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A Dissonant Mind in a Dissonant Body: Allegories of Climate Change Denial in McEwanʼs Novel Solar (2010)

Un esprit dissonant dans un corps dissonant : allégories du déni du changement climatique dans le roman de McEwan Solaire (2010)
Marion Moussier

Résumés

Solaire, roman satirique de Ian McEwan sur la crise climatique, adopte un ton comique qui le distingue de la plupart des fictions climatiques aux inspirations principalement dystopiques, apocalyptiques et élégiaques. Certains critiques ont trouvé cette approche novatrice inadaptée à la gravité du sujet (Garrard 2012) et ont déploré lʼabsence dʼattention accordée aux émotions quʼil peut engendrer (Kerridge 2010). Cependant, dʼautres ont reconnu quʼinterpréter le roman de manière allégorique permettait dʼy voir une critique sociale de la nature humaine et des sociétés occidentales (Traub 2018, Zamanek 2012). Cet article suggère que le protagoniste allégorique de Solaire révèle certaines tensions et contradictions au cœur des attitudes contemporaines envers le changement climatique tout en évitant le paralysant pessimisme des fictions apocalyptiques. Avec un récit actuel, Solaire nous rappelle combien le lien entre les besoins immédiats de la vie quotidienne et leurs invisibles conséquences sur le long terme peut être difficile à assimiler. Ainsi, Astrid Bracke suggère que le changement climatique se heurte fréquemment à ce que les psychologues appellent la “dissonance cognitive” : une incapacité à coordonner la connaissance et lʼaction qui peut mener à lʼapathie et même au déni (Bracke 2017). Peu de fictions climatiques ont jusquʼà présent abordé le déni, la dissonance cognitive, la paralysie psychique et autres réactions psychologiques d'autoprotection face à la crise climatique. Cet article examine dans quelle mesure le protagoniste allégorique de Solaire, notamment à travers le rôle dissonant de son corps et de son esprit, permet dʼexposer ces états psychiques et leurs raisons sous-jacentes. Si Solaire semble à première vue aborder le changement climatique avec trop de légèreté, ce roman soulève des questions cruciales telles que les contraintes psychologiques qui peuvent entraver la prise d'action pour le climat.

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1Inspired by a shared concern for our planetary future, fictional works addressing the issue of anthropogenic climate change have been growing in number and diversity since the latter half of the twentieth century (Johns-Putra 2019). Today, the umbrella term ‘climate fiction’ encompasses a wide range of genres, all confronted to the unprecedented challenge of representing a phenomenon whose scale and complexity is testing the limits of traditional literary forms. According to Amitav Ghosh, the challenge is particularly taxing for novels since they are conventionally restricted by boundaries of time and space (Ghosh 2016). However, he concedes that satire may be a tempting solution to overcome this representational challenge, citing McEwanʼs Solar as an example (Ghosh 2016). Solar, McEwanʼs first (and latest) climate fiction, satirises consumer society, climate change politics and flaws in human nature such as self-interest and short-termism. Many critics agreed that its protagonist, Michael Beard, could be read as an embodiment of modern society and its associated self-destructive lifestyle: M. John Harrison describes him as a symbol of over-consumption (Harrison 2010), Astrid Bracke as ‘an allegory . . . of the kind of greed that brought humanity to the brink of extinction’ (Bracke 2019, 54) and Adeline Johns-Putra sees him as ‘a modern everyman’ (Johns-Putra 241), thereby emphasising its allegorical dimension. Similarly, Evi Zemanek affirms that Solarʼs ‘quality . . . depends on its allegorical concept, which solves a great problem of representation’ (Zemanek 51).

2The use of allegory is clearly not a specificity of McEwanʼs novel, as the trope is fairly well distributed in contemporary production. Catherine Bernardʼs recent critical work has shown that the allegorical trope of the body politic is still widely in use and often resorted to in contemporary British literature during periods of crisis (Bernard 2018). Brenda Machosky defines allegory as ‘a way of saying or showing one thing and meaning another’ and ‘more specifically as “the appearance of one thing in another thing which it is not”’ (Machosky 1). According to Brian McHale, allegory is ‘a text-length trope which preserves the two-level ontological structure of metaphor . . . but in which, instead of being announced explicitly, the two-level structure remains implicit, disseminated throughout the text’ (McHale 140). Particularly relevant to the concerns of climate fiction, Zhang Longxi states that allegory ‘takes the form of a finite fragment to point toward the infinite as something beyond language, something ultimately inaccessible and unrepresentable’ (Longxi 224). This definition highlights the potential of allegory as a literary device through which abstract or elusive climate change related issues can be given a concrete shape—through Solarʼs protagonist, for instance—and brought within the reach of our imagination. Indeed, Longxi links allegory to the early German Romantic definition of representation as the use of ‘a sensuous image to point toward something beyond its own sensuosity’ (Longxi 229). In Solar, the sensuous image of the protagonist acts as an embodied reference point that mirrors and reveals, thanks to its allegorical function, larger abstract social trends entangled with the issue of anthropogenic climate change.

