Rethinking Climate Fiction | How two Indonesian volcanic eruptions shaped modern culture

In October 2016, Amitav Ghosh wrote a very long feature in the Guardian asking a very simple question: where is the fiction about climate change? In the years since, merely typing in “climate change fiction” brings up several helpful lists, some going into the hundreds (thanks, Goodreads), that answer Ghosh’s question. There is now even a neologism, cli-fi, popularly applied to this sudden phenomenon. This “boom” in fiction that examines the most important issue of the Holocene could be due to the recent acclaim towards speculative fiction writers, such as Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, as well as a re-reading of old apocalypses – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or even Martin Amis’ London Fields from 1989. Yet Ghosh’s enquiry could have been answered by another question – first of all, where is the fiction about climate?

It may be too on the nose to bring up David Foster Wallace’s joke about the fish unaware that they are swimming in water, but climate is our water. It is not only an abstract in our daily recorded lives but in how we understand past culture. As it had been relatively stable, past diarists felt no need to record changes of temperature, weather patterns, or fauna outside of the scientific or the dull. Those that did are not bracketed within the same literature we cosy up to for leisure, as is the case with the novel, that most popular vessel for fiction. Things have changed because things are changing and, as a species, we now have to start doing what we had never done before. It may be out of leftfield to compare this situation to Post-Colonial Literature, but as a cultural movement it attests to the difficulty of producing literature from a tradition that seems non-existent. That is seemingly the case with climate fiction.

“While I may be as much of a climate scientist as Foucault was a psychiatrist, and most of my research has come from pairing the facts of a few Wikipedia articles with four years studying an English BA, I only hope to point out what had happened before and not been re-stated enough.”

In my time not-Headstuff writing, I work for a publisher that puts out educational textbooks Some time last year, while working on a Geography book, I came upon two massive environmental catastrophes from the 19th century that, through the changes they wrought on world climate, paved the peculiar, overlooked conditions that produced the forerunners and foundation of what we think of as our contemporary culture, Modernism. Those two climate events both occurred in Indonesia, the other side of the world to what we consider the locus of big-m Modernism. The first of these actually occurred nearly a century before Eliot published ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’, yet the impact is there, overlooked due to their imperceptible trickle-down through time and masked by the conventions of history.

This overlooking of climate is eye-watering but the norm outside a few exceptions within academia. For example, recent explanations for what could be called the Victorian era’s “atheist turn”, that sudden, profound scepticism towards Christian theology that culminated in Nietzsche’s “God is dead and we have killed him”, has been credited to the proliferation of geologist James Hutton’s idea of “deep time”. While not necessarily the discovery of climate change, Hutton’s theory radically changed how our planet was understood. As popularised in Charles Lyell’s Principle of Geology, Hutton calculated that our planet was not 6,000 years old per the Old Testament but hundreds of billion, and that humankind was only a recent development within that. While culture is often understood through rapid, nudging factors, the influence of scientific understanding is more gradual. While Principles of Geology can be cited in reference to Tennyson’s mortalisitc fretting without qualm, the then-radical nihilism of Eliot and Pound’s distinct obsession with writing ancient texts as something “new” (almost as if the distance between them was put into perspective) involves seeing a strand of influence that is invisible but unarguably there if you look for it, like a fish in water or (to be more honest about our contemporary climate) a frog in a boiling pot.

While I may be as much of a climate scientist as Foucault was a psychiatrist, and most of my research has come from pairing the facts of a few Wikipedia articles with four years studying an English BA, I only hope to point out what had happened before and not been re-stated enough. Perhaps this might reveal how much of the physical world has affected our cultural imagination and stir a re-evaluation of when climate impresses on us more recently. Or I could be pointing to two bold coincidences that have no tangible effect on Modernism itself.

Influence is much like river water – a river is the water that flows through it, though that water is never the same. And if you cup or bottle that streaming water, no one will say it is also the river. So, dear reader, look at the clear, shimmering thing gathered in my hands. Shall we drink it?

