Reading for Change

You’ve done your progressive best to keep up with the Joneses. You planted the NO HATE HERE placard on your lawn. You voted to defund the police. You defended the right of every fourteen-year-old girl to the privacy of a government-funded double mastectomy to go with her buzz cut. Now it’s summer! The kids are back with ambitious reading lists. Treasured novels lie strewn about the pool deck. Unfortunately, though, your first-born has just finished his freshman year at Harvard, and, boy, does he have some sobering news. “Morally serious people,” he informs you, his eyes landing with disdain on a paperback copy of The Hobbit, “do not encourage children to read for pleasure.” Literature? How passé!

It turns out that, in the view of Martin Puchner, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, we must focus on saving our planet with a single-mindedness that leaves no space for enjoying a classic tale. As Puchner explains in his little book Literature for a Changing Planet, “Nothing is more significant than environmental change.” Because this is just so, we need to recognize “the role literature has played in creating a sedentary lifestyle that is now devastating the planet.” We need to “zoom out” and see the “big picture.” 

For instance, “literary scholars need to become conversant in the history of agriculture and other forms of resource extraction, from ancient Mesopotamia to the postindustrial age.” We need to embody the “incipient planetary consciousness” of a new “collective agent,” a world historical figure who speaks for our collective values. Puchner, a recent editor of The Communist Manifesto, has published a manifesto of his own. 

It’s a lot to take in. Before we can join together with the band, that is to say, before we can proceed with confidence that Literature for a Changing Planet is not a Shih Tzu barking up the wrong tree, we must share a feeling deep in our bones. “There can no longer be any doubt that something terrible is happening.” We must tilt and sway to the following incantation: “humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction.” We must swell with anger at how the patience of climate scientists has been villainously abused: “For the past forty years, their strategy had been to do better climate science, assuming that improved models and more accurate predictions would translate into appropriate changes in policy and behavior.” 

In a work that rails against “resource extraction,” the dramatic irony is Puchner’s brutal exploitation of the resource of great literature, his drilling into its last reserves of institutional power, which he wants to “use,” and on which he wants to bend his “tools.”

Granted, if we absorb the perspective of a contrarian book like Steven Koonin’s Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, Puchner’s premises will look suspiciously like what Koonin calls “unsupported hyperbole.” In that case, we may prefer a more nuanced picture of our serious environmental dilemmas. Or, we may prefer to return to our bookshelves, where great literature awaits us, as the Muses have always awaited us, as a rest and a respite from the bitterly hard challenges of life.

“Reading environmentally,” Puchner enthuses doggedly, “will allow us to seize four thousand years of literature and use it for our own purposes, which is nothing less than to redefine our relation to the environment.” Puchner’s specialty at Harvard is “world literature,” and the term has a flexibility that suits him. All literature is corrupt: a “deeply complicit form of expression,” a “by-product” of “city life” that has unwittingly advanced our form of civilization and hence our ecological ruin. National canons of literature are bad because they encourage nationalism, which drags against solving climate change. Individual authors are bad because they discourage collective thinking. Literature, when viewed from the current moment of crisis and its transvaluation of values, is merely a fortress of false consciousness. It must therefore be leveled—exposed and corrected by students of…literature. They must read it “against the grain,” if it is to have any real value at all. 

In a work that rails against “resource extraction,” the dramatic irony (“if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles”) is Puchner’s brutal exploitation of the resource of great literature, his drilling into its last reserves of institutional power, which he wants to “use,” and on which he wants to bend his “tools.” To be clear, great literature is already an endangered species in the academic wilderness. Puchner rightly acknowledges that his professional ambition—in effect, the extinction of imaginative literature for the sake of a greener world—“coincides fatefully with the decline of the humanities.” Some will say that he is not guilty of wishful thinking: “By trying to help save the planet, the humanities might manage to save themselves.” “Bravo!” they cry. “That’s the stuff!” These curious defenders of the humanities, who somehow remind one of the advertising people at Theranos, know where things are going: many of them will go on to staff government positions with great confidence. Puchner speaks for them: “All is changing now as a gathering sense of crisis is putting all disciplines and areas of knowledge on the alert.” All is changing now. These are magical words, indeed.

From a scholarly perspective that reaches back only a few decades, one might identify Puchner’s severe form of ecocriticism as a kind of “sixth mass extinction” in its own right. With a nod to Elizabeth Kolbert, author of that ominous tract, one could observe five previous extinctions of literature in the Anthropocene. These take the forms of Marxism, deconstruction, gender and women’s studies, postcolonialism, and critical race theory. The previous extinctions started with their own meteoric versions of “nothing is more significant than X.” (Deconstruction simply says, “nothing is significant.”) But to give credit where credit is due, it is the Marxist meteorite that has left the biggest imprint and set the standard for all the other extinctions. A few old dinosaurs, such as Harold Bloom and Christopher Ricks, survived the environmental upheaval for a time, but the literature classrooms have been overrun by clever mammals who are good at “resource extraction.” 