3However, some critics were not convinced by McEwanʼs choice of satirical allegory: as Bracke puts it, the ‘dissatisfaction with the novel is largely tied in with its genre, as well as the character of Michael Beard’ (Bracke 2019, 46). Greg Garrard, for instance, finds this narrative mode escapist and argues that Solarʼs focus on Beardʼs personal life diverts the attention from the real issue (Garrard 2013). Yet, I will attempt to demonstrate that this narrative choice offers a realistic representation of how climate change is considered as a secondary concern in our societies. Moreover, if Solarʼs allegorical protagonist has attracted substantial critical attention, the way it serves to illustrate some psychological processes crucial to climate change perception deserves further study. Drawing on the idea of the allegorical protagonist established by previous criticism, I will show how Solarʼs focus on Beardʼs psychology, fostered by a realist attention to interiority, exemplifies some common mental barriers to climate change mitigation such as denial, cognitive dissonance, fatalism and psychic numbing, as he faces the personal quandaries associated with such an overwhelming crisis.

The Protagonist as Embodiment of Society: Between Allegory and Realism

4Although his flaws are exaggerated enough to make him a caricature, Beard is also a realistic character and an average modern citizen. He is described as ‘a city-dweller, an indoors man who lived by the keyboard and screen’ (71) and we learn that he ‘comfortably shared all of humanityʼs faults’ (171). Because his flaws are so human, he is a character one can at least partly identify with, which helps create a tension between empathy and critical judgement for the reader. Beardʼs ordinariness is crucial to his allegorical function since it makes him both a character that the reader can relate to and an appropriate reflection of modern lifestyles.

5However, Beard is more than a mere embodiment of social trends. One could argue that his allegorical function is ambiguously counteracted by what can be identified as some features of the realist tradition. The fact that Beard is presented both as an individual and as a representative of his society, the way his personal life becomes entangled with contemporary social issues, betray a concern with historicity and character development reminiscent of the realist novel. Indeed, as Raymond Williams points out, ‘the fact is that we are people and people within a society: that whole view was at the centre of the realistic novel’ (Williams 23). Moreover, Solarʼs focus on the protagonistʼs interiority, the wealth of specific details provided about the ordinary experiences of his daily life, its linear chronological structure, recall what Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth counts among the most distinctive features of realism, namely ‘particularity, circumstantiality, humble subject-matter, viewpoint, chronology, interiority, externality’ (Deeds Ermarth 565). In other words, Beard cannot be reduced to a flat allegory, for he is also a fully fleshed-out individual with his own unique subjective mind and experience. If its concerns are somehow antithetical to those of the allegory, realism allows McEwan to build a true-to-life character that implicitly echoes broader, more complex phenomena of which it can be taken as a representative without surrendering his individuality to generalisation. Thus, allegory and realism work in a complementary manner, where the former allows to address what exceeds the latter while the latter helps set the former in the plausible framework of everyday reality. Strengthened by the realist features mentioned above and inspired by the traditional allegorical trope of the body politic, the constant focus on Beardʼs body might be one of the most striking aspects of the allegory. As Catherine Bernard aptly demonstrated, contemporary literary works often turn to the allegorical trope of the dysfunctional, diseased body to reflect and denounce their disrupted sociopolitical context (Bernard 2018).

6Descriptions of Beardʼs body, metaphorically referred to as the ‘Expanding Universe’ (223), pervade the novel, reminding the reader of his ever-increasing weight and insatiable hunger. We see him ‘bending with effort against the newly thickened cordon of fat around his waist’ (82) and learn later that he ‘had developed . . . supplementary chins’ (225). Through the interior monologues embedded in the third person narration, we are given access to his thoughts as his obesity becomes disabling: ‘strange to think back to the days when he could put his socks on while standing up’ (325). These constant descriptions offered by the disembodied narrator through the protagonistʼs own gaze convey a feeling of exponential growth towards self-destruction. It is in Beardʼs unbridled consumption of junk food that the allegory of consumer societyʼs lifestyle and its harmful impact surfaces most clearly. To take but one of numerous examples, Beard devours ‘four wedges of skinless chicken breast, interleaved with three minute steaks, the whole wrapped in bacon, with a honey and cheese topping, served with twice-roasted jacket potatoes already impregnated with butter and cream cheese’ (278). Facilitated by a realist concern with the truthful representation of banal reality, the constant repetitions of such detailed descriptions create an impression of unrestrained consumption and illustrate the most unhealthy aspects of modern societyʼs eating habits. Moreover, one could argue that Beardʼs diet, rich in animal protein and processed food, is not only self-destructive, but also ecologically irresponsible, which stands in sharp contrast with his professional concern with climate change. Only through denial is Beard able to maintain this damaging lifestyle, which, as I am about to show, results in a state of dissonance between mind and body that allegorically echoes contemporary attitudes to climate change.

Denial and the Dissonant Body

7Beard is introduced as a man ‘of narrowed mental condition’ (3) in a ‘delusional state’ (6). In order to send his wifeʼs lover to jail, he crafts a narrative so convincing that it ‘formed itself in his mind like any genuine recollection’ (96). The reader witnesses Beard forging narratives by distorting reality and manipulating his knowledge, memories and emotions in order to convince himself of his own innocence and evade responsibility for his dishonest behaviour: ‘it amazed Beard how convinced he himself now was by the narrative everyone believed, and how easily he could summon the appropriate memories and emotions’ (99). The self-convincing, self-deluding powers of the protagonist, his capacity to manipulate his own emotions and repress his knowledge of reality to replace it with self-protective narratives suggest that his mind is prone to denial. Denial could be defined in psychoanalytical terms as ‘a method by which the individual evades, suspends or avoids knowledge of some part of the self . . . as well as a way of diminishing the effects of external perception’ (Edelstein, Nathanson, Stone 3). However, the term has been endowed with a new layer of meaning in the context of climate change. Drawing on Eviatar Zerubavelʼs idea that individual denial could also be socially organized (Zerubavel 1997 and 2002), sociologist Kari Norgaard (Norgaard 2011) presents climate change denial as a collective phenomenon defined by a resistance to face the psychologically disturbing truth of anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, the study of denial represents a central part of climate fiction criticism: according to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, ‘works that explore the social, cultural, and psychological dynamics of the denial, avoidance, and acceptance of climate change have garnered the most critical attention’ since ‘they present the easiest entrance to the subject via the realist novelʼs traditional concern with interiority and character development’ (Schneider-Mayerson 312). As I mentioned earlier, it is precisely these two realist conventions that allow McEwan to portray denial and its diverse latent causes. Indeed, the narrative choice to approach climate change through the perspective of a character in denial fosters a better understanding of the factors underlying this psychic state, such as the difficulty of apprehending long-term risks for instance.

8Beardʼs mind is split between the desire to break out of his self-destructive lifestyle and a lack of will to act on the knowledge of his impending death. This behaviour is reminiscent of Platoʼs akrasia described by Lisa Kretz as a psychological state ‘wherein one knows the right thing to do but fails to act accordingly’ (Kretz 9). Beard is painfully aware that his unhealthy lifestyle based on unrestrained junk food consumption cannot continue: ‘he was thirteen pounds overweight. Act now, or die early’ (73). His inertia in the face of long-term health risks and his insistence on maintaining the same lifestyle are the factors that lead to his probable death by heart attack at the end of the novel. His inability to act on the warnings of doctors could be explained by the fact that long-term risks, since they are temporally distant, come with a feeling of unreality that makes them difficult to prioritise when faced with everyday life short-term needs. Per Espen Stoknes argued about climate change that ‘our cognitive risk system will—by itself—shake it off as distant, and focus on something nearer, personal, and spectacular’ (Stoknes 46). Indeed, as Zemanek notes, ‘read allegorically with reference to the collective [Solarʼs] satirical portrait demonstrates the consequences of inadequate risk perception and disastrous risk management’ (Zemanek 52). Rob Nixon addressed the long-term consequences of this short-termism, coining the pivotal term “slow violence” in reference to environmental damage that ‘occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space [and] typically not perceived as violence’ (Nixon 10). It could be argued that Beardʼs self-destructive lifestyle allegorically impersonates slow violence, which allows Solar to illustrate this elusive phenomenon on a human scale.

9Beardʼs reluctance to address long-term risks leads him to repress or deny their existence, especially when acknowledging them would mean changing his lifestyle. The narrator plainly states that Beard ‘was generally adept at avoiding inconvenient or troubling thoughts’ (238). As a result, he lives and thinks on two levels: a part of him knows the risks, the other fights to repress and deny them. As Stoknes points out, ‘the concept of denial is reserved for those issues that are emotionally and morally disturbing and . . . generate an uncomfortable inner splitting’ (Stoknes 18), a psychoanalytical term roughly used in reference to a self-defensive dissociation of one part of the self from another (Howell and Sheldon 2016; Elliot and Spezano 2019). Indeed, Beard is aware that accepting the existence of his health issues would mean facing his bodily vulnerability and finiteness, which is both emotionally and morally disturbing. The narrator tells us that ‘he felt his symptoms as crimes. He should see a doctor and make a full confession. But he did not want to hear himself condemned’ (185). Moreover, Beardʼs refusal to face his own mortality resonates with environmentalist George Marshallʼs suggestion, made in a 2005 conference, that ‘climate change correlates uncomfortably well with the one area in which denial is a psychological strength; our response to our own mortality’ since, ‘like death, climate change entails permanent and irreversible loss’.

10Furthermore, one could consider Beardʼs denial in the light of recent critical works on climate fiction and trauma. In her study of climate trauma, Ann Kaplan argues that the anticipation of long term climate catastrophe could generate a phenomenon of ‘pretrauma’ which she identifies as a reverse form of PTSD (Kaplan 2015). She draws a parallel between climate change denial and Freudian denial, traditionally understood as a feature of melancholia characterised by an unconscious resistance to fully accept or comprehend a loss until it has been worked through in the process of mourning (Kaplan 2015). These insights from Freudian psychoanalysis lead her to see in climate change denial ‘the antidote to climate trauma’ and to suggest that it requires the same ‘travel from melancholia to mourning that is so familiar in trauma studies’ (Kaplan 148). In addition, she links our inability to move forward and mitigate future climate trauma to Freudʼs death drive (Kaplan 2015), a phenomenon allegorically epitomised in Beardʼs denial of his deteriorating health.

