The Shield of Perseus

An essay about the role of literature under the shadow of climate change, commissioned by the Free Word Centre, London.

‘Julian and Theo met among a million protesters in a rally by chance.’ The camera glances across a collage of news clippings on the wall of the house in the woods. Among them, an ageing photograph of a sea of placards, the slogan familiar: Not In My Name.

When Alfonso Cuarón adapted P. D. James’ novel The Children of Men for the screen, he laced the film with these threads of detail that link its grim imagined 2027 back to the world in which it was made. In another scene, Theo is chauffeured through Admiralty Arch into an enclave where a nostalgic England of Horseguards and brass bands is preserved against the chaos. Behind him, Trafalgar Square is filled with people holding placards that read simply, Repent!

We are halfway between those two demonstrations. So far, human fertility has not collapsed, but in other respects things are not looking great. The warnings from the scientists who study our changing climate get starker every year, yet the only year in which global carbon emissions have fallen since the signing of the Kyoto treaty was 2009, when financial crisis shrank the world economy. It would not be possible to get the countries involved in climate negotiations to sign again today the agreements that they signed in the 1990s: I heard that said, last month, by someone who has been in the negotiating rooms. It is one measure of the depth of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Those of us who work with words get asked to help and usually what is meant by this is that we should write things that help get the message across. Write a poem, or a play, or a short story that will wake people up to the depth of this mess, that will stir people to action or bring about ‘behaviour change’. The work that results is mostly bad art, because this is not how art works. As the playwright Anders Duus put it to me, ‘Our job is to complicate things.’ Not to be difficult for the sake of it, but to do justice to the strangeness and the messiness of life in a world like this, and to create the kind of space in which stories come alive. This is not helpful, if what you are looking for is a communications tool to get across the message that the world is on fire.

Meanwhile, how much of the art being made while the world burns will look irrelevant or offensive, a generation from now, given what we already knew about the mess we were in? I remember voicing that question on the evening, seven years ago, when Paul Kingsnorth and I sat down to have the first of the conversations that would lead to us writing the Dark Mountain manifesto. A passage in a novel I had just read seemed to exemplify what I was getting at. The novel was Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Another set of fictional characters are sent among the million protesters who filled London that winter’s day in 2003 to protest the coming war on Iraq. At the centre of the story is Henry Perowne, narrator, neurosurgeon, non-protester. As he drives through the clogged city, psyching himself up for a squash match, his thoughts are on the future:

If the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods… lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life-spans, wondrous machines.

It seemed that neither Perowne nor McEwan himself was attuned to the likelihood that generations to come would look back on us quite differently.

These are two kinds of failure for writers to try to avoid: on the one hand, scribbling while the world burns, producing work that seems oblivious to the seriousness of our situation, and on the other, writing words that die on the page because a sense of the duty to ‘do something’ is forcing the hand that writes them.

If our job is to complicate things, we might start instead with whatever seems to be getting taken for granted. Take this urge to get the message across. Is it really the case that the information about climate change hasn’t reached people? Or is it that we struggle to make sense of what this information means, to fit it into the frames we use to make sense of our lives? I sometimes suspect that the climate deniers have a better grasp than many of us of what is at stake: their willingness to twist evidence and turn reason inside out betrays an awareness of what it would cost to admit the alternative, an awareness that seems lacking among those who talk optimistically of the prospects for making the current way of living of the western countries sustainable.

Art is not an information technology, a tool for delivering messages, but it does have a knack of drawing our attention to the frames by which we have been making sense of our lives, disturbing these frames, bringing them into question, suggesting the possibility of other framings. This kind of activity is not immediately useful, in the way that the work of a communications department is useful, and it does not deliver anything that could be described as a solution. At most, it offers clues, it opens our eyes to paths that might turn out to lead somewhere or might turn out to be dead ends.

Over five years as an editor for the collections of new writing that Dark Mountain publishes, I read a lot of fiction that tried to tackle climate change as a subject. Love stories set against the background of international negotiations, science fiction futures set among the ruins of civilisation. Almost none of it worked. Instead, the stories that we found ourselves publishing approached this predicament obliquely. I think of the sense of loss that echoes through Nick Hunt’s unsettling tales of encounters with strange creatures. I think of Charlotte Du Cann’s ‘The Seven Coats’, a personal account of a journey through a myth.

