This essay is a speculative reflection on literary fiction’s—and notably the contemporary French novel’s—ability to register the effects of climate change. The first half engages with Amitav Ghosh’s thinking on this question in his 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The second examines Marguerite Duras’s Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) as a novel about rising sea levels and discusses what it might mean to read this classic in these terms. The essay then considers which works today might be Duras’s successors and what such a refocusing of our sights on the material effects on the earth of fossil-fueled capitalism and empire implies for reading today.
As Paris was preparing to host the twenty-first United Nations Climate Conference (cop 21) in the last week of November 2015, the daily newspaper Libération devoted its Thursday literature supplement to the global climate crisis, inviting writers to contribute short pieces imagining the state of the earth thirty-five years hence, as might unfold from the Paris agreement (or weakness or failure thereof). In the editor’s words that framed the issue:
In spite of their mountains of statistics, experts fail to forecast the future. Thanks to their nonrational antennae, writers sense it. They intuitively trace real dangers and reasonable hopes: their method is much more trustworthy. This is why Libération wished to present, through their eyes, a poetic, imaginary vision of the world that awaits us with climate change and cop 21. What will happen if the conference succeeds? And if it fails? In what ways will our lives be overturned? What kind of society will it take to enforce the ecological imperative? On all these questions, science provides answers that are few and contradictory. Here, we give the floor to literature. (Joffrin ii; my translation)
The fourteen stories of “Spécial: Climat des écrivains” present a soberingly restrictive gamut of plotlines: there are those that the prompt forces into an uneasy utopian globalism (earth saved from the brink by an implausible heroic act, a desperate attempt to save both world and protagonism); others, while staying local, explore variations on the theme of ecofascism or ecodystopia (world saved from ecological disaster but at great social and political cost). Then there are four stories—the more literary of the lot—that depict a world that has not known how to avert disaster. In these pieces—by Pierre Bordage, Fabrice Humbert, Alain Mabanckou and Lyonel Trouillot—there is work on form and register (voice, discursive regime, irony), a nonsimple relation between problem and solution, and a reluctance to redeem humans or to imagine a human agency or fate separable from mass structures and historical faultlines: global socioeconomic inequality, capitalism and empire, the military-industrial order, civil conflict, donor fatigue, contempt for and fright of refugees. Notably, Mabanckou and Trouillot (significantly, the two writers in the issue to hail from formerly colonized nations—Congo and Haiti), by the very narrative conceits they adopt, preclude the possibility of a place of intactness or wholeness within the anthropos from which to speak of the state of the earth in 2050. Mabanckou’s story ascribes its narration to a porcupine elected to lead the world;1 Trouillot gives the floor in his more chilling tale to a state functionary reporting on the success of corporate and military efforts at repressing discontent in regions struck by severe drought and famine. What strikes one about these stories is at once banal—Narratology 101—and devastating: both stories are about last tellings rather than last happenings (récits de paroles rather than récits d’événements, to recall Gérard Genette’s distinction),2 each a tendentious report delivered by a voice embedded and imparted on an earth that can less and less sustain human voices, stories, lives. True, in the Mabanckou, the telling is framed by a short theatrical or “didascalic” opening that registers the setting and allots the voice: “It is [nous sommes en] 2050 [ . . . ]. Faced with the failure of men, a porcupine has been elected to lead the world and, from the top of a hill to the entire world, it delivers its first speech.” Trouillot’s story, opening on a title that implies an outer frame—“Mission Report from the Inspector General of the Dry Regions”—more subtly produces the same unease. Who or what goes there? Who or what could possibly speak extradiegetically, at the end of our story, as if from the outside, to tell the story of the end? Such a framing is itself an aberration, something unconvincing and ghostly, the ladder the porcupine should have thrown away once it had reached its perch. It is as if form, as the last frontier, were striving, in the last instance, like a human shield, to salvage something of content, that is, of human world. I indicated there were four stories that were darker and more literary in their projections. The other two elect not to put in crisis narrative regime, voice, or point of view; both “L’enfant et la mer” (Pierre Bordage) and “L’enfant-poisson” (Fabrice Humbert) imagine the end of tellings rather through plot and setting (récit d’événement) by depicting an earth increasingly under seawater: storytime submerged.
Libé’s “Spécial: Climat des écrivains” supplement was one of several readings in the last few years that left me pondering over literature’s ability to relate our earthly predicament. One should think that all literature does this, but then, does it really? Amitav Ghosh’s argument in his much commented recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) is, on the contrary, that climate change poses peculiar forms of resistance to serious literary fiction, so that “the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel” (7). Ghosh’s book is an attempt to understand this disturbing blindness in contemporary realist fiction to massive, life-threatening phenomena:
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 to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing 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. (11)
In the course of his book, Ghosh soberly recalls that the history of the novel as a genre is inseparable from that of carbon capitalism. The longue durée, cataclysmic events, and decisive power of nonhuman agents accommodated by older narrative traditions—the epic, fables, folk tales, oral literature, religious texts, parables—would give way in the novel to the predictable regularity and sophisticated imaginary of everyday bourgeois life. Places and times were “realistically” delimited so that they no longer connected vitally with the spatialities and temporalities of the earth itself. Rather, the novel told of the individual itineraries and predicaments, aspirations and disenchantments, political and sentimental relations shaped and sustained by the West’s cities and their social and material infrastructures, themselves in turn enabled and supported by an increasingly fossil-fueled and capital-intensive system of production, distribution, and consumption. As carbon emissions accelerated, surmises Ghosh, and the fossil-fuel-intense form of modernity suppressed all others to gradually become the dominant system worldwide, the novel became a world form: increasingly serious, formally experimental, self-reflexive, with novelists intensely politically engaged, this political intensity rising in exact proportion to novels’ increasingly exclusive, idealist, intransitive, “progressive” concern with human destinies, human consciousness, and human time. “[I]t was exactly in the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere,” Ghosh notes pithily, “that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human” (66)—so radically, in fact, that he is led to speculate, in a startling moment toward the end of the book, that if “a graph could be drawn of the political engagements of writers and artists through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first[, i]t is quite likely [ . . . ] that such a graph would closely resemble a chart of greenhouse gas emissions over the same period” (121). Surely, we know this graph well by now (see fig. 1). It is the graph charting the changes to the earth’s atmosphere since the start of the industrial era, variations and expansions of which have circulated widely after Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen first coined the term Anthropo-cene in 2000. Since then, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program in partnership with the Stockholm Resilience Center has used twenty-four global aggregate indicators to assemble a “planetary dashboard” charting “The Great Trajectory of the Anthropocene,” that is, changes since 1750 in socioeconomic trends, on the one hand, and in the earth’s systems, on the other (see figs. 2 and 3). The researchers were themselves surprised to find that the graphs overwhelmingly demonstrated an identical pattern of dramatic shifts since 1950, corroborating the hypothesis of a Great Acceleration—in other words, of a direct correlation of an unprecedented rate of increase, starting in 1950, in greenhouse gasses, surface earth temperature, tropical forest loss, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and other indices of environmental degradation with a corresponding increase in global socioeconomic activity: urban population, energy and water use, fertilizer consumption, transportation, tourism, and so on. During this time, shifts in the earth system moved beyond the range of variability seen in the previous twelve thousand years—that is, during the entire period known as the Holocene, the era that, since the end of the last Ice Age, has ensured conditions sufficiently stable for agriculture and, thereby, for human settlements, cities, industries, stories, metaphors. Together the twenty-four graphs chart over time the strain imposed by human mass/metanarratives (industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, techno-scientific progress, globalization) as they intensified on the earth’s soils, air, water. Can we bear to consider that a twenty-fifth, looking much the same as the others, might chart something like the imperviousness to it all—the derangement, the unearthliness—of literature?