11Indeed, Beardʼs stubbornness to ignore his health mirrors his own thought that climate change ‘deniers . . . wanted business as usual’ (150). His doctor plainly exposes the allegorical link that Beard is unable to make: ‘“Don’t be a denier”, Doctor Parks had said, appearing to refer back to their climate-change talks. “This won’t go away just because you don’t want it or are not thinking about it”’ (238). The doctor adds that there is ‘no time to lose, on the edge of no return’ (238), a warning that ominously echoes climate change discourse on tipping points. Yet, despite Beardʼs efforts to deny its finiteness, his body is precisely where the harmful lifestyle reveals itself, a reminder of his shared vulnerability with the environment. This allegorical link draws attention to what Stacy Alaimo calls transcorporeality, a concept that she defines as: ‘the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from “the environment”’ (Alaimo cited in Neimanis and Loewen Walker 563). Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker argue that, from an ontological point of view, transcorporeality ‘denies the myth that human bodies are . . . outside of the natural milieu that sustains them and indeed transits through them’ (Neimanis and Loewen Walker 563). Courtney Traub, who commented on transcorporeality in Solar, justly notes that ‘the boundaries between [Beardʼs] body and his environment, whether the icy winds of the Arctic or the toxic food ecology he greedily takes part in and which likely ends up killing him, are porous ones’ (Traub 96). The dissonant relationship between the symptoms of Beardʼs body, inevitable tokens of this porosity, and his mind in denial that strives to repress them, allegorically mirrors modern consumer societyʼs resistance to seriously face its environmental costs and limits.

Denial and the Dissonant Mind

12Furthermore, Beardʼs conflicting thoughts make him an illustration of cognitive dissonance, or what Kretz links to Platoʼs akrasia in the context of climate change awareness (Kretz 9). Bracke points out that ‘the experience of cognitive dissonance is aptly illustrated in Ian McEwanʼs Solar’ (Bracke 2017, 4), yet no study has developed this claim further. Bracke defines cognitive dissonance in the context of climate change as ‘knowing about climate crisis, but continuing to live life as if nothing is the matter’ (Bracke 2017, 4) and Stoknes describes it ‘as a situation in which there are conflicting feelings, thoughts, and behaviors,’ which results in ‘an uncomfortable inner tension’ (Stoknes 61). According to Winter and Koger, ‘this is precisely the state that most of us live in a split-off, fragmented, dissonant state in which we continue on with our destructive behaviours while paying some, although not full, heed to the mounting threats to our ecosystem’ (Winter and Koger 34). I will now examine how Solar illustrates cognitive dissonance with two particularly meaningful examples.

13In order to describe the process of competing contradictory thoughts involved with cognitive dissonance, McEwan uses the timely metaphor of the mind as a parliament, which conveniently brings together climate change politics and psychology. Indeed, we read that, ‘at moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others’ (117). This description illustrates the previously mentioned inner splitting between the awareness of long-term risks and the pressure of immediate impulses. In addition, the metaphor stresses the process of denial through which concealing thoughts are brought forward in order to repress the disturbing reality. The reader does not yet know what issue is being debated in Beardʼs mind until the metaphor is rendered comical when we learn that the so-called ‘important decision’ was whether or not to buy a bag of crisps. The narrator informs us that the ‘parliament’ has already taken the long-term decision for this type of situations: ‘about his future lightness [Beard] had made many general resolutions with all parliamentary heads nodding in assent’ (118). Yet, Beardʼs body is taking the lead, driven to the shop by a short-term impulse, while his mind is ‘fully aware that he was not quite making a direct line to the stairs that led down to his train’ (117). The narrator notes that ‘Beard knew this shop too well, and it seemed he was walking directly towards it now’ (117), revealing that his body, which he observes as a passive spectator, is ruled by habit rather than reason. The reader witnesses Beardʼs experience of cognitive dissonance as he is torn between two options: the knowledge that his diet is self-destructive and the short-term need to fulfill an unnecessary craving. Since his actions do not comply with his thoughts, Beardʼs mind starts making up excuses in order to ease the dissonance and conceal his actual reason for walking into the shop: ‘he was a public intellectual of sort, he needed to be informed, and it was natural that he should buy a newspaper’ (117). Eventually, he sees ‘in the array beneath the till, the gleam of the thing he wanted, the thing he did not want to want’ (117) and yields to temptation. The dissonance is illustrated through a dramatised showdown between short and long-term interests that can only be eased by repressing one of the two discordant thoughts, usually the long-term one.

