Posts have been less frequent of late, mostly because I’ve been distracted by the particularly awful news cycle.
To make up for lost time, I’m sharing a series I’m writing in collaboration with Nicholas Hall gallery in New York. This series places Old Masters paintings in the context of our changing and threatened climate and will cover the four elements. First up is water, featuring German Romanticism, shipwrecks, coastal adaptation methods, and a trip to the Hamburger Kunsthalle.
A bit of housekeeping: The Visitors remains available for preorder and will be released on June 7th (US & UK). Stay tuned for book tour dates and a few forthcoming articles. You can also expect a new substack post on literature and war this time next week.
The sea is returning to us, or maybe for us, the way one returns for revenge: by the 2030s it will begin to claim our coasts and cities, they say, unless we learn to adapt.
The return of the sea is, in a way, the oldest threat. The Dutch have been negotiating shifting sea levels since Roman times, using a system of natural dykes and sand dunes now being adopted by threatened coastal regions around the world. That water’s advance lies at the very inception of our fear of natural catastrophe is evidenced everywhere in Western art and literature, if not comfort, then precedent. Wunderzeichenbuch (The Book of Miracles), a 16th-century collection of apocalyptic illuminated manuscripts, originally printed in Augsburg, Germany and only rediscovered in the last decade, allots the very first folio to The Deluge, an allegorical study of the biblical flood of Genesis. A scattering of drowning souls clings to barrels and horses in the driving rain; in the lower right corner, a king in emerald robes puts his hands together — far too late, I’m afraid — to pray. It’s also what elevated ancient trade routes into mankind’s first act of “conquering” nature: the idea of making one’s fortunes out at sea yolked the two meanings of “liquidity.”
The sea is not only a threat, then, but a plane of promise. Perhaps its most generous gift is the way it expands our imaginations. Alexander von Humboldt, considered the West’s first environmentalist, sailed from Europe to South America to complete a voracious study of the natural world, only to exceed expectations by more or less predicting climate change itself. It was in Ecuador that Humboldt completed his famous Naturgemälde (Painting of Nature), which linked atmospheric parameters and the diversity of plant life to altitude, effectively globalizing the way scientists think about local ecological trends. The ideas of global ecology and “legitimate” wreckage take on new, more ambiguous meanings in a moment when we understand that the oceans act as our collective climate mediator, soaking up greenhouse gases and regulating weather patterns. They quietly swallow enormous amounts of trash in the form of carbon and microplastics and cargo alike. Earlier this year, 4,000 luxury vehicles sank to the bottom of the lawless mid-Atlantic en route from Germany to the United States. The ongoing Great Supply Chain Crisis, like climate change itself, is yet a further reminder of what a lifeline the sea is for global harmony and connectivity; what we refer to as the World Wide Web is in fact a series of cables laid along the silence of the ocean floor. And it is via our shared seas, finally, that centuries of Western overconsumption today translate increased risk of catastrophic flooding in the Global South.
For a novelist, there is something instructive in these lessons of the sea. Here on fellowship in Europe’s climate research capital of Berlin, I would like to address what is perhaps our century’s greatest challenge in the medium that comes most naturally to me. The trouble is, my own canvas — the blank, 8×11 page — has historically been better suited to the exploration of individual psychology, ambition, and concerns than to the kinds of ecological dramas that unfold on global scales. The sea’s invitation to imagine ourselves as part of a global order puts the individual in her place vis-a-vis the natural world without destroying her — that is, while preserving the individual perspective that lies at the heart of the novel form.