Read an Excerpt from “Climate the Making of Worlds” by Tobias Menely

July 21, 2021

In his new book, Climate and the Making of Worlds, Tobias Menely explores a long literary history of poetic rewritings and critical readings that continually engage with the climate as a condition of human world-making. Poems, he argues, provide a distinct archive of geohistorical change. We asked Menely to tell us more about how his experience of climate change in the present informed his approach to literary history. Read on for his commentary, followed by an excerpt from the first chapter, in which he shows how Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost was marked by the Little Ice Age.

“fire, flood, famine”: Reading Paradise Lost ­­across Geohistory

The first chapter in my new book, Climate and the Making of Worlds, lays out a geohistorical reading of Paradise Lost. Milton planned and composed his epic retelling of the Christian creation story during a period of intense historical tumult: the disintegration of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy, a visitation of the bubonic plague, and a fire that destroyed much of London. This period of crisis, as climate historians such as Geoffrey Parker have shown, corresponds with one of the most acute phases of the Little Ice Age, which saw unusually frigid winters, dry summers, powerful storms, and repeated crop failures. Not unlike climate historians today, Milton grappled with the shaping influence of climate, its role in determining the fate of nations and of individuals. He stages this problem, of climatic determination, in several key scenes in Paradise Lost, including in the poet’s final address to the muse where he worries that the “cold / Climate” will “damp” his “intended wing” before he can finish the epic. In my reading, I propose that the historiographic problem of connecting climate with society can be productively compared to the critical problem of interpreting allegory. “It is by virtue of a strange combination of nature and history that the allegorical mode of expression is born,” Walter Benjamin observes. Reading Paradise Lost today, it is not difficult to discern allegorical resonance in Milton’s audacious revision of Genesis, in which human choice leads to a catastrophic alteration of the Earth’s climate, a postlapsarian epoch of “cold and heat / Scarce tolerable.” My chapter relates the poem’s multiple mimetic strata—the epic plot, the meteoric similes and animistic personifications, the naturalistic representation of the Fall, and the contrast between divine free-flowing light and demonic combustible minerals—to the geohistorical situation in which Milton wrote. I turn Paradise Lost inside out, interpreting its theological allegory, the story of providence in history, as an imaginative response to the experience of living in a crisis-prone world.    

I finished writing this chapter in November 2018. As I wrote the final paragraphs, excerpted below, the Camp Fire burned through the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. The air quality was so bad that classes at UC Davis were canceled for nearly two weeks. My partner and son traveled to Oregon to escape the pollution. I remained at home, breathing smoke and writing about a Christian epic that was written three and a half centuries earlier, which begins in a smoke-filled Hell and concludes with a fire in Paradise. As I write today, the American West is even drier and hotter than it was in 2018. Another wildfire, the Dixie, burns near Paradise. The past weeks have seen high-temperature records and devasting floods across the world. We are entering a period of profound planetary discontinuity, with nonlinear change occurring in the climate system and, most likely, human societies as well. It is important to emphasize this discontinuity, the scale of change, an epochal transition in the Earth’s history. What, then, can we, in these early cataclysmic days of the Anthropocene, learn by reading the literature of the Holocene? How should I understand the uncanny echo between the conclusion of Milton’s Protestant epic and the geohistorical moment in which I wrote about it three and a half centuries later, breathing the smoke of Paradise? Such echoes are a reminder that climatic vicissitude, even in the relatively stable Holocene, has left a powerful mark on human history and human meaning-making. Paradise Lost is a great poem because of the hardheaded rigor with which Milton treats the problem of theodicy, so richly evoking planetary disorder (and human “frailty”) as the difficult realities that demand divine providence as an imaginative solution. Milton’s eschatological vision of history, according to which a final redemption requires “this world’s dissolution,” is wholly inadequate to the challenges we face today. Yet we do learn something from Milton’s “adventurous song” (and its capacity to still resonate) about the human need for big stories—perhaps even cosmological epics—that help us to make sense of our place on an Earth that is perilous as well as paradisiacal.

Excerpted from chapter one, “‘Earth Trembled’: Paradise Lost, the Little Ice Age, and the Climate of Allegory”

Much as Paradise Lost begins with Satan reflecting on his changed “clime,” so does it close by considering how our first parents will compose themselves in a world that everywhere speaks of the ruin they have wrought. Eve, sublimely, proposes to Adam that they forebear reproduction and so break the curse of death that will otherwise be passed on to future generations. Adam attempts to reconcile Eve to a human future in the now intemperate world, reminding her that when God had confronted them in the garden, “Pitying how they stood / Before him naked to the air that now /  Must suffer change” (10.211– 13), he had provided them with clothing, “lest cold / Or heat should injure us” (1056– 57). The God who punishes also preserves. With further entreating prayer, Adam claims, the Father will “teach us further by what means to shun / The inclement seasons, rain, ice, hail, and snow,” a new climatic order Adam senses already in the “winds” that “Blow moist and keen” (1062– 66). Against the frigid nights to come, they will learn to “with matter sere foment, / Or by collision of two bodies grind / The air attrite to fire,” mastering the same elemental powers that “tine the slant lightning,” allowing them to “supply”— temporarily replace— “the sun” (1071– 73, 1075, 1078). Having intensified the planet’s climatic disorder, God’s pity for his vulnerable creatures leads him to grant them the resources they need to protect themselves, not least “such fire to use” (1078). Knowledge (“by what means”) is now defined in terms that are worldly and instrumental, as a matter of survival in a distempered world.