14Moreover, this situation exemplifies the way in which consumer society exploits short-term human impulses to create unnecessary needs that become addictions. Since the object of addiction is made so easily available anywhere, displayed on the counter under the eyes of the consumer to encourage purchase, it becomes difficult to resist. Furthermore, Beard is aware of the industrial processes involved with its production, describing it as ‘a plastic foil bag of finely sliced potatoes boiled in oil and dusted in salt, industrialised powdered foodstuffs, preservative, enhancers, hydrolysing and raising agents, acidity regulators and colourings’ (118). The bag whose ridiculously small size is comparable to ‘a drug dealerʼs measure’ (118) would then turn into plastic waste, all the more unnecessary since Beard ‘was still stuffed from his lunch’ (118). This scene might imply that, by creating, encouraging and perpetuating such unrestrained consumption, consumer society takes advantage of the human tendency to act on short-term impulses, which leads individuals to indulge both in self-destructive behaviour and in the wasteful use of resources required for the wide-scale production of such snacks. As Adam Trexler puts it, ‘Solar can only bridge the absurdities between personal choice and planetary fate—potato chips and saving the world—through comedy’ (Trexler 79). The comical dimension of the scene is both heightened and debunked by the contrast with the seriousness of its symbolical import. Beard himself sees it as ‘a microcosm of all past errors and folly, of that impatient way he had of having to have what he wanted instantly’ (122). Furthermore, reading Beardʼs behaviour as an allegory of his society allows us to interpret it as the reflection of a collective participation in the cycle of limitless consumption. Consequently, the irony behind the term ‘important decision’ is destabilised, especially when one takes scale effects into consideration. As Tom Cohen argues in the context of the Anthropocene, ‘scale effects are invisible to individuals since it is not present in any phenomenon in itself . . . but only in the contingency of how many other such phenomena there are, have been and will be, at even vast distances in space or time’ (Cohen 150). Beard perceives his impulsive consumption habits as harmful to him alone and comes to the comforting conclusion thatas long as he harmed or offended no one, that was his right’ (123). However, as Cohen points out, scale effects create a paradox: ‘the greater the number of people engaged in modern forms of consumption then the less the relative influence or responsibility of each but the worse the cumulative impact of their insignificance’ (Cohen 150). As a result, phenomena such as climate change endow ‘seemingly trivial or small actions with enormous stakes’ (Cohen 152), which can turn ordinary decisions into dilemmas often met with denial or cognitive dissonance.

  • 1 For further information, see the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on t (...)

15A subtler illustration of cognitive dissonance involving scale effects takes place shortly after the crisps scene, when Beard is about to give a conference on climate change to potential investors in renewable energy. Arrived in the conference room, Beard acts on his short-term impulse to secure an unnecessary amount of sandwiches: ‘a minute later Beard had the plate and, on it, thick-cut wild salmon [. . .] nine heavy quarter segment—a precautionary number, since he did not have to eat them all. But he did, and very quickly’ (147). This could be no more significant than the many other descriptions of Beardʼs impulsive eating habits if the object of consumption was not salmon, a species whose wild stock are suffering pressure from increasing consumer demands1 and whose farmed counterpart is considered a more responsible and affordable alternative. The narratorʼs choice to specify that Beard is consuming wild salmon has meaningful resonances in the context of a novel that satirises the unrestrained exploitation of resources. Whether the connection is purposefully or accidentally left unsaid, one cannot but notice the absurdity of depleting wild fish stock to satisfy Beardʼs greed. Further irony is created as Beard goes on to claim, still addressing his audience, that ‘our planet earth is a finite entity’ (150). One could see in the contradiction not only a manifestation of Beardʼs hypocrisy, but also an allegorical hint at a more general state of dissonance between participating in consumer societyʼs excesses while preaching awareness of limited resources. Unlike the previous example, it is not his mind but his body that is aware of the dissonance and attempts to ease it by rejecting the salmon. Beard is nauseous and feels the ‘bloated carcass within his own [. . .] odiously stirring’ (150). The salmon is no longer a sandwich, but a dead animal that seems to come alive inside him. The description of the fish expands to a macabre image that takes over Beardʼs mind: ‘something monstrous and rotten from the sea [. . .] decaying gaseously in his gut and welling up, contaminating his breath, his words and, suddenly, his thoughts’ (148). As if the nonhuman voice was speaking through him, we read: ‘“The planet”, he said, surprising himself, “is sick”’ (148). Beardʼs sick body once more allegorically mirrors environmental damage as a result of unrestrained consumption. By equating his sickness to the cause of climate change in his speech, Beard can be one with the repressed thought of environmental degradation and voices the unacknowledged link hinted by the allegory throughout the novel. At the end of his speech, he may be, according to Garrard, ‘sickened by his own hypocrisy’ (Garrard 130), which could also be interpreted as an uncomfortable state of dissonance, as he realises that ‘his conclusions were hollow after all’ (156). We then read that he ‘turned to step somnambulantly through the gap in the curtain into a gloomy space’ (156). As Zemanek justly noted (Zemanek 2012), Beardʼs exit behind the curtains implies that his speech in defense of the planet was a mere theatrical show, empty words unmatched by real concern, a conspicuous allegory of climate change politics. Indeed, behind Beardʼs professional appearance of concern lies a fierce resistance to be personally involved with the issue, an attitude that appears to originate in feelings of fatalism and powerlessness.

From Fatalism and Powerlessness to the Dissociation of Reality

16Throughout, Beard remains intellectually and emotionally unconcerned by the issue and displays an attitude of personal detachment. For instance, he refers to ‘the entire world and all its follies, one of which was to warm up the planet’ (61) and later states that ‘now, planetary stupidity was his business’ (111). Although he acknowledges societyʼs flaws, it is with the detached judgmental gaze of an exterior, uninvolved observer. Furthermore, he affirms that individual efforts are not worthwhile, convinced that the crisis will not be solved ‘by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car since that merely delays the catastrophe by a year of two’ (149). If this statement may hold some truth, it also allows Beard to renounce his individual agency and sense of responsibility in order to keep the issue outside of the range of his ethical obligations. By giving up all hopes of individual agency, Beard can comfortably stick to his over-consumptive lifestyle while passively waiting for the government to enforce change. Responsibility is deferred to the government which, according to him, ought to enact policies aimed at restraining human natureʼs self-threatening tendencies. After witnessing a microcosm of bad resources management in the shipʼs boot room, Beard concludes that ‘boot rooms needed good systems so that flawed creatures could use them properly . . . Only good laws would save the boot room’, to which the narrator adds that ‘these fondly self-forgiving thoughts sustained him’ (80). Although there is much truth in Beardʼs conclusion, the narratorʼs final comment hints that Beard finds in it a comfortable reason to delegate responsibility to the political sphere and thus keep issues such as climate change or resource depletion out of his mind, a process Norgaard defines ‘as a form of denial of self-involvement’ (Norgaard 44).