It is sobering to consider that The Great Derangement offers nothing more, but also nothing less, than a logical sequel to Ian Watt’s account of the beginnings of the European novel in his now classic study The Rise of the Novel. The emergence and growth of the novel in the early eighteenth century had, we know, everything to do with the growth of industrial manufacture and of the marketplace (in other words, of capitalism, even if Watt, in 1957, was not calling it “carbon capitalism”). There are many dimensions to this imbrication. On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution created the material and social conditions for reading novels: from electric light and increasingly specialized labor (making for experiential deprivations that were vicariously repaired in the novel)3 to mass market-driven production and the increased leisure time women had as industrial manufacture took over certain processes traditionally relegated to wives. On the other hand, the formal realism of the novel was favored by, and in turn reinforced, an increased attention to the particulars of ordinary, daily lives. In contrast to the universals and the exceptional beings of classic literature, the novel mirrored society’s and ideology’s increasing foundations in the autonomy and the interests of the individual. Contractual relationships and economic interests would be determining forces in the novel, as they were in social and political life. Indeed, Robinson Crusoe, that “first” English novel, would reflect in only somewhat extreme form what were in fact the distinctive features of modern life: freedom from family and social ties, the pursuit of gain as a primary motive, and the paramount place of profit and loss bookkeeping (according to Max Weber, “the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism” [qtd. in Watt 63]). If Watt does not have much to say about the earth or the sea as such, the closing sentence of his third chapter does make rather tantalizing use of a word or two that are key to my reflection here: “[T]he terms of the problem of the novel and of modern thought alike were established when the old order of moral and social relationships was shipwrecked, with Robinson Crusoe, by the rising tide of individualism” (92; my emphasis). In a sense, ultimately—and somehow this becomes clear only now—Watt’s account depends on reading Crusoe’s shipwreck metaphorically. Such an account must wait sixty years to be itself held to (literal) account, as it were. From the perspective of Ghosh’s charge in The Great Derangement, one could venture that the sea rises metaphorically—that is, in metaphoricity—in and with the novel, whose unending story is none other than that of the increasing safety and suitability—read the industrial, capitalist, ever more fuel-intensive securing, use, and development—of earth’s spaces for modern human life.
Margaret Cohen’s thinking in The Novel and the Sea might offer further evidence for such a claim. Begging to differ with theories of the novel that emphasize the novel’s abstraction from the natural or physical world—its principal trajectory understood to be the protagonist’s inner journey toward self-consciousness, its main exemplar “some version of the novel of manners (novel of education, historical novel, domestic novel, etc.)”—Cohen builds her theory up from a different starting point, that of sea fiction. In navigating the vastness and the perilous edges of the known world, she notes, the sea adventure has always celebrated, rather, a heightened aliveness to the natural and concrete world and, in the savoir-faire of seafaring, “a distinctly modern form of practical reason” (2–3). Only in the later nineteenth century, as navigation grew more accurate (in large part thanks to the nautical compass), scurvy was conquered, sail was superseded by steam, and “the work of the sea” became more routinized, did “the poetics of sea fiction,” still in “splendid working order,” speculates Cohen, morph and migrate toward other genres, including maritime modernism, detective and spy fiction, the domestic novel, and even the novel of social climbing (9–10). A stirring “interlude” of The Novel and the Sea discusses the “sublimation of the sea”—involving the progressive erasure of ships, sailors, history, work, instrumental reason—in the estheticized, emptied-out seas of the Romantic imagination. But in fact the whole study intends itself as a corrective to “novel studies’ indifference to the maritime world” and the Lukácsian inclination through the twentieth century to assume that even those novels explicitly engaging nautical themes such as Robinson Crusoe or Moby Dick were but “allegories of processes back on land”—homo economicus, capitalism, empire, class relations (13–14). This unwillingness to speak of the sea has been “so spectacular, it might be called hydrophasia,”4 suggests Cohen, who advances nonetheless that a Benjaminian “constellation between an earlier era of globalization [that is, the global age of sail] and our own” has made it possible, at the start of the twenty-first century, as we confront intensified maritime security concerns and “the uncontrollable forces of terraqueous nature unleashed in global warming,” to once again begin to see the sea.
By all accounts, a long history of abstraction and ingenious separatism—otherwise known as modernity—is forced today to see up close what, for a hundred and fifty years, it had been premised on methodically holding at bay:5 emissions, waste, weather, hairy objects (Bruno Latour), hyperobjects (Timothy Morton). Ghosh, who has read both Latour and Morton, would compare modern fiction to a territory and even a mansion that has continually marked itself off from all that it deems not to belong to its domain: improbable events, the forces of the elements, hybrid entities, “every archaic reminder of Man’s kinship with the nonhuman” (70). Thus, types of narratives that take seriously nature/culture hybrids—science fiction, magical realism, disaster narratives—get separated off from the literary mainstream. Earlier in the book Ghosh had dwelled at some length on the many cities that European colonists built on seafronts (think of Bombay [today Mumbai], Madras [Chennai], Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Charleston . . .) not incidentally, but because modernity—whether in the novelistic imagination or in modes of settlement—consisted precisely in this “habit of mind that proceeded by creating discontinuities; [ . . . ] a way of thinking that deliberately excludes things and forces (‘externalities’) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand” (56). The same was true of the settings of novels: “[T]hey too are constructed out of discontinuities,” according to Ghosh: “Since each setting is particular to itself, its connections to the world beyond are inevitably made to recede (as, for example, with the imperial networks that make possible the worlds portrayed by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë)” (59). In the high frequency today of events triggered or worsened by climate change, observes Ghosh following Morton and others, the vastness and intricateness of the connections so long refused now return as the “environmental uncanny”: “[I]n these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from; that is to say, the presence and proximity of non-human interlocutors” (30). These events, he writes, “are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms” (32).6 Before long, as if to illustrate the end of the modern dream of purity and the unrigorous merging henceforth of long-separated entities, Ghosh’s different metaphors merge, to deliver what is perhaps the most vivid and haunting image of the book: “I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around us, the mansion of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself, building ever higher barricades to keep the waves at bay” (71).
By now a number of critics, including Jennifer Wenzel, Jesse Oak Taylor, Ursula Heise, and Sadia Abbas have taken issue with Ghosh,7 most vigorously on the grounds that his rubric of “serious literary fiction” is unjustifiably narrow and that his diagnosis—that serious literary fiction cannot address climate change—runs the risk of being perversely self-fulfilling. In expelling science fiction, magical realism, historical fiction, and fantasy from the realm of serious fiction, does he not produce the very problem he is lamenting? Wenzel, postcolonial studies scholar and self-professed petro-critic, admires the clarity with which Ghosh, in the “Politics” and “History” sections of the book, links colonialism and climate injustice by showing that carbon capitalism was historically premised on (and not merely incidentally accompanied by) vast global inequities, a developmental nonsynchrony actively produced and ensured by imperial rule.8 His argument about “stories,” however, she finds decidedly more muddled from the start (is it ideological—that serious fiction is unwilling to speak of climate change? or ontological—that something about climate change makes it elude representation? or both? and how/where do the two connect?), and his “indictment of the ‘complicity’ of fiction—and fiction readers—in climate change” accordingly equivocal. It is weakened besides, she notes, by its undue reliance on theme (Wenzel, “Anthropocene”). As Wenzel has argued compellingly elsewhere, a novel does not have to be explicitly about oil to be read for oil; rather, all novels produced in an era and in conditions irreducibly enabled by oil are petronovels, relating and reflecting oil’s “ubiquity and invisibility,” its way of being “everywhere and nowhere.”9 By implication, would this not be true for petroculturally caused-and-obscured climate change? Taylor, for his part, also appreciating much about Ghosh’s argument while finding its rubrics self-defeating, attempts clarification by suggesting that the problem “may be less that we need a realist account of the Anthropocene but rather that Anthropocene reality is simply too weird for realism.” In another helpful reframing, he submits that it is most likely that future generations will find traces of climate change in our writings and that “the real question is why we don’t.” He goes on to conjecture: “The problem, then, may not be so much with novels (or novelists) as with readers, a turn that expands culpability for the climate crisis in ways that parallel the paradoxical position of consumers and citizens enmeshed within a toxic system that exceeds us on all sides. The storyteller can only take us so far; we must also be prepared to listen.”
In a sense, for Wenzel the “derangement”—and its curious crystallization in Ghosh’s repeated comparison of the novel to a waterfront mansion (“which misrecognizes,” in her view, “the relationship between literary form and the derangements at work on the Earth system” [“Anthropocene” 6])—is not in the novel but in Ghosh’s failing to read, while for Taylor it is we who do not yet know how to read. But is it “not yet” or no longer? And does it matter whether it is Ghosh or us? What does it matter who is being spoken to or who is (not) reading?10 Perhaps The Great Derangement made such an impression on me precisely because, seeming to make a big argument about the novel, Ghosh was at the same time imagining the epilogue, the final twist, to a long story about (ultimately deceived) reading. This story’s end would read: Human literature turned out in the end to be “ ‘carbon emissions’ uncannily clever gesture of self-protection” (Ghosh 125). We could say this differently: And then, when they read all that they had written, they saw that it was not about their earth—not about them—at all. It would be a sort of parable. First-wave (?) petrocritics might be seen as offering us another: And then they saw that everything they had ever written was about the Anthropocene—writing itself through them.11 To my (admittedly anti-oppositional) mind, these two are in fact the same.12 We are back to that billowing question of whether in the end there will be the end of a story or the story of an end. Will the end take the form of an énonciation (a telling) or an énoncé (something told)? At what point does literature cease to speak about us? Or conversely, at what point does it start to speak about us? And would we be able to tell the difference? Notwithstanding the climate-crisis-generated urgency and unseemly materiality they might seem to take on today, these are ancient questions that hark back to the philosophical riddle of body and mind, of whether we speak or are spoken by language, in sum, the problem of what one might call the “originarily storied” character of human life.13 The chicken and egg question. The unending paradox: our own existence in (embodied) being and (storytelling) time—that is, the Holocene—stands in the way of resolving them. So I shall not here. More modestly, I turn to my field and mainstay, “serious literary fiction” in French, taking Ghosh’s hypothesis of a great derangement as a provocation to reread.
French literature’s engagement with environment or ecology has been if anything discreet, as critics such as Stéphanie Posthumus and Alain Suberchicot have noted. But, looking closer, one might be equally struck by the impositions on its readability that a novel must contend with when it does attempt to bring into view an uncanny and inconvenient earth. A resulting instability of frame, or of figure/ground relations, can make things appear out of focus. I have had occasion to reflect in the past on the formidable difficulty faced by the protagonist of Romain Gary’s 1956 novel Les Racines du ciel—sometimes considered the first ecological novel in France—as he tries to convince others, and ultimately himself, that he is committed to saving real live African elephants rather than merely something that they symbolize. I called this the “overdetermination of elephants,” a problem that the novel cannot resolve within its own framework or by its own means, apart from creating a tense and interminable chiasmus where the symbolic constantly refers secretly to the material and the material to the symbolic.14 But I have since started to wonder whether this sort of dispositif is not shared by another novel of this period that may in fact have an equal claim to being the first French ecological novel, namely, Marguerite Duras’s Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950, translated into English as The Sea Wall). The autobiographical dimension of this classic of French literature has been well documented and amply commented upon: the mother character, based on Duras’s own mother Marie Donnadieu, is seen struggling for years to make a living from a low-lying coastal plot acquired from the colonial land registry department of French Indochina. The condition for obtaining ownership of this land is to successfully cultivate it—as per administrative decrees passed in 1913 and 1927 with a view to implementing the colonial mise en valeur (value-adding or “land development”) program (Vallier, C’était 328–30); but the very first year, when the July rains come and the sea swells and washes in, the entire paddy crop is destroyed. “La mère,” as the character is called, assembles two hundred men from nearby villages to build mud barricades, strengthened by logs of mangrove wood left over from the construction of a road and purchased on a steep loan. She is carried by a passionate conviction that hypnotizes the men:
The fact that the peasants had believed what she told them strengthened her still more in the certitude that she had found exactly what was needed to change the life of the plain. Hundreds of hectares of rice-growing country would be salvaged from the tides. All would be rich, or almost. The children would no longer die of hunger. They would have doctors. They would build a long roadway which would follow the line of her barriers and open up the freed lands. (43)
The vision is one of collective emancipation and restorative justice (“And the Ocean-barriers would be a revenge” 44); it is also one of unreasonable and ultimately tragic obsession: “And yet Ma had not consulted with any technician to find out if the construction of the sea walls would be effective. She had faith. She was sure. Always she acted like that, obeying evidence and a logic of which she divulged nothing” (43; trans. modified). The strategy fails: by the time the monsoon arrives, crabs eating through the earth and wood seawall have made it permeable to the rising tide, and the entire harvest is lost once again. The first account of the seawall in the novel evokes it as a story already known, epic, traumatic: “Hundreds of the peasants of the plain had worked on it, aroused from their millennial torpor by a sudden and foolish hope. And in one night it had collapsed like a house of cards, spectacularly, in one single night, succumbing to the elemental and implacable onslaught of the Pacific Ocean!” (23). The disproportions of the story at other times lend it a tragicomic quality:
The dikes built by Ma in the plain, her “barriers against the Ocean,” the whole thing was either a huge misfortune or a huge joke, depending [ . . . ] on which side you took: the side of the Ocean which had knocked down everything, every stick and stone of the sea wall, at one blow, one single blow; the side of the crabs, which had made sieves of them; or, on the contrary, the side of the people who had taken six months to build that sea wall, totally oblivious to the certain damage that would be wrought by the crabs and the Ocean. (41)
This is how Duras would summarize events in a conversation with Michelle Porte many years later (1976):
“[S]eeing this woman come on her own, a widow, defenseless, completely alone, they dumped a plot of nonarable land on her. She didn’t know that one had to bribe the agents of the land registry to get a piece of land that could be cultivated. They gave her land that was not land, it was land invaded by water for six months of the year. And she poured twenty years’ worth of savings into it. She had a bungalow built, she sowed and planted the rice; three months later the Pacific rose [ le Pacifique est monté] and we were ruined. And she almost died [ . . . ]. From anger. From indignation. Obviously, this affected us greatly. Even now, you see, I can’t yet talk calmly about it. She filed a complaint, she revolted, but [ . . . ] all the agents, from the land registry officials to the general administrator of the colony, took money. That is to say, the bribes were distributed across the entire hierarchy of functionaries, so the complaints went nowhere, ended up in drawers. And she died without vindication—yes, the injustice was total. (Duras and Porte 56–59; my translation)
As we now know, Duras’s memories of her Indochina years were seamlessly overlaid and even reshaped by her fictions.15 Her biographer Jean Vallier has shown that Marie Donnadieu had indeed bought a concession of land near Kampot, in Cambodia. But neither was she exactly ruined by the Kampot experience nor had she acquired the land directly from the colonial land registry, for she had in fact bought it from an Annamite (Vietnamese) acquaintance who had himself obtained it free of charge from the colonial government under the mise en valeur scheme, and who had apparently not attempted to grow anything on it, but not necessarily because he was aware that it was unfit for cultivation (C’était 330). What is certain is that a large number of farm laborers from the plains were recruited by Marie Donnadieu for the clearing of the land, much of which was covered by forest, and that the land was prone to flooding—if ultimately not entirely unsuitable for paddy cultivation. (We know for instance that much later, when there were food restrictions in wartime Paris, the Groupe de la Rue Saint Benoît, featuring such figures as Lacan, Bataille, Ponge, Leiris, Queneau, and Merleau-Ponty, meeting for discussions and debates at the apartment Duras shared with Robert Antelme, would be served on occasion rice received directly from Marie Donnadieu in Saigon [Vallier, Duras 99]). Nor does Vallier find decisive evidence in the Cambodian archives for a loan or for the construction of a seawall. Whatever the case may be, rereading Un barrage contre le Pacifique today, I am struck, on the one hand, by the heavy overdetermination affecting the “barrage”16—was it real or allegorical, biographical or fictional, modest or gigantic? Was it built once or repeatedly, a single woman’s desperate wager or an entire peasantry’s, not to say a colonized nation’s?;17 and on the other, by this irreducible fact: if this novel is an indictment of “the blood-sucking proclivities of colonialism” (le grand vampirisme colonial) (19), as well as a story about class, family, and coming of age, it is also, eerily, and this fact overcomes us now, a tale about rising sea water and the acute vulnerability of low-lying land like the Mekong River Delta in Cambodia and Cochinchina (today’s Southern Vietnam).
Thus told (in any case, long given away by my title), this observation about one of Duras’s most well-known novels may not strike my reader as earth-shaking. But in terms of our historical relationship with this text, not to say potentially with all our texts, it means a shift with near hallucinatory implications. In a sense, it is only today, all these decades later, when global warming and rising sea levels have come to form the critical, unignorable parameters of our earthly condition, that the hysterical literality of that seawall starts to be readable. To be clear, till now it could be glossed over in the certainty—on the part of author, reader, critics, and teachers—that this was primarily a novel denouncing colonialism. Which of course it was and still is. Here, we grasp precisely what Ghosh may have had in mind when he imagined a curve representing writers’ political engagement over time and how uncannily it might resemble the graph charting greenhouse emissions over roughly the same period. But while the Pacific seawall could be read all these years by scholars and students as (ultimately, or most meaningfully) an allegory, now, it is as if it had lost its allegorical immunity and were rematerializing before our eyes—as if turning back, like Cinderella at midnight, into mud and mangrove logs. The playwright Jacques Audiberti epitomized another common modernist understanding of the novel when he remarked in a letter to Duras: “The real barrier is against Nothingness. Nothingness submerges everything” (qtd. in Piat 1457; my translation). Today, waking from our twentieth-century dreams of liberation and our meditations on being and nothingness, we see the rising sea. In fact, available data indicates that it was precisely around the 1925 mark—“la mère” purchased her ill-fated concession in 1927—that the rate of sea level rise more than doubled, from 0.6 millimeters per year (which it had been since the late 1800s) to 1.4 millimeters per year, which would be its mean for the next sixty-odd years (see fig. 4). What is more, the region known till 1954 as French Indochina— corresponding to present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—is today, by all accounts, one of the places of the earth most acutely threatened by sea level rise, the very neuralgic center, as it were, of a global crisis well underway. Ghosh had rightly noted in The Great Derangement that “[a]long with Bangladesh, Vietnam is at the top of the list of countries threatened by sea level rise: in the event of a one-meter rise in sea level [a conservative estimate], more than a tenth of Vietnam’s population will be displaced” (89). A United Nations study estimates that sea levels around Ho Chi Minh city—formerly Saigon—have risen by twenty centimeters in the last fifty years, and will rise by twenty-six centimeters by 2050, thus threatening to swamp nearly 70 percent of the urban area and affecting the lives of up to twenty million people. According to reports in 2016, the region was suffering from historic levels of extreme temperatures and drought but also from severe erosion of its coastline, saltwater intrusion ruining arable land, severe storm surges, and high incidences of tidal flooding of villages and agricultural land, disrupting livelihoods and dislocating communities.18 Given that the Mekong Delta grows 20 percent of the world’s rice, the fate of this region could spell a dire global food security crisis in the foreseeable future. Thus the predicament of the mother in Un barrage contre le Pacifique becomes a prophecy and an allegory not only for the plight of farmers in Southeast Asia but for the long destruction of an entire class, that of the small farmer, today increasingly disenfranchised, indebted, and disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of weather changes and rising seas. And as Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Development undertakes work on an ambitious, decades-long plan to construct sea walls along the coast—and sizable investments are made by governments in Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (but also Dhaka, Venice, Lagos, Houston, New Orleans, New York) in dikes, levees, storm gates, retractable barriers, and other flood defenses19—one reads this oft-quoted passage from Duras’s 1950 novel with a very real frisson: “[E]very night she begins to build all over again her barriers against the Pacific. The only difference is that they are sometimes a hundred meters high, or two meters high, depending on whether she feels well or not. But little or big, she begins rebuilding them every night. It was too fine an idea” (221–22).
