy’, a grand projet if ever there was one, consumed a decade of the writer’s life and dealt with the British-run opium trade between India and China and the trafficking of indentured labour between British colonies. His vision is always of the big picture across geographical and temporal boundaries, of the long, hidden pre-history and surprising linkages of what we now call ‘globalisation’.

One can see an early foreshadowing of this book in an essay titled ‘Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel’, which he wrote nearly twenty-five years ago. There he asks the question why the global oil trade has hardly produced any notable work in the arts when a previous global trade with immensely far-reaching consequences, the spice trade, gave rise to such a rich and prolonged period of literary production? This essay, and its central enquiry, will reappear in The Great Derangement as a related and continuing meditation on a richly productive line of thinking. Originating in a series of lectures Ghosh was invited to give at the University of Chicago last year, The Great Derangement, too, begins with a simple question – why have the arts, literature and fiction in particular, been unable and unwilling to grapple with the greatest crisis to the planet, anthropogenic climate change? – and runs in entirely thrillingly unpredictable directions with it. Here are his eloquent words: ‘… 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 … this era, which congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.’

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which, titled ‘Stories’, delves into literary history. Ghosh’s thesis, borrowed from Franco Moretti, the great historian of the novel, that the form came into being ‘through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday’, is as much a political statement as literary-historical; this form, by definition, cannot accommodate vast scales of unheard-of weather phenomena. Because ‘the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability,’ he writes, ‘they are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.’ He looks into how and why this deliberate prosaic-ness of realist fiction came about, shows us how the concept of probability and the modern novel are twins, and what this has meant for the novel. He draws from disciplines both far-flung and seemingly antagonistic, such as geology and the sciences, and borrows from Stephen Jay Gould the idea of a tussle in the sciences between the geological theories of gradualism versus catastrophism, with gradualism eventually winning out. The ramifications of this for the practice of realist fiction are far-reaching.

Then Ghosh introduces an unsettling idea, which won’t be unfamiliar to readers of science fiction, but incredible, in the purest sense of the term, to minds trained in the very rationality of which realist fiction is a cultural manifestation: the idea of Nature as sentient, possessed of the ability to intervene directly in human thought, to play with us, even. ‘Uncanny’ is often the word used to describe weather events or environmental catastrophes of our time and Ghosh argues that ‘their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of non-human interlocutors.’ This idea is unsurprising to anyone who has read, say, Solaris, or The Roadside Picnic, or the more recent ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ by Jeff VanderMeer, but Ghosh’s motives and destination are different. Just when you are beginning to think, ‘Hang on, science fiction has been dealing, in one way or another, with climate change, and with sentient non-human forces, for several decades now’, Ghosh beats you to it by addressing the problematic banishment of science fiction to ‘generic outhouses’.

He asks two thought-provoking questions set off by this particular discussion: ‘What is the place of the non-human in the modern novel?’, and ‘What is it in the nature of modernity that has led to this separation [of science fiction from the literary mainstream]?’ The enquiry will eventually go to the heart of post-Enlightenment Western thought and its first open sounding of will be in his return to the question that he posed in the ‘Petrofiction’ essay. In ten exhilaratingly argued pages that begin with how the different materialities of oil and coal have led to very different political effects of the two economies, he moves, via a discussion of Updike’s review of Abdel Rahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt, to commenting on the privileging of the individual over the collective and the aggregate that has occurred in the conception of the novel, both in theory and in practice. The connections are at once inevitable, surprising and dazzling, the conclusion unimpeachable: ‘… at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.’

Having widened and deepened his initial enquiry, he moves on to the second section, ‘History’. We know from Naomi Klein and others how industrial capitalism has driven and accelerated climate change. Ghosh surprises, yet again, with a complementary story about the huge role empire and imperialism played in climate change. It’s impossible to summarise his brilliantly nested argument and his gift for drawing disparate narratives into a unity but suffice it to say that if the largest accumulation of greenhouse gases was caused by the expanding industrialisation of the West at the beginning of the twentieth century and Asia’s contribution to this only began in the late 1980s, when China and India embarked on a period of sustained economic expansion, then imperial powers actually may have held back the world’s arrival at the tipping point of 350 ppm of CO2 very much earlier by retarding the economies of Asia through their deliberate strategy of handicapping the early or simultaneous industrialisation of the colonised nations. And yet this point, which may seem to be standard postcolonial fare, albeit with a twist, is not Ghosh’s end-point, which lies more in the domain of thinking critically about a consumerist, industrial model of economy and its intellectual underpinnings. The transitions are seamless and seem to have the effect of widening ripples, spreading to greater and greater areas of knowledge and intellectual history, and serving to underlie just how coherent his vast-ranging argument is.

The final section, ‘Politics’, is blistering, dealing with the reasons why ‘political processes exert very limited influence over the domain of statecraft’ in the West, and how the processes of thinking that have seen fiction become narratives of identity, of journeys of self-discovery, have contributed to this. Written out like that, in a review, it may seem like a tenuous connection, but it is not; rather, he has put his finger on something burningly important. He shows how ‘the public sphere, where politics is performed (my italics), has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church.’ A far cry, then, from the public sphere that Habermas had first theorised.

One of the benefits of Ghosh’s formidable powers of synthesis is his ability to keep returning us to the bigger picture; that working on a huge canvas, again. The Great Derangement turns out not to be a hand-wringing, haranguing, breast-beating essay on global warming but one of the most powerful critiques of the various foundational systems of Western thought and the historical supremacy of Western power, culture, modes of dominion. Ghosh isolates the aporia in, say, rationalist individualism, and its enabling fictions and discoveries, and unravels them. Sure, the expected stuff of global warming is there – what might happen to Mumbai in the event of a Category 4 or 5 storm; the hubris of building cities by water – but these are just stepping stones to a much larger, more unexpected argument about how the ‘distribution of power in the world … lies at the core of the climate crisis’. He is more interested in the habits of thought and cultural and economic practices that have led us to this irreversible juncture in history.

Each page of this book contains a compressed and original idea that could be pulled out to create several theses or books: the political effects of the different materialities of coal and oil; Western modernity’s insistence on its own uniqueness; oil as an instrument of disempowerment of the people who constitute a democracy; how the collective was marginalised in Western thinking. The Great Derangement is bristling with trenchant and dense ideas, expressed with exemplary lucidity and elegance; one wants to quote the entire book in a review. At a time when the idea of the engagé intellectual is unfashionable and in full-blown retreat, here is a book that triumphantly announces its return.