Reading as a “Great Derangement”

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers 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 conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising 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.

So writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. This is to see reading and writing–or at least the reading and writing of “our time”–as an unwitting system of self-enchantment while the world burns. To respond to his claims about the realist novel would take a longer post than this one, but two immediate reactions come to mind–one that is probably too literal-minded and one that is too literary. 1. I don’t think that the architects of the oil industry or the culture (and industrial production) of climate scepticism rely on the efforts of individuals who have read too many books. 2. What might these museums and art and literature of the future be like, whose visitors are so enlightened enlightened that they seek for “traces and portents” of the imminent disaster? What would be a sample exhibition, or catalogue notes?


Quo Vadis, Nero and the burning of Rome, Altemus Edition, 1897. Illustration by M. de Lipman [link & permission].

It seems to me that the realist novel can endeavour to register the portents and electric hum of the future; and that the utopian novel set in the future also agitates the present consciousness in its readers into a greater alertness. Museums and archives in utopian literature tend to be neglected or disused. In H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the reader of 1895 is presented with the derelict condition of a museum in 802,701, one that tilts dangerously into the subterranean domain of the morlocks. William Morris imagined a future Nowhere in 1890, where the houses of parliament were used to rot manure and art had moved into everyday social space. Imagining improved futures, Morris was always aware, involved the recognition of the intoxications of intentional dreaming–until one day men and women would “see things as they verily are, and no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dreamtide.” Until then, writing and reading are both forms of derangement, and or becoming less deranged.

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