In a short, inspired essay titled “How to Write the Disaster,” Joshua Schuster recently suggested that if Maurice Blanchot’s L’Écriture du désastre was, like many writings in French theory in the 1970s and 1980s, “chillingly oblivious to problems of ecology,” there might still be a way to “extricate” from it “the claims of a fragmentary logic” useful for thinking the Anthropocene (165). Rereading in this light the enigmatic, often paradoxical axioms—the “core yet elusive [ . . . ] principles at the limits of thought”—that Blanchot’s book turns on, Schuster concludes that “l’écriture du désastre” (writing the disaster) works not by writing about disaster as if disaster could be something referred to, and thus contained, topicalized, narrated, survived, and so on; rather, it works by itself being “contaminated in advance, as we all are.” He goes on to write, intriguingly:
Most disaster films and novels assume an anthropomorphizing of genre, tying the decline of genres to human decline. But the writing of the disaster need not be correlated to the genre of the “last man” or “final judgement.” The contaminated genre of “writing the disaster” is one that does not want to last or claim “the last” but still has a habit of sticking around as witness. Blanchot declares that writing the disaster makes “the most ‘reasonable’ language a contaminated process, rich in what it cannot say, inappropriate for what it does say, and stating in secret (well or ill kept) the indefinable impropriety.” (170)
What would it mean to read novels “past” their modernist inattention to the earthly for their contamination? Something about reading literature here and now, under a United States administration revoking environmental protections and measures toward carbon emissions reductions, indeed, actively promoting fossil fuel energy and economy over and against earth and evidence, has me in a feverish frame of mind. In any case, once I start reading not for commitment but for contamination, I start to see water rising everywhere—as if the novel, if it had ever been built as some sort of idealized “mansion,” impervious to the elements, were now everywhere experiencing (or admitting) breaches and fissures as water pushed at its walls. Within this refocusing, certain books one might not otherwise have grouped together start to constellate, to form a delirious document of the Anthropocene. We could think of Marie Redonnet’s Splendid Hôtel (1986), where the “I” is a tireless mobilization of efforts to patch the leaks, drain the toilets, exterminate the vermin, repair the plumbing, keep the surrounding marsh from entering the property. The conditions are sultry, oppressive, unaccountably tropical, and the main agon plays out between attempts to master the site— by the hapless proprietor but also by prospectors, land surveyors, railway companies, mining companies, sanitation officials—and the gradual sinking of the hotel in the bog. Redonnet’s short play Mobie-Diq (1989), as if a curious sequel, is set entirely in the days following the shipwreck of a Titanic-like cruise ship, the sole survivors Mobie and Diq drifting without a plan and without petrol in an old wooden boat, reaching at no point any land, as if there were perhaps no land left to reach. Writing about yet another Redonnet book (The Seaside, 1992), critic Elizabeth Mazza-Anthony has observed that Redonnet “traverses the writings of Marguerite Duras. The bungalow, the sweeping sands that threaten the ‘enclos’ [ . . . ] send the reader/spectator back to ‘Indochine,’ if only for a moment” (10). If, as Mazza-Anthony confirms from a private conversation with Redonnet, “Marguerite Duras is ‘present’ in Seaside” (13n20), one could go further and note that a Durasian imaginary pervades the whole of Redonnet’s fictional universe. Take the flooding of the inland port of Oat by the lagoon in Rose Mélie Rose (1987) or the castle and center of Dolms drowned by the construction of a dam in Silsie (1990): this is a world of colonial-style hotels and unruly water bodies, crumbling structures, leaky roofs, and Sisyphean tasks, and where the passage of time means progressive erosion and submersion. Turning to theater for a moment (like Duras, her heirs, as I am calling them, are prose writers who in several cases also write theater), one should note that Hélène Cixous’s important oeuvre has often featured floods and shipwrecks: consider Déluge (1992) or the Naufragés du fol espoir (2010), but most of all Tambours sur la digue (Drums on the Dam, 1999), an extraordinary political-ecological play for human puppets set in fictional-historical China, imputed to a certain “Xi Xhou” (Cixous) and inspired by a long history of deforestation and floods in that region. Marie Darrieussecq’s writings repeatedly and permeably face the water. Take Undercurrents (1999, the English translation of Mal de mer), Précisions sur les vagues (2008), and Musée de la mer (2009), haunted by hermit crabs, by the story of the little mermaid, by a little brother who has drowned many times, or A Brief Stay with the Living (Bref séjour chez les vivants, 2001) in which a sister sits drowning in her car at the bottom of a river with fishes as her last witnesses. Darrieussecq’s aquatic imaginary tends to be put down to her Basque origins and her childhood by the sea in Biarritz, but in interviews she has discreetly mentioned the influence of Duras.20 We could also cite Jean-Philippe Toussaint whose La Salle de bain is morbidly obsessed with time and water, the middle section of which, set in Venice, features this extraordinary passage: “With the city sinking at the rate of thirty centimeters a century, I explained, or three millimeters a year, or point zero zero eighty-two millimeters a day, or point zero zero zero zero zero zero one millimeter a second, one might reasonably hope, by pressing our feet down hard on the pavement as we walked, to play some part in the submerging of the city” (65; trans. modified). The seemingly minuscule rate of subsidence (a millionth of a millimeter per second) and apparent absurdity of the demonstration are in fact of a piece with the deep melancholia of this novel, published (unsettlingly) more than thirty years ago. As meaningless as such small increments may be to the pedestrian’s day—and by extension to daily bourgeois life that is the modern realist novel’s mainstay, if we follow Ghosh—Venice sinking at this rate (3 millimeters or 0.1 inches per year), according to some experts, stands to be under water by 2100 if global warming is not significantly slowed and serious flood defense infrastructure not installed (see Antonioli et al.). Still higher rates of subsidence affect low-lying coastal cities in Asia. By way of comparison, Dhaka is sinking at the rate of 1.4 centimeters (0.55 inches) per year, Ho Chi Minh City by 7.5 centimeters (3 inches), Manila by almost 9 centimeters (3.5 inches). Jakarta, as surrounding waters are forecast to rise by 7.5 centimeters (3 inches) every decade over the next century, is the world’s fastest-sinking city, subsiding by an average of 25 centimeters (10 inches) per year (see Chaudhuri and Tarrant). In a way, Venice (or for that matter Paris or London, cities also recently prone to flooding) connects to its Asian counterparts by links both (as we used to say) paradigmatic (metaphor, homology: cities with comparable fates) and syntagmatic (contiguity and steep asymmetry: the history of modern colonialism and carbon capitalism). Ghosh here is again lucid:
Can anyone write about Venice any more without mentioning the aqua alta, when the waters of the lagoon swamp the city’s streets and courtyards? Nor can they ignore the relationship that this has with the fact that one of the languages most frequently heard in Venice is Bengali: the men who run the quaint little vegetable stalls and bake the pizzas and even play the accordion are largely Bangladeshi, many of them displaced by the same phenomenon that now threatens their adopted city—sea-level rise.