A one-man rupture in the history of art

Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa, then part of the Dutch East Indies, had been excreting clouds of exhaust for three years. On the 10th of April, 1815, a sound like rifles was heard 2,600 km away in Sumatra, a distance equivalent to that between Paris and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. An eruption that had begun a few days earlier intensified to such an extent that ash would fall over 1,300 kilometres away. On the Volcanic Explosive Index (VEI), the nine-point scale that categorises volcanic blasts from the continuous eruptions of a level 0 (or “Hawaiian”) to the Ice Age-conjuring level 8 “Mega Colossal”, Mount Tambora was ranked a 7, “Colossal”. 10,000 died in the immediate blast, while 40,000 passed away afterwards from the ensuing disease and starvation brought by the ecological havoc. An estimated 4,600 died in Java (1,260 km away) from the resulting tsunamis while Sumbawa was hollowed out, the once 14,000 feet high mountain reduced to a six-kilometre-wide caldera a third of its original height.

However, the greatest impact would come from the sulphur dioxide pumped from the blast. The eruption is considered an Ultra-Plinean. These eruptions are known for the long column of what would appear to be ash but is actually a mixture of different volcanic effluvia and gases that tower upwards and spreads in the stratosphere like a Stone Pine. Their name comes from Pliny the Elder who had witnessed Vesuvius’s eruption from Naples and provided that Mediterranean-tinged simile in his written account. This influx of sulphur dioxide was so great that it resulted in a 3 degrees Celsius world temperature fall. The cause for this drop was that aforementioned ash cloud. While it shrouded parts of Indonesia in a thick, nitrous-smelling fog, it slowly spread a veil over the world. Immediately and throughout the summer of that year, a dry fog dominated the North-Eastern United States, dimming and reddening sunlight. Soon, similar conditions were seen in England. For two periods in late June and throughout September, sunsets became an opera of yellow and reddening light, the ensuing twilight bearing a crimson or orange horizon while the upper atmosphere appeared blue or purple.

Turner Brook |
Turner’s Crossing The Brook, Source

In 1815, J.M.W. Turner was 40 years old and in England exhibiting new landscapes in the Royal Academy. Crossing the Brook, painted that year, is barely striking compared to his more famous works. What is exemplary about the painting, however, is that it is a common example of the post-Tacoma sky in 1815, its yellow light matching descriptions of those powerful sunsets. However, I have my doubts. According to Tate Britain, its current exhibiters, the painting was based on studies of Devon from 1811 to 1813. Turner’s earlier paintings also show similar light effects – there are the same sandy skies in Tabley, Cheshire, the Seat of Sir J.F. Leicester, Bart.: Calm Morning (1809) and Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning (1810) (there is nothing I can do about the young Turner’s cumbersome names). The only paintings that seem to relay the bounty of colour described appear to be Turner’s later work, the blood orange vistas of The Slave Ship (1840), The Fighting Téméraire (1839) or the unfinished Sunrise with Sea Monsters (1845). Why would this be? I put it down to factors, similar no less, to the aforementioned working of influence itself.

Turner, then in mid-career, was just beginning to be seduced by the abstraction that would define his later work. The swathes of colour that surrounds his subjects was just beginning to enter his vocabulary, a style previously dominated by his profound draughtsmanship. Early paintings show the two sitting side by side: Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) is dominated by an impressionistic force of weather, while along the painting’s bottom perfectly formed soldiers scuttle to cover. Slowly the impressionism won out, but it is hard to say why. There is that common trait of genius emerging when a master of an art gets bored and begins to push against the rules they had followed so thoroughly. It can be seen in Shakespeare’s later syntactic distortions, Matisse’s plunge into bold colour, and Adrienne Rich’s abandonment of established metre and rhyme for a diaristic vers libre. The more interesting question is why they rebel that way. For Shakespeare, it was to explore madness and nihilism, Matisse a crippling arthritis, and Rich the overwhelming impact of her private life and politicisation. For Turner, it may well have been driven by loss and a self-aware aestheticism not seen before.

Turner Hannibal |
Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, Source

In a forceful essay, John Berger suggested that Turner’s wondrous skies may have been inspired by a childhood memory. As an assistant in his father’s barbershop, Berger imagined the boy Turner staring into the rinse-buckets where the collected suds and blood from his dad’s blade swirled together. Berger’s thought experiment is hard to disprove. To perform my own extrapolation, Turner was known to cultivate a visual memory for his art, once sticking his head out of a moving train to study the atmosphere for Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844). He also held a profound affection for his father. In adulthood, their roles reversed with the older Turner becoming his son’s assistant and housemate for over 30 years. When he died in 1829, Turner began to have bouts of depression and became a recluse. A year before, Turner produced his first identifiably Turner-esque sunset, Chichester Canal (c. 1828), though the following sunsets were torrid and violent, as if the barber’s knife was still stirring that sanguine wash. It’s very possible that the sunset, that grand cliché for death, revived contradictory enthusiasms for Turner, the astounding array of warm light bringing him back to a childhood now tainted with loss, meanwhile the inevitable dark must have been painful for a man whose last words were (apocryphally) “The Sun is God”.

However, let me be the first to say that speculative biography of this ilk may get us nowhere. Whether or not Turner’s later painting was driven by a deep-seated catharsis, what is there is the paint itself. Turner is a one-man rupture in the history of art. The declining privilege of the figurative in art is often associated with the Impressionists of the French Belle Époque and the ensuing flood of the many -isms that came after. However, Turner, a man born in the 18th century, is the one-off radical parent to these movements. That fact can be seen by him being the namesake of the UK’s foremost modern art award, and one with a historical basis to art working from and emphasising its materialism – whether that be Chris Ofili’s elephant dung portraits or Grayson Perry’s curated overlay of images on ceramic pots.

“The swathes of colour that surrounds his subjects was just beginning to enter his vocabulary, a style previously dominated by his profound draughtsmanship.”

Stepping out of any narrative surrounding Turner, any old Joe padding through a gallery would recognise how his work emphasises and draws attention to the oils, the very materials of the medium. This is no new observation, but the cultural mores of that time would not have accepted such a self-conscious approach. Modernism through its manifestoes was able to justify its abstraction as a way to recentralise awareness of art as a medium and subject to a process near erasure under mechanisation. Turner, however, was excited by what he saw of the creeping Industrial Revolution, as seen in Rain, Steam and Speed, and its greatest impact at that time was the linking of towns and communities through the railways, not the Factory Line Isolation that was to come of the early 20th century.

Instead, Turner’s abstract turn, his inspiration (or excuse) to centre materiality and a knowing self-consciousness into his art may have come from the memory of those world-ending sunsets, still alive that memory of their aspiring palette. If Berger could convince us of the influence of a childhood memory, how could the remembered sight of so many walks home through Chelsea in those June and September evenings not have stayed with and swayed the middle-aged master painter always fascinated by the many textures and tones of sky? To his contemporaries, those later landscapes showcased no abstract phenomenon but would have been recognised as recalling a natural phenomenon any critic of Turner worth heeding had also witnessed. Its heightening of the natural world would have been understood as a summoning of the Romantic sublime based in recent history, no different than the classical figures he had leaned on in his early career. If Tambora had not blown and Turner painted those same vistas, is there any guarantee that this work – sui generis and split from reality, indulgent in its oils, and painted by a reclusive cockney known for his rudeness and loathing of polite mores – would have been recognised and regarded as it was, or instead dismissed as the crank imaginings of hermit oddball?

The Year without a Summer

Mount Tambora’s worldwide effects were not confined to optical illusions. In fact, the most damaging would strike Europe a year later. 1816, known as the “Year Without a Summer”, saw the effects of such a deluge of atmospheric dust. The huge temperature decline wrought due to the solar-reflecting sulphur cloud brought huge rains and a steep temperature drop. Throughout 1816 alone, mass harvest failures resulted in New England farmers moving west and establishing the states of Illinois and Indiana, food shortages caused so much turmoil and rioting in continental Europe that the administrative state was born to deal with the crisis, while the collapse of wheat, oat, and potato crops saw Ireland undergo a famine and typhoid outbreak until 1819 with upwards of 100,000 dead. In England, it coincided with an already grave dip in temperature (known as the Dalton minimum) to prolong and exacerbate conditions not dissimilar to Stockholm in Hoxton or any other London borough.

It was also at this time that the young Charles Dickens, born in 1812, began to have his first memorable Christmases. The following winters regularly saw parts of the Thames freeze over (no mean feat, as it was then a river filled with human waste and industrial run-off, material whose freezing points would have been much higher than water’s). For example, in January of 1820 the temperature at Tunbridge Wells, 40 miles southeast of London, was recorded as reaching as low as minus 23 degrees Celsius. Snow occurred in London even as late as the 27th of May in 1821. However, the frequent irregular freezings would fade as Dickens entered adolescence, yet, as with Turner, the freakish spectacular of that weather lasted in his creative imagination.

“While it can seem that piracy has never been so widespread as it is today, Dickens’ popularity was at its highest when copyright protection was non-existent and it was common practice for presses to publish their own illegitimate printings of the day’s bestsellers”

I am not going to waste your time by telling you that Dickens often featured snow in his soot-bothered London. It was once an astute aesthetic choice then quickly became cliché. To drench the blackened metropolis in all-white belied a wonderful contrast, and the city’s own cruelty was belied with a pathetic fallacy that spoke for Little Nell, dying of exposure, and Scrooch, a man so devoid of human warmth he refuses to heat his office and home during a near-blizzard. It also lay the ultimate backdrop to the expression of hope and redemption – think again of Scrooch by story’s end, running through the snow with his coat open, that eager to visit the Cratchetts.

Now, that’s all stomach-churning in its obviousness, having those scenes and its like be branded onto a Himalaya of seasonal biscuit tins since. Yet it is little known that Dickens, through his writing, provided the iconography for the secular Christmas and the notion that snowy winters in our dank corner of Western Europe were to be expected. How, though?

It is somewhat easy to gauge how well-read Dickens’ work was in his own time. Despite the lack of book-selling statistics or sales affected by the period’s broad illiteracy, Dickens’ success can be seen in the massive amounts of piracy he was a victim of. While it can seem that piracy has never been so widespread as it is today, Dickens’ popularity was at its highest when copyright protection was non-existent and it was common practice for presses to publish their own illegitimate printings of the day’s bestsellers. He had spent most of his non-writing life lobbying Westminster on this issue and his trip to America in 1842 was dominated by his petitioning the US government to legislate protection of foreign authors’ intellectual property. The issue was acutely felt by Dickens, as in that tour stretching from Quebec to Missouri, he was mobbed by crowds who had, due to the lax laws at the time, not paid him a cent to read any of his works.

Even in England, the issue dogged him. Within two months of A Christmas Carol being published on December 19th, 1843, Parley’s Illuminated Library produced their own version. Dickens successfully sued for £700 (equivalent to £56,364 today), though Parley’s dodged the fee by declaring bankruptcy. That is merely one instant of Dickens losing out on royalties, but the combined damage would have been wrought by hundreds of small printings intended for market stalls. It would have been further exacerbated by A Christmas Carol. Due to its short length and heart-warming ending, it was destined to become Dickens’ most well-read and popular work from the very start. It had sold out its initial 6,000 run by Christmas Eve and created the demand grifters thrive on.

Dickens-mania was not limited to publishing. As seen by Disney’s contemporary obsession with guaranteeing the image rights for its roster of characters, there is a lot of money to be made from merchandise. This was the case with Victorian era, as craftspeople of different ilks adorned their wares with images that either openly depicted Dickens’ scenes or at least suggested them. The cliché of the biscuit tin depicting a snowed-over London lane was born through these different moves to align anything with the most popular author’s most popular work. It was by sheer luck that Dickens’ story came in the wake of the aforementioned Atheist Turn and the interest in secular Christmas traditions rose. His transposing of the Christian ideals of redemption onto the figure of Scrooge proved the most popular, and a Baudrillardian simulacra occurred as the rise of mass-production caused a boom in images further and further dislocated from their original, creating a system of understanding and expectations divorced from reality. And yes, this does sound a heavy way to describe the rise of winter scenes of biscuit tins, or why we hope for a White Christmas each December.