17To understand further Beardʼs resistance to feel personally involved with the issue, one could first consider his fatalism: he does not believe in change, especially concerning issues that he perceives as overwhelming. The narrator states that Beard ‘did not believe in profound inner change’ but ‘only slow inner and outer decay’ (66), which explains his resigned inertia in front of long-term risks. This fatalism is reflected in Beardʼs indifference to the fate of the world at large. Shutting down his interest for wider issues could appear at first view a consequence of his individualism, but this very individualism may also be a protective mechanism against a world in which he feels powerless and overwhelmed. These feelings are conveyed in his description of the road traffic: while driving with his colleague, Beard gazes at the ‘giant round-about as big and busy as a racing circuit, that slung them centrifugally out upon a descending slip road and down onto the motorway, into the redoubled roar of onrushing vehicles, and trucks the size of five terraced houses whining in file towards Bristol at eighty-five miles per hour’ and reflects ‘how long could this go on?’ to which the narrator adds ‘Beard . . . felt belittled. The M4 demonstrated a passion for existence which he could no longer match’ (26). The road traffic is described as a colossal living entity whose speed and size seem to take control of Beardʼs life, overpowering him. It is not the drivers who are steering the cars, but the giant round-about that ‘slung them’. Passive and in awe as he contemplates our dependence on fossil fuels, Beard is too overwhelmed to imagine a different way of life. Similarly, we share his thoughts as he observes London from the airplaneʼs window: ‘these days, whenever he came in over a big city, he felt the same unease and fascination. The giant concrete wounds dressed with steel, the catheters of ceaseless traffic filing to and from the horizon—the remains of the natural world could only shrink before them. The pressure of numbers, the abundance of inventions, the blind forces of desires and needs looked unstoppable and were generating a heat . . . The hot breath of civilisation’ (109). The description moves from a personification of London to a visually striking allegory of civilisation as a living, growing organism whose size dwarfs both the individual and the natural world. Looking from above allows Beard to take some distance from his personal life and glimpse the magnitude of scale effects, ‘the pressure of numbers’, which turns into an experience reminiscent of the Burkean sublime. Yet, from his privileged vantage point, Beard is still a detached observer who does not reflect on his embeddedness in the organism whose warm breath he is fuelling by sitting on a plane. Taken in this sublime experience but not bound by Beardʼs limited consciousness, the reader can make the link between the ‘blind forces of desires and needs’ and Beardʼs own allegorical life. These two personifications of modern society aptly illustrate environmental philosopher Timothy Mortonʼs idea of hyperobjects, which he defines as ‘things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’ (Morton 1). Morton argues that, by their size, force and ubiquity, hyperobjects such as climate change or capitalism are sublime and inspire a feeling of powerlessness that can lead to anxiety, despair, fatalism or denial.

18Mortonʼs idea resonates with Frederic Jamesonʼs earlier concept of the capitalist sublime, which he locates in the historical continuity of the Burkean and Kantian sublime. Jameson retraces the evolution of the sublime, from Burkeʼs ‘physical incommensurability of the human organism with Nature’ (Jameson 33) to Kantʼs ‘limits of figuration’ (Jameson 33) and finally, in the contemporary context of disappearing nature, to the incommensurable force of ‘the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism’ (Jameson 37). Like Morton, Jameson insists on the elusiveness of this sublime force, calling it ‘that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions’ (Jameson 37), a network that ‘turns back on and against us in unrecognizable forms and seems to constitute the massive dystopian horizon of our collective as well as our individual praxis’ (Jameson 34). One may see in climate change, slow violence, scale effects and other anthropogenic hyperobjects some of these ‘unrecognizable forms’ that involve us both individually and collectively. In the light of Jamesonʼs study, it could be suggested that Solar illustrates the historical mutability of the sublime experience by transposing it to the context of the Anthropocene. Moreover, the difficulty of coping with oneʼs embeddedness in such hyperobjects can result in the need to dissociate them from what is perceived as normal reality, an attitude exemplified by Beardʼs own thoughts on climate change.