Behind all of this lie those continuities and those inconceivably vast forces that have now become impossible to exclude, even from texts. (63)21
Is it so surprising that the novel, as a historic form long familiar with (and with great narrative and chronotopic stakes in) the difference between water and land, should know—by way of a sort of earthly (or, precisely, unearthly?) instinct—when sea levels are rising all around, the coastline is eroded, the sandbags have given way, and the bottom of one’s dress is getting wet? In even more recent works that directly engage with the reality of increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Europe, one is again struck by the fact that the reference to flooding or drowning is always potentially scrambled or weakened, so that the text seems to be emphasizing, rather, how difficult it is to keep the engulfing waters in focus. This is so in Maylis de Kerangal’s short meditation of a book À ce stade de la nuit (2015), where the narrator, hearing a radio report of three hundred migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, is sent (by the island’s name) into a reverie that takes her back to scenes from Luchino Visconti’s epic 1963 period drama The Leopard, adapted from the novel by the Italian aristocrat and author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Yet the dérive du signifiant cannot escape the novel’s whirling heart of darkness for long: eventually, in the thick of a memory of a particularly vivid ball scene in the Visconti film, the narrator realizes, as if with a shudder: “Visconti had filmed the ball of The Leopard exactly like a shipwreck” (27; my translation). In truth, the contiguity between the film and the contemporary disaster was motivated by a formal/traumatic association itself so intimately submerged that it could only be beheld—and its secret kept—at the level of the signifier. But I would be remiss if I did not invoke, finally, in this breathless anthology, the novel Assommons les pauvres (2011) by Shumona Sinha, whose narrator works, as its author did for a while, as a translator in a center that processes applications from asylum seekers. Because she is herself Bengali she sits in on scores of interviews between French intake officers and Bangladeshi asylum seekers who must succeed in convincing their hosts that they have a legitimate case for political asylum: “Lands were drowning, with their paddy fields and coconut groves, with their thatched-roof cottages, their mosques and their temples. And the people kept climbing toward the safest, driest lands” (13; my translation). Yet: “Neither poverty nor vengeful nature devastating their land could justify their exile, their mad hope of survival. No law permitted them to enter here, into this country of Europe, if they did not invoke political or religious reasons, if they did not demonstrate serious injury due to persecutions. So they had to hide, forget, unlearn the truth and invent a new one. The tale of migratory peoples” (11). The problem of the refugees is perhaps not so different from that of “serious fiction” as judged by Ghosh: the truth about poor, dense, low-lying lands prone to serious, life-threatening floods is both too fundamental and too hideous, too disastrous, to tell properly for legitimacy or immunity. The narrator gets so angry with the stories of persecution and violence that she ultimately cracks a wine bottle on the head of a persistent asylum seeker (hence the book’s caustic title, borrowed from a Baudelaire prose poem and that translates as “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!”). But then, would the truth—about flooding and poverty—not sound even more shopworn, unoriginal, disproportionate? While the narrator’s anger appears directed at the lies produced by the Western political asylum machinery (abetted by a shadowy class of middle-men, profiteers, sellers of stories, human traffickers), the novel’s anger, one could say, is directed somewhere else: namely, at the fact that despair or fury over being both low-lying and poor—a diabolical pair where each term over time worsens the other—is incommunicable unless it masks itself as something else, a grievance less basic, less vast (than History and Geography themselves). Which recalls the conditions of Blanchot’s écriture du désastre: “a contaminated process,” “rich in what it cannot say, inappropriate for what it does say, and stating in secret (well or ill kept) the indefinable impropriety.”
Urban architecture students are schooled today in the case studies of Dhaka, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City. It is well known that in sinking cities across the world—including Venice, till authorities started taking stringent measures in the 1960s—land subsidence has been caused over time not only by occasional “natural” geological factors but, more critically, by soil compaction due to excessive ground water use and the weight of urban construction. By this standard, surely megapoles in Asia, the capitals of the twenty-first century (one remembers all that construction in the Arcades Project), are materially and ideologically, as it were, at greatest risk of sinking. Perhaps the study of the novel would be considered one day a stream of urban studies. A poor, densely inhabited city, unable to ensure adequate water supply and sanitation (leading to unregulated ground water use), may be no less (only more) susceptible to the mot d’ordre of rapid urban growth and profitable industrial/commercial real-estate deals (resulting in more building and also more large-scale ground water extraction). In this overly simple logic is exposed the bildungsroman’s bad plumbing/faith: the more dense and “developing” a city, the more lively its connections, transactions, narratives, the more likely it is that its groundwater will be unduly pumped, that waste will clog its drainage canals, and that soil and roots that might have absorbed water overflow are covered over by concrete.
There are insights to be gained from thinking of the novel as a kind of (crab-eaten, porous, water-logged) seawall or “barrage contre le Pacifique.” But it is worth dwelling a little longer on the second term in Duras’s title: “le Pacifique.” Indochina did not in fact strictly border the Pacific Ocean. Thus there is a sort of “space-crunch” that the novel explains in the following terms:
[T]he marshy region of Kam, bordered on one side by the China Sea—which Ma obstinately called the Pacific Ocean, since “China Sea” seemed to her somewhat trifling and provincial and because, when she was young, it was of the Pacific Ocean that she dreamed and not any of those little seas which unnecessarily complicate things—and walled in towards the East by the long, long chain of mountains which ranged the coast from very far up in the Asiatic continent, following a descending curve to the Gulf of Siam where it submerged and reappeared again in a multitude of islands ever smaller and smaller, but all equally swollen with the same somber tropical forests. (25)
The mountains mentioned here form the Dâmrei Range, known in colonial days as the Elephant Mountains, located in Cambodia (the southernmost part of which is, as described, under water, in an expressive geological reminder of that unstable boundary between land and sea).22 And indeed, while the novel may seem to imply in places that the concession is in the Mekong River Delta in the environs of Sadek in Cochinchina (today’s South Vietnam)—where the Donnadieu home was in fact situated for several years while Marguerite was in boarding school in Saigon—the Donnadieu plot was actually located on the western coast of Cambodia, which it would have made sense to describe as a marshy (alluvial) plain (in “Kam,” short for Kampot, critics concur, naming both the surrounding province and the closest village) sandwiched between the Dâmrei/Elephant Range and the Gulf of Thailand (see fig. 5). The point is that whether we situate the concession so that it coincides with the historical location of the Donnadieu plot in Kampot on the shores of the Gulf of Thailand or at its phantasmatic site in Cochinchina on the South China Sea, there is some nautical distance (space-time, or space experienced as time) to account for before the waters of the Pacific can touch the rice fields. Indeed, the Pacific’s name does not appear on this 1930s atlas map of French Indochina because the ocean proper is still further to the east, once the Southeast Asian land mass, including major islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, has been cleared (see fig. 6). Thus, there is something that “trips” geography here in the form of an error that keeps creeping back in. Remember what Duras told Michelle Laporte in the 1976 interview: “[T]hree months later the Pacific rose and we were ruined.” In L’Amant (1984, translated into English as The Lover) she would write ambiguously of the mighty Mekong carrying everything in its path “towards the Pacific” (Lover 18). Yet L’Empire français, a propagandist publication she coauthored (under the name Marguerite Donnadieu) in her first post at the Ministre des Colonies in 1940, ten years before Un barrage, had more accurately described colonial Indochina as situated in “an admirable position at the center of the China Sea and, beyond, on the Pacific”(Roques and Duras 104).