The mythographer Martin Shaw offers an image which has helped me make sense of the difference between these two kinds of story and why the first of them fails. There are horrors, he suggests, that cannot be looked at directly, that will turn us to stone if we try. Such things can be approached only by following the dark reflection in the mirrored shield that Perseus uses to approach Medusa. This is an attitude that fell from intellectual respectability sometime around the 17th century, when such indirect ways of knowing were put away as childish things. The shadows were chased out, first by Enlightenment and then by electrification. We no longer inhabit a world of terrifying forces that exceed our understanding, or so we like to tell ourselves. Surely climate change is a problem that can be fixed with the right combination of technological, financial and policy innovations? As this framing of our situation loses its plausibility, we find ourselves clambering through the attic to dig out those half-forgotten things we put away in the corners of children’s literature or the more unfashionable genres.

The alternative is a dead language, words that turn to ashes on the tongue. Slogans we repeat because we feel we ought to, because we have to do something, even if parts of us no longer believe what we are saying. Activism can go on in this way, it often does, but this is where art has to revolt. ‘To be a good artist you have to be the person who walks into a space with integrity and tells the truth,’ says the playwright Mark Ravenhill. ‘That’s what marks you out from the audience… you are the most truthful person in that room.’

This relationship to truth does not allow for tactical calculation. If the Dark Mountain manifesto could be read as a defection from the environmental movement as we knew it, this was because that movement was coming to feel like a church whose priests had lost their faith. At rallies, you heard the same rousing speeches you had heard five years ago, but if you caught the speaker later, in a private moment, they would confess to a pessimism verging on despair. As writers, the duty to truth – not some cold, omniscient, placeless truth, but the messy, paradoxical truth that you meet in medias res – would no longer allow us to be part of this.

Who needs poetry or plays or manifestoes, when the world is on fire? I have said that art is not useful, in the way that many who are rightly alarmed at the flames would like it to be, and all of this talk about truth is liable to sound foolish. I don’t want to make any strong claims for the role that art can play, but here are a few weak, tentative, questionable ones.

The insistence on not using any language that rings false – the lifeline on which any writer who is not dead yet depends – may lead us to other ways of talking about the mess in which we find ourselves. I can’t bring myself to write about tackling climate change, or to use a word like ‘sustainability’ in the way I hear it used. What I can say is that there remain actions worth taking, actions that might set things on a less bad course than it looks like they are on. And when I need reminding of this, I can go back and reread John Berger’s essay on Leopardi and arrive again at that final paragraph, where he writes: ‘Something is always in the balance. Reality is always in need. Even of us, damned and marginal as we may be.’

The insistent probing of language may be inconvenient. It opens up holes which the agreed vocabulary had papered over. It may force us to ask whether climate change is actually the problem, an unfortunate and unforeseeable consequence of human activity which might otherwise roll onwards on its current course, or only the most obviously alarming symptom of something larger, something that needs to be defined in other terms. How far down those holes go is anybody’s guess.

Art may lead us to other framings of what is at stake. Again, I think of Martin Shaw and his way of talking about this mess that we are in:

I haven’t a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years. We can’t be sure. What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the Earth itself.

Could you get any further from the grown-up language in which serious discussions of our predicament are meant to take place? And yet, there is something here that demands admittance, a voice that will be heard. Before all this is over, we will have to find a way of talking together about loss and longing and love, again, and it will take the voice of a Martin Shaw, a Jay Griffiths or a Jeanette Winterson to call the deep words out of the private places within us.

Finally, it may even be that the foolishness of art has a role to play. Meeting activists who are preparing to travel to Paris this November, what strikes me is the contrast to the mood ahead of the Copenhagen meeting, six years ago. Then, everyone seemed to be straining to believe that one more push could do it, so that when the summit ended in disappointment, people were devastated, broken by the result. This year, at least among those I have met, the disappointment seems to be assumed from the start and this gives a different atmosphere to the mobilisation. If there is no longer a rational story about the chain of cause and effect by which our presence will help lead to an agreement, we are participating in something stranger. The risk is that it comes to resemble that flash of the crowd as the limousine passes Trafalgar Square, the placards calling on the world to repent, the classic form of political protest hollowed out into the ritual of a puritanical sect. But this is not the only possibility. Art knows something about the power of seemingly useless acts, of giving voice to desperation, and the strange kind of hope that sometimes arrives when you have given up everything. Such experiences make you no promises.

The world is on fire. None of us knows for sure where this will end. I would bet on humanity making it through the hard years that are coming, but who can say what shapes human culture will take along the way? Much that we cannot imagine living without has been with us for a handful of generations, often less – the supermarket cornucopias, the wondrous machines – but there are certain elements within our experience that seem to be as old as being human. Making images and telling stories are among them. If things turn out less badly than it often looks as though they are going to turn out, in the time ahead, I suspect that these old parts of ourselves will play some role within that turning.

Commissioned by the Free Word Centre, London.