I suspect that many of us have pondered the relation between the despair of American college students and the exhausting politicization of the humanities.

As mentioned, Puchner is a student of Marx, whom he credits as a pioneer in the field of world literature. He ends Literature for a Changing Planet with an allusive flourish: “Humans have shown that they don’t simply produce literature to feel good about themselves but also to face hard choices….Is it time for storytellers of the world to unite?” The question echoes Marx’s famous conclusion: “Working men of all countries, unite!” The cool bit about “hard choices” has to my ear a number of eerier resonances, for example, “The conscious acceptance of death in the necessary murder.” W. H. Auden repented having written “Spain,” with its Marxist endorsement of bloodshed. Unlike Marx, Auden lived to see the global consequences of Marxism. I cannot imagine what excuse Puchner could make.     

From the furnace of ideology, Puchner forges and hammers his pivotal treatment of the ancient Sumerian tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh. As you will recall, the story centers on the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his closest friend, a raw human creature named Enkidu. Similar friendships in the epic tradition include Achilles and Patroclus, and Beowulf and Wiglaf. Set against Gilgamesh’s ties to his home city, Enkidu’s wilderness origins evoke another set of figures: Romulus and Remus, Spenser’s Satyrane, Frazer’s rex Nemorensis, and Kipling’s Mowgli. When Enkidu dies after their return from the primeval forest and their battle against its guardian, Hambaba, Gilgamesh is overwhelmed by grief. He leaves the city in search of Utnapishtim, the Noah-like figure who knows the secret to eternal life. Gilgamesh fails in his final quest. The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with a profound poem on human mortality and the funeral rites of the king. 

Reading “against the grain,” Puchner argues, “The mythical venture to the forest and the battle with Humbaba are in fact nothing but an elaborate logging expedition, extracting a resource that is crucial for building cities.” In his structural analysis, Puchner focuses on the epic’s descriptions of the impressive wall of Uruk: “what the epic draws between humans and humanlike wildings isn’t a line: it’s a wall.” This binary, in Puchner’s interpretation, entirely (and catastrophically) privileges the city over the wilderness. What we need, in his view, “is a new reading of this foundational story, one that doesn’t believe in the wall and recognizes that what sustains the city inside the wall is the resource-rich environment outside of it.”

 I would reply that the complexity and richness of this epic stem, not from a black-and-white opposition of city and wilderness, but from a dialectical design—a movement towards artistic unity—that continually explores how the wilderness returns, reentering and redefining humanity. “There is no permanence,” Utnapishtim explains. “Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?” The Ovidian and Circean magic of the goddess Ishtar highlights our terrifying and beautiful animality. What Puchner labels a “logging expedition” is more intelligently grasped as a version of the Fall. To follow Puchner’s refined “new reading,” students must pay a terrible price: they must suck the soul out of literature and zipper their minds shut.

And what of those poor, defrauded students? Will they ever even know what hit them? Watching Puchner take his wrecking-ball to world literature, I was led to reflect on the widespread mental health issues on college campuses. I suspect that many of us have pondered the relation between the despair of American college students and the exhausting politicization of the humanities. Humanities courses should help students to cultivate self-knowledge and come to emotional grips with their history. But these courses have largely been taken away from them, generally in the name of social justice, and now in the name of climate justice. And as Mark Bauerlein has shown us, stupefying technology has combined toxically with this academic fever. 

Among the great autobiographers and their celebrated nervous breakdowns, the case of J. S. Mill comes to mind. Mill never abandoned his crusade for the greater good. But it is instructive that a man of such analytic sensibility, raised in the intellectual hub of Utilitarianism, discovered through immense suffering—when he was himself the age of a college student—that his social commitments were not enough to sustain his psyche. 

“Suppose,” he asked himself, “‘that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’” Mill continues: “an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to be found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm…..I seemed to have nothing to live for.”

The cure is imaginative literature and its emotional sustenance. Wordsworth to the rescue! And Wordsworth, as Mill notes, is of special interest as a poet of nature. It is impossible to read him without increasing one’s feeling for the natural world. 

The reality is that much of our literature sensitizes us to our environment. One recalls famous passages from the Hebrew Bible and from Homer: 

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. (KJV)

There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
and the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full
and there the constellations, all that crown the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades, Orion in all his power too
and the Great Bear that mankind also calls the Wagon.  (trans. Fagles)

This tradition lives in the distinguished work of the Irish poet Greg Delanty, whose recent collection No More Time conveys a sense of environmental urgency through high art that is nourishing for the soul. No More Time is the kind of book that might satisfy educators without zombifying the young. Students might read it alongside The Lord of the Rings and The Canticle of the Sun. Delanty’s “Trees” ends with the trees imploring us: 

You are our sisters and brothers.
Without us you’re nothing; without us
You will be nothing.
Save us. We are the ventriloquists of silence.

It is a saving silence. Literature can help us save the planet, but only if we approach it as literature.