Consider Eliot and Pound, however, and their at-times infamous self-seriousness. The aforementioned concern in disappearing tradition, particular that of a Western, Christian-leaning nature, would have combined with the two’s distaste for mass-produced commodities to truly despair at the post-Dickens commercial world. To see what they considered trash culture (both Dickens and his savvy, commodifying imitators) become the new societal touchstone, a step below organised religion itself, would have been enough to spur them and their peers to write against it. In the modernist’s winters, there is no sense of Scroogean redemption but a grinding infertility, no idyll in the winter city but “[s]treets that follow like a tedious argument” dominated by a “yellow fog”, a rebuke to the mass-produced idyll inspired by Dickens’ own idealised memory of post-Tacoma snowfalls.

A Great Unending Scream Piercing Through Nature

My examples could end there, but one more recent and immediate example still stalks this argument. In the early morning of the 26th of August 1883, Krakatoa, a small island located between Sumatra and Java, exploded with a force four times the power of Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear device ever detonated. The blast was heard 4,800 kilometres away in Alice Springs, Australia, a distance longer than the continent of South America. Despite the force of the eruption, it was rated a VEI 6, less than Mount Tacoma, but still killed over 36,000 through its initial blast and ensuing tsunamis that reached 40 metres high. Krakatoa itself subsequently cratered and next to the whole island was swallowed by the sea. The following global temperature fall was upwards of 1.2 degrees Celsius due to the vast amounts of sulphur dioxide produced; more, surprisingly, than during the eruptions of Mount Tacoma. The sulphur dioxide levelled out in the stratosphere, being carried by cirrus clouds that spread across the globe. The sulphur dioxide at first darkened the sky through its particles reflecting back sunlight, leading to the concurrent drop in temperature before eventually falling from the sky to precipitate as acid rain. For our purposes, however, what matters is what occurred in between.

In the ensuing months after Krakatoa, optical illusions were sighted across the planet. On September 5th, Rev. Sereno Edwards Bishop spotted a blue-brown halo circling the sun over Honolulu. The optical effect, Bishop’s Ring, would be named after him and is now recognised as a sign of large volcanic eruptions. More dramatic, however, were the ensuing sunsets. While the skies were darker during the day, when the sun eventually fell the sky burst “into a brilliant scarlet” such that “many thought that a great fire was in progress” when it first occurred in New York, on November 28th. William Ashcroft, a London-based artist, produced several recordings of the crimson sky that year. However, there is little reason describing to you these skies when you have seen them maybe hundreds of times already, quietly present in one of the most famous works of art ever committed to paint.

Krakatoa |
Krakatoa, 1883, Source

On November 30th, 1883, Norway witnessed a twilight similar to the one that had occurred in New York and London, an Oslo newspaper recalling a “strong light” the next day that some mistook for a fire. Edvard Munch, then only 20 years old but already known for his bohemian behaviour and regular dismissal by art critics, recorded the incident in his diary somewhat differently:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – when then the Sun set – all at once the sky became blood red – and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired – clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city […] I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”

Munch had seen the vista that would obsess him for the next ten years until he finally committed it to canvas multiple times with oils and pastels. Remembering that earth-transcending howl, he called it The Scream (1893).

Munch in his early career was similar to Turner in his eagerness to over-emphasis light and smoke. However, he had come in Turner’s wake, as well as after the Impressionists, and seemed to struggle with the freedom of abstraction. His style changed consistently, continuingly veering from naturalism to work akin to Manet or Renoir. His attempt to find his place was not interpreted kindly; due to his association with Hans Jaegur, a local nihilist and sex-enthusiast, Munch was dismissed by critics and the gallery-going public as a degenerate artist. The slurs even strained his ability to paint, as his own father would stop providing funds for Munch’s supplies after a few stinging reviews in the local paper.

