Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.
We live in the era of the asymptotically approaching apocalypse. Fears of the violent end of civilization are documented as far back as its beginning, of course, and often enough they are probably just the knowledge of one’s own death projected outward – as in the throes of food poisoning we seem to discover a nauseousness in the very fabric of reality. And it’s also true that all time since August 6, 1945, has been borrowed time. It is frankly an underrated argument for the existence of Providence that we are even still here to notice how surprising it is that we are here. (That nuclear weapons exist is, by the same token, a strong argument against.)
But climate change – we used to know it as “global warming” and “the greenhouse effect” till a silly pollster decided that “climate change” sounded less scary – is a different sort of apocalypse. As the British journalist Laurie Penny pointed out some years ago, the post-1945 generations faced a binary threat – the rockets are in the air, or they aren’t – but the climate catastrophe that we are already living through is a continuum. We know it’s bad, because it’s already here: heat records in the most populous parts of the world, endless fire seasons that bruise the sky thousands of miles away. We know it will get worse. We know that we – a we over which almost any given individual wields so little control that our incorporation in it seems a cruel joke – will decide how much worse it gets. We know that, like people in a nightmare who walk toward the burning house even as their minds scream Away! away!, we keep driving our stupid cars and suffering things called “oil companies” and “the energy lobby” to exist. So it will get worse. How much?
Repeated invocations of “a million hot years” in Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, suggest that this question is on her mind as well. Not that one must read very closely to determine where Heti’s concerns lie. She writes with a directness that can look like artlessness. Rather than knocking together a dramatic situation that convincingly embodies the writer’s preoccupations – a practice that Heti long ago described as inventing “fake people,” sounding like Tolstoy’s Natasha at the opera – she just lays those concerns out. How Should a Person Be?, asks the title of her 2010 novel. Motherhood (2018), the events in which are partly determined by casting the I Ching, is a novel about whether Sheila Heti should have a kid or not. She puts her heart out there. It’s a risky way to write, because the reader can then say These are boring questions, or These are stupid problems, or If I wanted to watch someone philosophize, I would find a pew to go sit in. For Heti is a nakedly religious writer, as critics like Nathan Goldman and Judith Shulevitz have pointed out. Most of the discussion of How Should a Person Be? focused on its sexual frankness and its incorporation of taped conversations with several of her friends, its reality-TV aspects, but the latter half of the book meditates obsessively on the idea of Moses and the Promised Land. Pure Colour is a kind of fable – another mode of writing that is almost childishly to-the-point, and incredibly dangerous. Fables have always said, implicitly, “the story is beside the point; it’s just here to trick you into receiving a lesson.” They’re too sincere and too sententious. Few writers get away with them. Nobody likes The Old Man and the Sea as much as they like The Sun Also Rises.
Heti’s book mostly does survive the inhospitable conditions it creates for itself, although “survive” is a tricky concept in Pure Colour. The book starts by positing that God – a basically Kabbalist God, as Shulevitz has also pointed out – is about to finish with the “first draft” of creation and wants to give the manuscript one last good, hard workshop before Draft Two. So God creates three types of creature: the bird, the imperious art critic who spots flaws from high above; the fish, that natural socialist organizer, who thinks only of “getting the temperature right for the many”; and the bear, nature’s ideal dad, curling his huge form around one or two beloved people or things and knowing only them. In this way God gets three incompatible, useful perspectives on creation. Doesn’t this whole setup (Heti’s, not God’s) sound ridiculous? I was beginning to think so, and then I encountered this passage:
The heart of the artist is a little bit hollow. The bones of the artist are a little bit hollow. The brain of the artist is a little bit hollow. But this allows them to fly.
If you know many writers, you’ve heard a version of this complaint, either from them or from the people close to them – that no matter how hard and how well they try to love the people around them, a part never stops observing, hovering off. Speaking as one of these birdbrains, we hate ourselves for it. Heti’s simple scheme surfaces this complicated psychological truth.
Pure Colour tells the story of Mira, a bird, who loves the paintings of Edouard Manet, certain lamps, Annie (a fish), and her father (a bear). The bird, fish, and bear can only love each other chaotically, without coordination:
As Mira got older, it became harder to love him in the proper dimensions, or even to know what those were; any interest she developed in another person felt like it was taking something from him, since he had no one to love but Mira. … So Mira craved to live a cold ice bath of life, once she was out in the world, without him. It has been hard to be held so closely by the most bearish bear, and anyone who approached her with the same total love immediately made Mira feel scared. She was more drawn to the fish, who divided their attention democratically among people. So the overheated Mira went looking for a freezer. She wanted a love that would cool her down, to the temperature of the living.
The bird-fish-bear metaphor, again, lets Heti describe the conflicts inherent in certain relationships simply and without fuss.
