Book Review: “Literature for a Changing Planet” — A Crash Course

By Bill Marx

Martin Puchner is stumped because what is called for is a genuinely radical rethink about what role literature and literary studies should play in avoiding the global meltdown to come.

Literature for a Changing Planet by Martin Puchner. Princeton University Press, 160 pages, 18.95.

Can literature be of help in combating climate change? If Martin Puchner’s Literature for a Changing Planet represents au courant thinking in our elite English departments, then the literary assistance to come is going to be pretty timid: students are going to be advised to read a good book (preferably from world literature) as the earth burns.

Early on, the professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University makes a reasonable enough assertion: “The power of stories — seductive, misleading, and potentially transformative — needs to be harnessed to a new purpose: mitigating climate change.” Agreed. But how do writers and English professors go about doing this? Lit crit as usual isn’t the answer: there’s been superb eco-criticism for decades, but Harvard University only divested from fossil fuels earlier this year. At the end of his slim book, Puchner admits what he should have said up front: “I myself no longer feel I know what it is that we should do, only that we can’t continue as we have.” He is stumped because what is called for is a genuinely radical rethink about what role literature and literary studies should play in avoiding the coming breakdown. And Puchner, while he is obviously concerned, can’t deliver anything but bromides and uncertainty. Why?

Partly because it would mean challenging the status quo by making risky political statements, such as putting front and center stories and structures that encourage collective efforts. Instead, Puchner suggests English departments examine “the role literature has played in creating a sedentary lifestyle that is now devastating the planet.” A sedentary lifestyle — for who? Over the centuries, even in developed countries, some people have worked themselves to death to ensure that those on the top could live the kind of existence enjoyed by a tenured Harvard English professor. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an intellectual cul-de-sac: the history of literature should be read as “texts that track our evolution into sedentary creatures.” This sounds like a guilt trip for the privileged to me. Wouldn’t it be more useful to read the past in order to discover ways in which, across countries and classes, we can work together to mitigate (or withstand, given literature’s role as witness and solace) the coming catastrophe? But, as Puncher notes, these stories will feature “collective agents,” and that means giving a voice (and power) to different classes, to people on the margins, to those who have sacrificed for the sedentary lifestyle that is doing us in. And they may no longer want to play their part in sustaining that world in the stories they tell, how they are told, and who tells them. Does Puchner see the need for systemic change? At one point he suggests the creation of literature with more than one author, as in the days of the ancients. I would take him seriously if he also asserted that a PhD thesis (“Henry James and Climate Change”?) could have five or six authors — all of whom would be eligible for tenure.

Ironically, Puchner picks the Communist Manifesto as a document that might serve as a model for a unifying literary response. (A much more salient choice would have been 1972’s The Limits to Growth, a report whose accurate predictions about the climate were initially ridiculed before the book became a best-seller.) The English graduate students now struggling to unionize at their neoliberal universities will be amused by this selection. Of course, Marx and Engels stood by the workers; for Puchner, literature doesn’t necessarily take a side in the battle to overhaul our treatment of nature. Along the way he makes useful if modest suggestions: academic departments should embrace world literature, break down nationalist silos, become “curators” for stories generated by the climate crisis, and communicate the “significance” of the looming global disaster to students who are already sure to be plenty anxious about their and the earth’s future. But Puchner doesn’t identify any forces or ideas that must be overcome in order to protect this “significance,” which has yet to take hold, even among elite schools. (For example, MIT has not divested from the fossil fuel industry.) For him, it seems to come down to shifting scholarly focus and doing some reorganizing.

Puchner’s problem is that he refuses to point out villains. That reticence reflects a dogma that for generations has united every school of literary criticism: complexity is good and simplicity is bad because nuance empowers the kind of explication shelled out by experts. But perhaps we should be skeptical about this uncompromising disdain for the didactic. We are entering a war for humanity’s survival and there are dominating forces that are working — for the sake of profit and power — on the side of death. In America, oil companies, conservative politicians, and huge financial institutions will demand that their self-justifying stories be told. They will do what they can to shape the public narrative, insisting that they are not about slowing down change, but speeding it up. Their hefty bankrolls are a form of entitlement that will win them attention at academic institutions and elsewhere, on social media, magazines, TV, etc.

Culture has a vital role to play in the battle over how the power of stories should be harnessed and who should do the harnessing. Joy Williams makes a useful point in her 2001 essay collection Ill Nature:

The ecological crisis cannot be resolved by politics. It cannot be resolved by science or technology. It is a crisis caused by culture and character, and a deep change in personal consciousness is needed. Your fundamental attitudes toward the earth have become twisted. You have made only brutal contact with nature: you cannot comprehend its grace. You must change. Have few desires and simple pleasures. Honor non-human life. Control yourself, become more authentic. Live lightly upon the earth and treat it with respect. Redefine the word progress and dismiss the managers and masters. Grow inwardly and with knowledge become truly wiser. Think differently, behave differently. For this is essentially a moral issue we face, and moral decisions must be made.

You can argue, as I would, that she belittles the vital role that politics and technology must play in mitigating the climate crisis. But Williams is right that culture has an integral role to play in fighting the destruction of nature — and that includes the literary world and its academic buttresses. According to the latest UN report, nature’s decline is accelerating at an ever faster clip: we are running out of time. We quickly need to move toward cutting carbon emissions in half, as climate scientists have advised. Those in the arts committed to mitigating disaster should move with speed in ways that help build a transnational movement of popular resistance and spiritual/moral awakening. Regarding the latter, another “manifesto” that could serve as a model (referred to by Amitiv Ghosh in his  book The Great Derangement) is Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter Laudato si’, whose major theme is “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

So ditch the managers and masters and reformulate/reimagine what progress means. If literature is going to assist in the rescue of nature, it will need to mobilize its power to transform personal consciousness and inspire collective action. Together, we are going to have to become untwisted.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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