Critics have tended to relay the novel’s own explanation for the slip: for a person like Marie Donnadieu, in the early 1900s, who answered the call to go live in the colonies, the name of the ocean was surely shorthand for vastness, remoteness, opportunity, romance. Other conjectures could be made: no doubt Duras favored the Pacific for the epic quality as well as the dimensional irony that it lent to the central motif of the mud-and-mangrove seawall erected against the vast and not so pacific ocean. Perhaps also she looked to the ocean to steer clear of the homophony between la mer (the sea) and la mère (the mother). But also—and it is with these last few considerations that I shall conclude—in invoking the Pacific inordinately, as it were, one cannot not invoke vast current systems and gigantic hydrological cycles determining major wind patterns and climate zones, underwriting historic trade routes and the mighty logistics of European colonial interests “overseas” (to use that colonial-era word, so very literal, that air travel has since turned into a catachresis of a new sort). From this perspective, the obstinate reference to the ocean can be seen as what breaks open—to stretch out wide, like a canvas, or indeed a map—the contained setting of Duras’s novel: if it is the Pacific that is destroying the paddy fields, this is no longer (only) the story of an unlucky woman trying to grow rice in the Mekong Delta, but a story about the “unbearabl[e . . . ] connections” that make the world. Recall what Ghosh noted about bourgeois, capitalist, imperial—and by extension the novel’s—“realism” that proceeded by cordoning sites off and turning them into reasonable self-contained narrative units: “Since each setting is particular to itself, its connections to the world beyond are inevitably made to recede” (59). A few pages later, again evoking “phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space,” Ghosh would name precisely as one of the “scalar” challenges posed by the Anthropocene “those continuities and those inconceivably vast forces that have now become impossible to exclude, even from texts” (63; my emphasis). Certainly one could argue that to see the waters of the Pacific at the site of the Donnadieu concession is to see the world-scale transactional flows that subtended the colonization of Indochina in the first place. In fact, the seeming space-time compression that places the Kam barricade on the Pacific works through a logic of insistence and irreducibility that is no more and no less “irrational,” obscene, or spectralizing than that of global trading and the commodity futures market—which were at the height of their consolidation in the 1930s, as historians Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery demonstrate meticulously in Indochine: La Colonisation ambiguë (1995). Duras’s (Donnadieu’s) and Roques’s commissioned L’Empire français was well cognizant of this in 1940. Indochina was France’s most profitable colony: the highly lucrative commodity trade and global stock exchange around rice, rubber, and coffee were sustained by forms of agricultural land development or “valuation”—mise en valeur—that profoundly reconfigured lives in the colony. Vast tracts of land, which convenient decrees authorized the colonial land registry to “alienate” from their traditional (often informally inherited or communal) ownership ties, were turned over from subsistence farming to the cultivation of “produits impériaux,” or export-quality commodity crops. Rice stocks were high (till the crash of 1929) because the vast majority of the rice was exported (destined mostly as animal feed for livestock), leaving a majority of small farmers and villagers of Indochina—the archives show this chillingly now—not just in debt but undernourished for most of the year.23 While children of the “marshy region of Kam” starve (as described vividly in Un barrage ), a comprehensive imperial marketing strategy worked to promote rice to the status of “cereal of the future” and staple food grain on dinner tables in France (Roques and Duras 178–80). Aggressive monoculture meant mass deforestation, including the clearing of mangroves that held together coastal soil that was otherwise prone to erosion. It also meant that when a harvest was lost due to floods, which occurred scores of times in the 1920s and 1930s, the loss was considerable, oftentimes crippling. Critics have recently begun to address the “environmental” dimension of Un barrage contre le Pacifique: Suberchicot suggests the book is a political-ecological work whose reflection centers on the relationship between human life and “primary nature” in what is an unforgiving tropical environment made more miserable still by cynical colonial practices; Stéphanie Ponsavady has written persuasively of the profoundly transformative impact of roads and rising automobile culture in Indochina from the 1910s through the 1930s.24 Yet the massive (prison-labor driven) construction of roads (and, importantly, irrigation canals) by the French colonial government, and the violence and inequities that accompanied the imposition of industrial-era nation-building designs on a watery landscape, were only one component of a far larger, more powerful but also more elusive, system of transactions on a world scale by which carbon capitalism rewrote lives in Indochina. And at the center of this system stood the logic of mise en valeur whereby, even as rice stocks rose on the global commodity market and enriched the colonial exchequer as well as a number of growing, megawealthy trading companies, the rice being grown in the colony and the land on which it was growing were becoming increasingly abstract, turned toward the outside: rice less and less edible, land less and less inhabitable.25 Ponsavady anticipates such a verdict when she writes that colonization “contracted the space in Indo-china,” and when she recalls that “[f]or [Henri] Lefebvre, capitalism also functions by making space abstract” (79, 162). Her commitment to reading Un barrage as “a history of colonial mobilities” leads her to name some of the ways in which colonization extracts value by turning into an abstraction the relationship of a place to itself: “[I]mperialism aims to eliminate all empty spaces [ . . . ]. The quality of the soil, even if in a desert, gains value only once it is traveled over” (159, 161). In her reading, “The Sea Wall is merely another abstraction of the impoverished French family,” one of a “surplus of ideas” intended to counter their own exclusion from the returns of capitalist extraction (166, 162).
One could take further this reading by considering other components of a conscious imperial program made clear in L’Empire français: through mise en valeur, colonies were set up as the principal suppliers of the empire’s raw materials and major markets for its finished products. Thus France could minimize its dependence on imports from foreign (and rival) trading nations, protect itself from currency devaluation and falling stocks (the empire was a single monetary and customs territory), and be well fed and supplied at all times while ensuring, through the creation of new markets, that surplus production was, when not sold strategically for foreign exchange reserves, profitably absorbed. The rationale of empire was thus to operate in “compensated circuits” (Roques and Duras 169) where every expense or loss in one place was offset by greater gains or profits somewhere else; ultimately this meant a compression of the world (“un raccourci d’univers” ) and the assurance of nonstop growth. While children in the Kam plain died of hunger, Indochina rice was being promoted as a luxury grain in French Occidental Africa; it represented forty percent of the value of total exports from Indochina and a quarter of global trade in rice (178). Indochina rubber (“Latex flowed. Blood, too.” [Seawall 137]) found its market in the growing car manufacturing industry (tires); with time Indochina became a natural market for French cars. Peoples forced into labor on roads and fields were being primed to be “future consumers” of imperial goods (161, 169–70, 225). And all of this was increasingly buttressed by fossil fuels as steam gave way to coal and oil, powering factories, shipping, the railways, national roadways, mega-engineering projects, intensive agriculture. In turn the continuing march of capitalism ensured that there were ever-growing markets for coal and oil. We know this story. The more troubling move to make—because it would seem unrigorous, unliterary, endlessly unfalsifi-able, and, besides, what readings would there be left to do after that?—is to consider that the sea wall was not an abstraction. The long-term processes and transactions by which carbon capitalism (in its industrial mass market and then finance phases) might have seemed to annihilate sea, land, distance, time26 as forces or limits—with colonization as its means of conquest over other conceptions of world—are also those that have caused the air to literally warm and the sea to literally rise at a rate from which no barricade however high can protect us (see Yarina).
