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Literature in the Time of Climate Change

In between stable climate epochs or political systems, there are periods of transition that we often experience as chaos and confusion. Living in a system makes us grow accustomed to its rules and order, but when that system collapses, how do we narrate our experience?

In a talk on April 19 titled “‘Or the Madness’: Climate State Change and the Problem of Genre,” Nathan K. Hensley, assistant professor of English at Georgetown University, turned to Victorian poetry and narratives to find strategies for thought in times of transition.

The Victorians were no strangers to the collapse of systems and the birth of new ones. Industrialization, revolution, the start of a fossil fuel economy, and the new theory of evolution meant that few things felt familiar and the future was uncertain. For us today, of course, the Victorian era seems comparatively stable. The inheritance of industrialization, political revolution, and fossil fuel extraction surrounds us and warms the planet more rapidly than ever, and we feel too much in transition to articulate our experience.

Because the Victorians experienced on a smaller scale what we experience as overwhelming, Hensley sees the Victorian era as an apt place to find models for thought. Victorian writers, he argues, used strategies of improvisation and adherence to form to reconcile systems and imagine possibilities even when old frameworks fail.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for example, is a story about worldviews in conflict. The rules of politeness that guided her in her family home don’t apply, and often cause offense, in Wonderland, and leave Alice bewildered. Alice’s problem, argues Hensley, is that she tries to apply the rules and strictures of her above-ground world to the underground Wonderland, which has its own rules and knowledge.

Even as Carroll can represent the conflict of worlds once Alice is in Wonderland, it’s the transition between worlds that is unrepresentable. Hensley argued that Carroll was attentive to his inability to articulate transition and catastrophe, and thus spent a lot of time considering how to make transition visible to the reader. He settled on a system of nonverbal graphic marks to place in between Alice’s transitional scenes, and insisted that these asterisks appear in printed editions. When the boundaries of your world change and words fail, how do you mark the shift? For Carroll, narration and meaning fall away in a time of transition.

Americans observed a similar resistance to narration and meaning last fall, Hensley noted, in the news articles about Hurricane Harvey. News articles described it as a 100-year flood, and then as a 500-year flood, and then began to question what those phrases meant when the conditions which produced them weren’t stable.

Storms that could occur every 100 years when the world was cooler happened three times last year. If the world is drastically warming, the frequency of these events speed up and our frameworks for time and probability cannot be narrated with any certainty. So how do we narrate our moment? As confusion, certainly, but also as a break with a former world that heralds a transitional era. Like Alice, we don’t know what comes next, only that we are falling and that the old models don’t apply.

Although old models and forms may not serve to represent times of transition, these times also offer opportunities for innovation and experimentation. Hensley then turned to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem “Maud” as an example of poetic strategies for representing the experience of transition.

Tennyson originally titled his poem “Or the Madness,” which Hensley argues was a more appropriate title given its erratic stanzas, rhyme, and pacing. “Maud” portrays the experience of war, the end of an era, and disillusionment in innovative literary techniques. Of course, Tennyson’s contemporary critics thought it was a terrible poem. But reading it today in our own uncertain times, the poem’s instability feels familiar, and serves as a way of representing the experience of rapid transition.

Hensley also shared his personal connection to Davis. His grandfather graduated from UC Davis’ agriculture program after a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps and went on to work as a seed salesman and beekeeper. When he passed, his family established a small scholarship in his name to help students attend the agriculture program.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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