Mira’s father dies. His soul projects itself into her, and then both souls go off to live in a leaf for a while. (Again, the goofy fabulism of the book and its piercing psychological insight go together: this is a good metaphor for a post-bereavement grief spiral.) Annie happens by and rescues her from the leaf, but they can’t make things work long-term. The world continues to warm; seasons become “postmodern.” Mira realizes that she is commenting on a doomed world, that none of her work will last. (And what is lasting literary fame, anyway? It’s just the knowledge that you could return to earth after five hundred years and “google yourself.”)
Heti finds a stoic exaltation in the idea that we, who live in this soon-to-be-deleted draft, make up the “expendable soldiers” in God’s drafting process. Like most forms of stoicism, and like most cosmologies that involve a bumbling demiurge, this all sounds to me like cope. That’s not a criticism of Heti, really; many forms of my own religious tradition sound that way to me as well. I guess I just hope that God is something grander than a writer – of which Heti is one of our best.
Adam Roberts informs readers of his It’s the End of the World (But What Are We Really Afraid Of)? (2021), a short, witty, and reasonably thorough survey of the apocalyptic mode in narrative art, that we’re probably closer to the end than not. One’s very existence, in this moment, tugs upon probability:
Consider two hypotheses: “Doom Soon,” the belief that human history will end in the near future and “Doom Delayed,” the belief that Homo sapiens will survive long into the future. In the latter scenario, the population of all humans who will ever live will be very large, maybe trillions of people in total. In the case of “Doom Soon,” that number will be much lower, because the ending of the world will prevent more humans being born. Using Bayes’ theorem, statisticians estimate the respective probabilities of the two scenarios and conclude that the probability that you are living right now is greater if “Doom Soon” is true and less probable if “Doom Delayed” is true.
Follow that? He explains:
Imagine that you have to pick a random ball from a tub that contains either ten or one hundred balls, with each ball numbered sequentially from one to one hundred. In goes your hand and out comes ball number three. Now, is it more likely that the tub contains ten or one hundred balls? Bayes’ theorem tells us that you picking ball number three makes it more likely the tub contains ten balls, because the probability of picking ball number three is higher if the tub contains ten balls than if it contains one hundred – ten times higher, in fact. It doesn’t prove that the tub contains ten balls, of course – maybe it contains a hundred and you just happened to pick ball number three – but it does make the ten-ball hypothesis more likely.
I always knew that nothing good would come of studying math.
The This (2022), which came out scant months after It’s the End of the World, is in some ways an addition to the canon of apocalyptic literature surveyed in that book, though most of the chapters would better be described as near-future dystopia. Basically, it’s the story of a social network that attaches directly to your brain, and of a journalist who finds himself stalked by that company; and of another guy, a little further down the timestream, who finds himself joining an army that is losing battle after battle to a Borg-like collective. (No prize for guessing the connection between these two events.) Some time after that, both characters are drawn into a seemingly final conflict between these two forces.
In addition to being thrilling science fiction, with a wickedly accurate parody of Twitter thrown in, The This also riffs on the philosophy of Hegel. The hivemind, in its war against the unassimilated, resembles Hegel’s Absolute discovering itself in conflict. In giving the cruel nonsense of human history a necessary place in the history of Mind’s self-discovery, Hegel seems to suggest that that nonsense was always actually sense, evolving. Hegel offers us the cold comfort that “we,” negated as we are by death or seeming insignificance, still agglomerate into something, like an infinitesimal (well, certain infinitesimals) multiplied by infinity. Talk about giving suffering meaning!
Roberts dramatizes this process in The This in a brutally funny early chapter that repeats “You are a farmer” dozens of times, each repetition signifying an entire human life. Eventually he starts to vary that sentence with sentences like “You are pressed into the army and die of dysentery far from home” and “You clean the house, over and over” and “You climb a tree to pick fruit, and fall from the tree, and break your leg, and your leg grows three times as fat overnight, and becomes ghastly squishy, and goes black and you die in agony.” A few of the stories start to seem like they’re going somewhere – “You accidentally kill a man and have to abscond from your village, and you live in the woods for half a year, growing wilder, driven to more desperate crimes by hunger” – but then: “until winter comes and you freeze to death.” How few of our stories go on long enough to even make, well, good stories. Perhaps it feels somewhat better to have them wrapped up in some great This. But what This would be great enough to be worth it all? None, certainly, that I can imagine. Roberts also seems somewhat equivocal on this point, to judge by the novel’s melancholy ending.
Roberts would seem to agree with those readers of Hegel – that hardy, bedraggled bunch – who think that his system is an unspeakably violent one. Long ago, in The Beauty of the Infinite (2003), David Bentley Hart, in rejecting some liberal theologians’ use of Hegel, placed himself firmly within that camp. God, he argued, acts in spite of or over and above our violence, but not in it. We can’t say that God is Hegel’s Absolute because God doesn’t need hecatombs of human beings, page after page of “You die of dysentery,” to discover himself. Complicated evolutionary-developmental schemas of the Teilhard de Chardin variety are thus precisely beside the point. God did not need any of that misery to happen in order to discover something new about himself through our freedom. We could always skip right to the good times. This possibility, it turns out, is depressing in a different way than Hegel is. If we could, then why don’t we? And why doesn’t God?
Many theologians, faced with this or similar questions, say something like: God wants to offer us free will, so that our choice to accept or reject God will mean something. One can’t help wondering whether freedom on these terms is worth it, or on what grounds it would seem so to God. Where this logic is extended, as it sometimes is, to the afterlife – we live in this vale of tears, shadowed by the possibility of eternal damnation, because such risk gives our choices real stakes – the extension does not so much solve the problem of violence as infinitely multiply it. I enjoy the privilege of being an agent because literally neverending violence is at least a possible outcome for some people, including myself. I am not asked, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov or Ursula K. Le Guin’s citizens of Omelas, to accept the temporary suffering of a child, but the infinite suffering of, perhaps, a great many children.
Theologians answer these questions, or at least nudge them around a bit, in various ways, with various degrees of subtlety or moral intelligence. For Hart, they don’t arise, as his subsequent books make clear. He’s a universalist. He believes that God will repair all of this, completely, for everyone. If he’s right, that’s the best news anyone has ever imagined. (I can’t imagine believing it with the confidence he does; I am the sort of person who can’t even pick a winning raffle ticket. All I can do is hope.) But it also has a depressing side: under these assumptions, it’s somewhat harder to give an account of suffering’s uses, to trade it in like so many chips. At least in many other systems, suffering is needed. It is God’s megaphone to rouse a drowsy world. It’s the mother of beauty. It’s what almost kills you so as to make you stronger. Whereas, for Hart, I take it, suffering is something we can look forward to forgetting, but not something we can look forward to fully making sense of. And the human mind can’t help trying to do that.
Another thing that Hart’s system can’t give us is “an unimpeachable claim to Christian orthodoxy as many people define it.” His new Tradition and Apocalypse answers this charge the only way one can: By saying, in effect, “Well, so’s your mother.” No religious tradition is particularly stable. No version of Christianity doesn’t reject a whole lot of other ones. Our record of the early church’s beliefs and behavior, even if we just confine ourselves to what we find in the New Testament, shows a group of people whose opinions sit at every point on every chart, about very important things. Peter and Paul fought about circumcision; the author of the book of Revelation probably sided with Peter (at least on Hart’s reading). What else would one expect? These people had just watched history get invaded by God. He unfurled himself around it like Heti’s bear, and, like the father in her novel, died. Then he came back, ate fish, and flew away.
The attempt to keep fidelity with such a bizarre event will surely involve as much disagreement and confusion as unity. (Bears, fish, and birds will certainly not see it the same way.) “Faith,” he writes, “is not the assurance that one possesses the fullness of truth, but is rather a fidelity to the future disclosure of the full meaning of what little one already knows.” Efforts to reach “back through the welter of contingent events to some initial and pure impulse whose subsequent unfolding could then be followed” are doomed to failure, however interesting they may be. (The two such efforts Hart engages with are those of John Henry Newman and Maurice Blondel. I’ve read neither, but I still got a lot out of the book.) We are looking forward to love’s full disclosure, at the end of time, and for now we know love only – how else? – as through a glass darkly.
But in the meantime we have these lives of ours to live. Paltry things, perhaps, but they’re not going to live themselves. How to think about them? One doesn’t necessarily expect to find an answer to such a question in a book of political theory, but Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations offers one that I’ve found myself returning to in the months since I first read it: “Be a good ancestor.”
Reconsidering Reparations, as its title indicates, is a book about whether we should pay the living sufferers of colonialism, and the descendants of the dead ones, for their trouble. This is a little like asking whether a boss who steals your paycheck owes you backpay. It’s got to be done; we can argue about accounting, about pace, about what’s workable, about what to call it, but not whether it has to happen. (You don’t want the boss finding new people to underpay in order to make these payments, for example – or for every agency that might pay you to go bankrupt.) That’s the metaphor that I tend to use.
Táíwò offers a better one: Reparations as “worldmaking.” Beginning in the fifteenth century, Europeans (and later Americans) laid the infrastructure of a world that directs stuff toward the West and away from the rest. (In the course of making its argument, this book serves as a decent primer on that history for readers new to it.) The capitalist world-system is “something like a water management system,” he explains. “The system describes which way future waters will naturally run, and where they will not run without novel intervention.” If we do not like to see large numbers of people without water, we will have to do the intervening.
There’s our old friend we again – that huge shadow I am somehow included in, but can barely affect. Reconsidering Reparations ends with some sensible policy recommendations, but again, it’s the moral advice that stuck with me, a piece of wisdom that Táíwò credits to Yoruba tradition: Be a good ancestor. This implies that we should proceed as though there will be some future, too, in addition to whatever horizons await us after here. Try to live in such a way that someone who doesn’t know your name, or what you look like, or any particular fact about you, might still be grateful for the choices you made. To make the world better, in some degree – whether you best do that from the air, or as part of a school, or by curling yourself absolutely, around something small and vulnerable.