19Beard describes climate change as ‘one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, adding that he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action. And, of course, he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about’ (15). This passage crystallises some important elements at the heart of climate change perception. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, Beard sees it as one of many issues out of his control, which leads him to passively deflect responsibility onto the government in order to keep it out of his sphere of concerns. One could identify it as passive denial: as Stoknes puts it, ‘you may know climate change exists, but prefer not to care much about it’ (Stoknes 17). Secondly, it is a background noise to which one cannot fully pay attention: it is understood and accepted as a scientific reality, as Beardʼs description suggests, but so remote that it appears unreal compared to lifeʼs immediate needs. As Beardʼs girl-friend accurately summarises, ‘to take the matter seriously would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it . . . she could not take it seriously, not entirely. Daily life would not permit it’ (165). It is precisely the double reality that Norgaard observed in her field study of climate change denial. She describes two coexisting levels of reality: ‘in one reality was the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life. In the other reality existed the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future weather scenarios’ (Norgaard 5). Her observation echoes Stanley Cohenʼs statement that denial involves a ‘paradox or doubleness—knowing and not knowing’ (Cohen 22). Thus, Norgaard notes that ‘information about global warming remained outside the sphere of normal life, normal thought, and the sense of what was normal reality’ (Norgaard 58), which is precisely what Solar illustrates through its allegorical protagonist. Despite his professional commitment to the cause and his scientific knowledge, his lifestyle and climate change remain two distinct entities that seem to inhabit different regions of his mind, as coexisting parallel realities, without finding a point of contact. For instance, we read an interesting juxtaposition of these realities as Beard is waiting for his associate, Toby Hammar: ‘today, Hammar was coming in from San Francisco. Freak summer storms were delaying flights over the Rockies’ (204). This sentence juxtaposes both causes and effects of climate change without explicitly making any connection: flights and freak weather, a potential consequence of climate disruption concretely intruding into Beardʼs personal life by delaying the arrival of his associate. Beard is unable, or unwilling to connect these two realities which would entail acknowledging that global warming may already be taking place and could impact him personally. The issue is kept out of the sense of normal reality since, as Norgaard puts it, it threatens ‘what Anthony Giddens calls “ontological security”’ (Giddens cited in Norgaard 82), or the continuity of life as we know it. I mentioned earlier that denial allowed Beard to shelter himself from thoughts, such as the need to change his lifestyle or the recognition of his mortality, that threaten his own ontological security. One can infer that Beardʼs climate change denial stems from a similar anxiety. Indeed, as Stoknes points out, ‘the lifting of denial would result in an emotional shift, and [. . .] in a substantial change of lifestyle, ethics, and identity’ (Stoknes 46). Finally, Beardʼs perception of the issue hints that scientific knowledge might not be enough to motivate concern: he understands the abstract data, but he cannot incorporate it into his thoughts and way of life. Beardʼs attitude thus seems to denounce the limited efficiency of the traditional method of communicating scientific information, commonly referred to as the ‘deficit model’ (Hulme 2009), which takes for granted that lack of knowledge is the main reason behind inaction. As essential as it may be, this type of communication does not take into account psychological responses such as dissonance, denial or psychic numbing, another self-protective mechanism I will now turn to.

Psychic Numbing and the Apocalyptic Framing

20The overwhelming aspect of climate change is reinforced by the way predictions often come in long lists of interrelated yet various issues, described by Beard as ‘the familiar litany of shrinking glaciers, encroaching deserts, dissolving coral reefs, disrupted ocean currents, rising sea levels, disappearing this and that, on and on’ (36). This accumulation of information contributes to making the phenomenon too complex, broad and elusive to assimilate. As a result, Beard responds with selfish nihilism, claiming that, even if the worse climate predictions would come true, ‘he would not have been alarmed. A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism’ (75). Nihilism allows Beard to dissociate himself from this overwhelming issue by asserting that it cannot reach him personally, a form of selfishness that enables him to continue his life without feeling involved with the fate of humanity and the biosphere. Nihilism and fatalism could be linked to a type of psychological numbing, a natural self-protective mechanism used to cope with situations where one feels powerless or overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings that are difficult to manage. Indeed, Kyle Bladow and Jennifer Ladino affirm that in the case of climate change, ‘some people react to overwhelming data with “psychic numbing”’ (Bladow and Ladino 2). Similarly, Susanne Moser suggests that, if not accompanied by workable alternatives, ‘various overwhelming environmental and societal problems on peopleʼs perception of the world may have this numbing effect’ (Moser 69). Beardʼs nihilism protects him from any emotional or ethical commitment by claiming indifference to human or animal extinction while assuming the resilience of nature: ‘the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years teem with strange new forms’ (75). Joseph Dodds makes the link between such a psychological state and Freudʼs anticipatory mourning which consists in ‘withdrawing cathexis from the object before it is lost, as a narcissistic defence to avoid the painful process of a mourning’ (Dodds 73). Therefore, he suggests that ‘adopting the position of consciously not caring about the environment or even the survival of our species [is] a defence against the mourning yet to come’ (Dodds 73). Anticipatory mourning appears close to denial first theorised by Freud as, in Stoknesʼs words, ‘an automatic inner infantile defense mechanism that [. . ;] kicks in automatically to avoid the feelings of fear, anxiety, or hostility, in particular those arising from inside our own unconscious’ (Stoknes 16). Indeed, what is allegorically illustrated through Beardʼs nihilistic apathy is a self-protective mechanism Timothy Clark calls ‘withdrawal of affect’ (Clark 160). Fatalism, nihilism and psychological numbing allow one to feel comfortable with preserving the status quo. They help ease the dissonance created by the simultaneous awareness of oneʼs dependence on modern society and oneʼs knowledge of its destructive consequences. Working as conscious and unconscious coping mechanisms for a threat that exceeds his imagination, these psychic states allow Beard to avoid and repress any reflective or emotional engagement with climate change, which makes Solar one of the most accurate fictional attempts to represent how the crisis is dealt with on a psychological level.