Edvard Munch, Climate Fiction |
Munch’s The Scream, Source

In search of a subject that could ground his chameleonic style, Munch turned to the facts of his own life, and considered mental illness as a muse. It was not a light choice, his early family life had been blighted by it. His mother and elder sister had died from tuberculosis while he was an infant, leaving his neurotic, hyper-pious father to singlehandedly raise the family.

Munch described his father as a sower of “the seeds of madness”, and his younger sister Laura would be diagnosed with mental illness at a young age. Munch himself had issues with mental health and was once recorded as saying that he was “almost mad” for several years. The first clear approach to this theme was 1891’s Melancholy. Painted while staying in Berlin, it reveals the influence of artists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh for it’s a-realistic use of colour in expressing emotion. However, the emotion expressed is weak, wisp-like. Its faint, disappearing horizon apes the tragic, but its subject and mood express the ennui of an Impressionist’s flaneur. That Parisian influence seemed to dilute Munch’s depiction of the emotion he would describe in his writing as “the angels of fear, sorrow, and death [that] stood by my side since the day I was born”. Two years after that painting, Munch found a way to express the anguish he desired to depict.

Munch’s achievement in The Scream, and its ensuing influence, was its push to depict the world-distorting effects of a troubled psyche via transgressive, abstract techniques. Taking the hyperreal colours and carefree, childish figures of Gauguinian joy, Munch subverted and accelerated the scraping, sobbing unease of depression. The painting itself is horrifying in its catharsis, giving voice to the unique sensation of personal apocalypse. My mind rushes to the poetry of the mid-20th century and a coterie of poets described as “confessional”. Despite that near-derogatory name and charges of solipsism, their work ably centred and incorporated the natural world in their articulation of anguish. Sylvia Plath, now the most influential of that group, had paired and blended mental volatility and nature in “Elm” to such an extent that it reads like a companion piece to Munch:

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The lapsed connection between the internal world and the external, a stable relationship between which we consider integral for accessing “reality” and maintaining “sanity”, was given its first major visceral portrayal with Munch, who having struggled to express those emotions over the previous decade, suddenly found the right vessel when remembering that first bloodied fire of an Oslo evening.

Edvard Munch Melancholy, Climate Fiction |
Munch’s Melancholy, Source

While focus often falls on the skully visage of its foreground figure, the sense of dread expressed in The Scream is conjured more through the heavy bands of sanguine cloud that dominate the sky and look ready to crush the only recognisable person within the frame. In popular culture, the titular “scream” is often laid upon that black-shrouded figure. However, to me, after reading Munch’s diary and studying this painting while researching this article, I somewhat disagree. I now see a person covering their ears, running away from a deafening noise no one else has noticed: nature’s own screaming.

Sliding Into The Uncanny

If I am ever to have a good conclusion to this piece, it might be there. The point of this article has evaded me at times, as in answering the question of whether it’s possible or not to save the planet as we know it, no one – not even the delusional English B.A. – has ever recommended we Gilbert-and-Gubar for climate. However, it can be helpful to remember that climate is and always has been there, and even its most subtle effects have profoundly influenced how we approach this world. It always doesn’t do any harm to shake off the fallacious illusion that the factors of history and intellectual discourse are uniquely man-made.

While its unlikely that my gestures towards science will lead to the humanities becoming a hive of geological-historians, as we become more aware of our climate changing, how it affects our decisions, our culture, and enters our daily lives will lead to a more considered method to adjust and decide what to do as our world slides into the uncanny.

There is also, in my own mind, the perverse thought that we may have only seen the beginning of Modernism or Modern Culture. Perhaps, in the academies of centuries later, situated in a scorching hellscape of whirring machines, pH3 sea water, and hermitic communities rubbing algae into their gums for sustenance, the freak landscapes of Turner, Dickens, and Munch may be recognised as forebears to whatever comes next for our descendants. Hunkering in hovels dug into former mountains, staring at books, or computer screens, or holograms, they will scour information and hypothesise to glean some understanding of their place in the world, not-so-quietly desperate for an assurance that their world is this way for a reason.

Much like us.

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