Duras’s epic sea wall turns retrospectively prescient and all too real when seen from the vantage point of today’s climate crisis. Due to thermal expansion and sea level rise, low-lying island nations in the Pacific like the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati—whose leaders, in their appeals to the world, are the face of today’s international campaign for climate justice—are at risk of being at least partially submerged by the end of the century; several smaller Pacific islands have entirely disappeared in the last decade. In their inheritance of a Durasian imaginary, perhaps contemporary French novels can be seen as continuing the story-work by which literature has always processed the earthly, whereby metaphor has been the cover, the irreducible encryption code, for matter to enter our stories at all. Duras’s oeuvre would go on to be haunted by images of the sea and of drowning, and I like to think that works by her successors Cixous, Redonnet, Darrieussecq, Toussaint, Sinha, de Kerangal, as they continue to let the waters in, are still ruminating—in the way that novels do—about the systems, earthly and unearthly, that placed a paddy field on the shores of the rising Pacific.
Mabanckou’s narrator is an evident self-ironizing reference to his earlier novel Mémoires de porcépic (Memoirs of a Porcupine).
Watt quotes here the words of T. H. Green: “ ‘In the progressive division of labour, while we become more useful as citizens, we seem to lose our completeness as men [ . . . ] the perfect organisation of modern society removes the excitement of adventure and the occasion for independent calling [ . . . ].’ ‘The alleviation’ of this situation, Green concluded, ‘is to be found in the newspaper and the novel’ ” (71).
By this term, itself borrowed from Allan Sekula, is ostensibly meant hydro-aphasia.
The expression “to hold at bay,” contrary to appearances, does not come from the sea but from hunting.
Long before there was such a notion as the ecological or environmental uncanny, Sartre had ruminated at some length in 1959–1960 on that tragic (or coun ter-) dialectic, extending beyond commodity fetishism, by which the inertness of matter worked upon by human praxis may return as “counter-finality.” Notably, Sartre took the example, of great interest to me here, of the severe floods caused in China by deforestation: “The peasant becomes his own material fatality; he produces the floods which destroy him.” See also Turner.
I discuss briefly here only Wen-zel and Taylor. Heise argues for a more serious consideration of science fiction as the default genre for contemporary narrative engagement with the matter of climate change. Abbas mostly expresses outrage at Ghosh’s “dismiss[al] of what literature can do,” “simply in the service of an inflated rhetorical gesture,” calling the book’s disappointments “very painful.”
“From this perspective,” writes Ghosh, “global inaction on climate change is by no means the result of confusion or denialism or a lack of planning: to the contrary, the maintenance of the status quo is the plan” (145). In this view he is firmly joined by Bruno Latour in his latest book 32-0300001Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime.
This imagines an unsettling variation on the Beckett line that framed Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” (1969)—“What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?”—perhaps more appropriate for our era.
As Andrew Pendakis writes provocatively: “[W]hat if we were all [. . .] mere properties or modes of a primary substance called Oil, secondary echoes from an occluded x named petroleum?” (383). This said, I do not mean here to suggest that petrocriticism can be reduced to the demonstration that every book is about oil. Wenzel is most lucid, warning of a possible unintended consequence of the work done in the “first wave” of the energy humanities, namely, of stopping at the critical rewards of revealing in all modern literature the presence of oil, of endlessly conscientizing, when the critical objective, once consciousness of the issue has been raised, should be to think and help enable the transition out of petroculture (“How [and Why]”).
Of course, it would make utter sense: The petrocritics taking issue with Ghosh’s argument in The Great Derangement also go out of their way to point out that it was his early essay “Petrocultures” that inspired the very formation of such a field as the energy humanities. In a sense, then, Ghosh is turned against Ghosh, which is an apt enough example of what in the end must happen to us all for thought (if not the earth) to be saved. See Schuster, “Where Is” 200; and Wenzel, “Anthropocene.”
My own work on this novel, which I have presented in a couple of venues, has yet to be published.
Julien Piat notes that the word barrage (barrier or barricade) itself appears more than twenty times in those few pages (1457).
In her final letter to the colonial authorities, the mother would go so far as to write: “[A] barrier against the Pacific, a barrier that holds up, is easier to achieve than to try to expose your infamy” (230).
See, among scores of news sources citing recent studies on these phenomena and on efforts to adapt, the 2015 Guardian six-chapter feature “Mekong: A River Rising” and the WBIR news report “Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Hit with Worst Drought in Ninety Years.”
See, among others, the “Reuters Investigates” 2014 series “Water’s Edge: The Crisis of Rising Sea Levels” (McNeill, Nelson, and Wilson). Jakarta has notably invested in a seawall shaped like a giant Garuda.
One may think also here of the uncanny connection between Venice and Calcutta (where she had never been) in Duras’s 1976 film Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta desert.
In L’Empire français, the French government publication that Duras would coauthor in 1940 with Philippe Roques, there would be richly evocative descriptions of coastal Cochinchina and Cambodia as landscapes shaped by their rivers (notably the Mekong) but also by the fact that they had lain till recently (in geological time) submerged. There, we read this remarkable passage, which may well be the earliest processing (for there is every chance that it is Duras who was assigned the Indochina section) of what would be told later (not just in Un barrage but also in L’Amant, 1984 and in L’Amant de la Chine du Nord, 1991) as the story of the concession and the seawall: Little by little, these lands fill and overlay each other; they are reclaimed from the sea. The plain of reeds [in Cochinchina], as well as part of the coast of Cambodia, are still unfit for cultivation. A wide swath of mangrove trees borders them, and it is difficult to accurately tell apart the land and the sea. The salt of the sea, a few centimeters from the surface, burns the young rice plants as soon as their roots reach it. But these lands barely delivered from the sea are each year more arable, and we can expect that over the next few centuries [d’ici quelques centaines d’années] they will be entirely so. (108; my translation) But was the longue durée a typo or a note of grave lucidity in this text that was intended to promote the immediate advantages of empire?
Even as Judith Miller notes perceptively that rice itself—riz—is conspicuously absent from the family’s diet in Un barrage, Robert Harvey conjectures that it may have morphed phonemically into the rire, desperate near-hysterical laughter, that accompanies the story of the sea wall when it is first told to M. Jo and the expulsion of the land registry agents when they come to check on the cultivation of the plot.
I think here of the description of industrial capitalist processes of the nineteenth century as “the annihilation of time and space” (see Solnit 5–19).