21Ultimately, Solar suggests that Beardʼs attitude could also be a consequence of the apocalyptic tones adopted in many types of climate change discourses in response to growing concern and general inertia. As Stoknes argues, ‘climate messages are threatening, apocalyptic, and overwhelming—everything that awakens our inner resistance’ (Stoknes 77). Apocalyptic framings that equate climate change with ‘loss, cost, and sacrifice’ (Stoknes 82) are even more threatening to oneʼs sense of ontological security and therefore likely to be met with psychological resistance. Despite its scientific plausibility, the recurrence of this framing in popular culture, literary fiction, climate change communication and environmentalist discourse, induces a state that Nicole Seymour calls ‘doomsday fatigue’ (Seymour 57). Beardʼs psychological response to climate change proves that he has become too numb to this discourse to feel alarmed. Instead, he parodies it in order to justify his resistance, saying in a mock prophetic tone that ‘the Gulf Stream would vanish, Europeans would freeze to death in their beds, the Amazon would be a desert, some continents would catch fire, others would drown’ (75). Similarly, he refers with irony to this ‘calamitous future in which all must bake, shiver or drown’ (75). Beard instinctively associates climate change with the apocalyptic discourse, which allows him to dismiss scientific predictions as another false product of manʼs apocalyptic imagination: ‘the apocalyptic tendency had conjured yet another beast’ (16). He compares climate predictions to traditional apocalyptic tropes, arguing that they bear ‘an Old Testament ring [. . .], an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs’ (16), to reject them as unreal and irrational without providing any scientific counter-arguments. Through Beardʼs voice, Solar illustrates Charles Knightʼs point that ‘when satire imitates speech genres, it characteristically makes them ironic, thus opening them to possibilities of meaning that are not usually noticed in ordinary usage’ (Knight 3). By parodying the apocalyptic discourse through the voice of a sceptic protagonist, Solar brings to light why this type of framing might not be appropriate to inspire political action or behaviour change, since it tends to induce responses such as denial, fatalism or numbing.

*

22Although critics have seen in Solarʼs satirical allegory a reluctance to depict direct emotional engagement with the crisis (Kerridge 2010, Garrard 2013), this very absence tells us more about the psychological mechanisms involved with todayʼs climate change awareness than the apocalyptic tones of other climate fictions. Through the allegorical figure of Beard, Solar illustrates the psychological impacts and challenges of living in an age where the industrial world has become conscious of its own destructive geological force. Solar dramatises elements of cognitive psychology such as the tendency to privilege short-term needs over long-term risks (Kahneman, Slovic & Tver 1982) as well as psychic states ranging from denial, dissonance and numbing in relation to climate change. Its focus on the protagonistʼs mind allows Solar to draw attention to the complex factors behind climate change inaction without reducing the latter to a mere result of greed or ignorance. Moreover, thanks to its concern with the truthful depiction of ordinary everyday-life events inspired by the realist tradition, Solar exemplifies Tom Cohenʼs idea that scale effects can turn apparently trivial decisions into dilemmas resulting in cognitive dissonance and denial (Cohen 2012). By letting the reader glimpse them through allegory rather than explicitly stating these scale effects, Solar both invites reflection on the mechanisms of Nixonʼs “slow violence” and the air of insignificance that surrounds them. With the versatile allegorical meanings of a protagonist that could simultaneously impersonate a dissonant body politic, the excesses of consumer society and slow environmental degradation, Solar brings together the entangled issues behind the climate crisis. Through the perspective of a character in denial, Solar illustrates Norgaardʼs idea of double reality, shedding light on how and why climate change and everyday life are so difficult to apprehend simultaneously. Thus, thanks to the allegorical function of its protagonist complemented by a realist attention to character development and interiority, Solar gives a personal shape to the roots of inertia, elucidates some of the psychological obstacles to climate change mitigation and echoes wider topical research such as Mike Hulmeʼs work on climate change communication and perception (Hulme 2009).

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Notes

1 For further information, see the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on the general situation of world fish stocks, available at: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/common/ecg/1000505/en/stocks.pdf

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Marion Moussier, « A Dissonant Mind in a Dissonant Body: Allegories of Climate Change Denial in McEwanʼs Novel Solar (2010) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 60 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2021, consulté le 07 mai 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/10581 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.10581

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Marion Moussier

Marion Moussier is a PhD student at the University Paul Valery Montpellier III where she is also a temporary translation teacher. She is part of the research unit Etudes du Monde Anglophone and her work focuses on contemporary British climate fictions. Her thesis explores the fictional representations of climate change inspired by scientific predictions in eight contemporary British novels. She graduated from a bachelor degree in English language, literature and culture at the University Paul Valery Montpellier III in 2016 before specialising in English literature with an Erasmus Master at the University of Cambridge. Her Master thesis, a first attempt at Ecocriticism, examined the relationship between science, nature and transcendental philosophy in R. W. Emerson’s environmental writings. After a year of teaching French and English abroad, she started a PhD in October 2019 in order to carry out her project of exploring further the connection between literature, science and environmentalism in a contemporary context.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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