In book 11, the angel Michael is sent by God to “without remorse drive out” the humans from Paradise (11.105). In justifying this expulsion, the Father refers not only to the authority of his judgment but also to natural law, which dictates that the “tainted” (52) humans can no longer abide in the pure air of Eden.95 Again, the question of place, of climate, and why it matters for human world making, is brought to the fore. While Adam responds to the sentence of an unforeseen exile with frozen “sorrow,” Eve turns to Eden itself and its floral inhabitants, in another act of personifying address: “Must I thus leave thee, Paradise?” (269); “O flowers, / That never will in other climate grow, / . . . which I bred up with tender hand / From the first opening bud and gave ye names, / Who now shall rear ye to the sun”? (273– 78). The detail about Eve’s naming of the flowers is an astonishing act of feminist revision on Milton’s part, but it is also a reminder of how much naming in this poem is connected not only with possessing but also with the labor of cultivation.96 Eve asks, finally: “How shall we breathe in other air, / Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits?” (284– 85). Michael interrupts her interrogative apostrophes to the world around her, directing her to find recompense for her loss in her human bond with Adam: “Where he abides think there thy native soil” (292). Ecological relations are, once again, redirected into human social bonds.

Michael leads Adam to the highest hill in Eden, “from whose top / The hemisphere of earth in clearest ken / Stretched out to amplest reach of prospect lay” (11.378– 80). The expanded vision afforded by the mountain overlook facilitates, in this case, not cosmogenic speculations or claims of possession but a prophecy of planetary catastrophe, “what shall come in future days” (357). It is a chastening vision of ongoing socioecological calamity, the “many shapes / Of death,” including “fire, flood, famine” (467– 72), biting scarcity and “luxurious wealth” (788), and the Deluge: “Down rushed the rain / Impetuous and continued till the earth / No more was seen” (743– 45), a cataclysm of such magnitude that the very mountain where they stand shall “by might of waves be moved” (830). To read Milton’s account of Adam’s vision today is to be reminded of Srinivas Aravamudan’s definition of catachronism: our experience in an age of accelerating climate change of learning to regard “the past and the present in terms of a future proclaimed as determinate,” “a known and inevitable outcome” rather than a result of open-ended agency. Michael’s prophetic vision serves to stabilize the allegory, above all by teaching Adam to interpret the role of providence properly, in the redemptive appearance of Christ and the eschatological promise of a final judgment but also in God’s covenant to limit his vengeance and maintain the regularity of nature. After the Flood, God promises “never to destroy / The earth again by flood” (892– 93): “day and night, / Seed time and harvest, heat and hoary frost / Shall hold their course, till fire purge all things new, / Both heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell” (898– 901). The covenant and the eschatology are two sides of the same solution to the problem to which the Fall and Adam’s vision of postlapsarian history so acutely testify: the dangerous volatility of “this transient world” (12.554).

The poem’s final scene—Adam and Eve’s removal from Eden— returns to the problem of climatic influence. In his parting advice, Michael echoes Satan’s assertion in the opening scene when he faced an inhospitable world. Michael promises Adam and Eve that, in the divinity of their human selves and in their relation to one another and the generations they will bear, they will find recompense for the world they ruined: “then wilt though not be loath / To leave this Paradise but shalt possess / A paradise within thee” (12.585– 87), a statement echoed by Eve when she assures Adam: “Thou to me / . . . all places thou” (617– 18). As he does in showing Satan’s feet singed by Hell’s burning soil, or his wistful apostrophe to Eden, or Adam and Eve grappling with the unbearable loss they face, Milton unsettles this vision of a social relation independent of place and clime. He describes forebodingly, in the poem’s final image, the changed world Adam and Eve will enter: the “brandished sword of God before them blazed / Fierce as a comet, which with torrid heat / And vapor, as the Libyan air adust, / Began to parch that temperate clime” (633– 36).

On a formal level, the two instances of climate change that open and re-solve the epic appear to foreground climate’s consequentiality. In Paradise Lost, this chapter has argued, climate— the variance between climes, some more habitable than others, as well as the difference between one climate epoch and another— impels narrative action and contributes to narrative resolution. Most readers have, however, been comfortable with the implication of Michael’s advice, that an “inner” paradise can compensate for the loss of “the happy garden” (3.66), that spiritual succor matters more than any “mere place,” as one influential editor puts it.98 Yet, if, as readers traveling through the cosmic territories of Milton’s epic, we are, in the words of Joanna Picciotto, “never allowed to forget that we are traversing interior spaces, spiritual conditions,” we might say, with no less confidence, that the poem never allows us to forget the significance of exterior places: worlds, regions, and climes.99 That the poem stages this consequentiality as uncertain offers, in my view, a meta-allegorical wink no less important than Raphael’s promise to accommodate his narrative to his human auditors, highlighting the way in which the most literal level within the allegorical schema insists on a natural- historical significance that cannot be fully sublimated into more abstract (moral, anagogic) levels of meaning. Indeed, there is nothing keeping the reader from inverting the significance Johnson attributed to the allegorical tenor and vehicle, the moral and the history: seeing the anagogic as an expression of a “desire” that serves to negate an apprehension of “the real.” Considering that the Father has instructed Michael to “dismiss them not disconsolate” (11.113), one wonders whether the angel’s mollifying words— like “the light of salvation” itself, the eschatological promise of a redemptive end to history— should be understood as evidence of the enormity of the loss and the psychological impossibility of Adam and Eve, the first climate refugees, facing it squarely.

Tobias Menely is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Climate and the Making of Worlds is available now from our website or from your local bookseller.

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