Romanticism, Then and Now, Now and Then
The Romantic world was a time of revolution, protest, politics – and climate change. With the release of his fascinating new book, Romantic Revelations author Chris Washington shares how, two-hundred years later, the focus remains anthropocentric.
The Romantic world I explore in Romantic Revelations was a time of climate change, particularly exemplified by 1816, “the year without a summer,” in which the Shelleys and Byron hunkered down in a chateau reading ghost stories and failing to write them. Well, except Mary of course who completed Frankenstein. It was also a time of revolution and protest although that was not the focus of my book. But a few recent developments with global implications for climate change seem to me to resonate with Romanticism as a mode of thinking in, with, and against the Anthropocene.
On October 31, 2018, a thousand plus members of the Extinction Rebellion collective assembled in London at Parliament Square to protest government inaction on climate change. Over the course of the next several weeks, dozens of arrests were made at multiple Extinction Rebellion stagings of civil disobedience.
And yet, for all the good climate change protests like Extinction Rebellion arguably do in continuing to bring attention to this urgent issue and to pressure governments to take action, stated aims and goals of such protests very often fail to include nonhumans as subjects of attention, care, preservation, and life. The focus remains anthropocentric: how do we save the human species from the result of its own self-death-dealing, from the destruction of the natural world that they have in fact destroyed? A certain species-wide narcissism seems to persist. We must save ourselves at all costs.
Consider then a new study of climate change that might temporally locate the Anthropocene elsewhen. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have shown how the genocidal settler colonialism of the Americas killed around 90% of the Indigenous population – 56 million people – and that Indigenous genocide produced other catastrophic results, including the drastic cooling of the earth’s climate that may be the inauguration of what we think of as contemporary climate change. Their study reminds us that not only may the history of the Anthropocene be different than we think but that we tend to think of climate change as the extinction of “we” humans as a collective, but it is also of course deeply linked to colonization, racism, sexism, ethnocentricism, and speciesism, affecting non-white euro-populations more drastically than “we” often take into account. And as another recent study finds, humans have killed off 60% of different animal populations in the last 50 years.
Romantic Revelations does not directly address either Extinction Rebellion (which occurred after its writing) or the genocide of Indigenous peoples. However, the book does speak to such events.
Romanticism offers a radical hospitality, a kind of ethos perhaps, that we desperately need to adjust to and attempt to survive in the Anthropocene. This hospitality demonstrates a need not for a politics based on democratic equality, but rather for a new type of social living arrangement that affords equality to all humans and nonhumans on the basis of difference. To put it in terms of the ongoing climate change protest movements of today, Romanticism resists calls for a universalized humanity. It asks us instead to recognize differences amongst humans and to accept those differences in an intersectional fashion that invites others in precisely because of difference, precisely because difference should be celebrated. The radical hospitality of Romanticism seeks to multiply difference rather than cling to the dangerous belief in this thing called a “human.”
Mary Shelley’s second novel, The Last Man (1826), opens onto similar problems of extinction and climate change. In the book, straggles of leftover humans sludge through a world devastated by plague and pestilence. While the novel appears to aggressively inhabit and propose a kind of nihilism, I find such texts to be hopeful. Because it is only when all hope is lost, when there is no hope, that hope can emerge – that, after all, is the nature of hope. Post-apocalyptic Romanticism, in other words, is ultimately about happy endings. Or so it is if we heed the call of hospitality, especially towards those nonhumans who we overlook in our narcissism-fueled climate discussions and everyday practices of full-throttle capitalistic consumption. Given that these same practices are what created the crisis in the first place, it appears that our rapacious eating of animals, say, needs to stop. It may well be, even, that the only way to save ourselves is to save those who cannot save themselves.
Hospitality of this Romantic sort is also, then, a kind of love towards the other, a love that can extend to collectives or to interpersonal relationships. Consider, for instance, this nonhuman vignette. Two insects from 54 million years ago found preserved in amber, preserved in an embrace, a final act of loving and love, a preservation, perhaps, of their love? Except we don’t know whether they are in love. Maybe to assume so is to anthropomorphize them. We don’t know anything about them other than that they are suspended in an act of reproduction that does not reproduce. Perhaps this amber tableau offers a metaphor for humans as well. While we may think we are reproducing a human species for the future the truth is there may be no future for humans. It would seem a wise reminder that we should love each other now, while we can, before our fate is sealed in amber.
Chris Washington is Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University, and the author of Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene.