Thursday, January 6, 2011

Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road probably has the largest current readership of any climate change novel. Or perhaps it is outranked by Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. Ian McEwan’s Solar likely runs third, hampered by weak sales in the US. One reason suggested by McEwan for this market failure is the toxic politics currently surrounding climate change, but he might also have considered critics’ comments that the book is as miscued and dispiriting as anything he has recently published. Solar may be a comic novel, but McEwan’s jokes appear to have fallen rather flat. Critics have also discussed McEwan’s generic choice: the apparent perversity of treating climate change as comedy. But Solar is not the first climate change comic novel to be written: that title arguably belongs to Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene of 1979, which is amongst other things a very funny book.

It is worth emphasising the comic spirit of Man in the Holocene at the outset because the story it tells is so unremittingly bleak: the grim and lonely decline of Geiser, an old man close to death. But Geiser’s decrepitude, his dithering and his obsessive routines, his constant worrying over his hat, glasses and umbrella, his petty humiliations and ludicrous failures are the stuff of gross physical comedy. There’s slapstick in the darkness, pratfalls amidst the senescence and decay. Noticing that the power to his deep-freeze is off, Geiser hands out the defrosting meat to his neighbours then regrets not having kept some for himself, and spends much of the book hungry. He comes to, lying on the floor, but cannot remember how he got there. To clear cobwebs from the ceiling he unscrews the handrail from the staircase, but then cannot reattach the railing and leaves the cobwebs unswept. ‘Since yesterday, when he roasted the cat over the fire and then was unable to eat it, Geiser can no longer face even the soup, because there is bacon in it.’ Poking fun at geriatrics has a long and distinguished literary history running from the senex, the stock doddering dickhead of Roman comedy, to the damaged subjects who populate Beckett’s works, and Frisch draws on this old black comic vein, the venerable humour in life coming apart. And he does so to much greater effect than is achieved by McCarthy’s heavy-handed borrowings from Beckett, for instance, which manage to miss all the jokes. (Coetzee not dissimilarly tends to rewrite Kafka without the laughs.)

Geiser is a widower who lives alone in the Swiss alpine canton of Ticino. The village has been cut off from the outside world, but the cause of this isolation is unclear; perhaps a landslide caused by the incessant, unseasonal rains, perhaps a retaining wall has collapsed; the news in the village is contradictory. The village also loses power and lines of communication: no phone, no television. Nonetheless, the villagers seem relatively untroubled. The post office remains open, selling stamps and receiving packages, although the mail truck is no longer running: ‘Nobody in the village thinks that the day, or perhaps the night, will come when the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time.’

But Geiser is an outsider: he has retired to the village from Basel, where his son-in-law now runs the business that bears his name. And while the village cannot credit its engulfment by the mountain, Geiser can envisage this happening: he imagines great rocks and masses of earth sliding down into the valleys, cracks opening in the mountainside, water rising up to overwhelm the foothills. Geiser thinks this way because he is isolated, alone, and because he is a man losing his grasp on reality and life. And in thinking this way, Geiser understands his own personal situation—his life, existentially conceived—in terms of geology. As Gilberto Perez noted in a 1980 review of the novel, Geiser tries to make sense of the unceasing rain, for example, ‘by seeing it as a continuation of geological processes inaccessible to the senses yet conceivable to the mind.’

Today, this distinction between what can be perceived and what can be thought appears most urgently as the distinction between weather and climate. Weather is small talk, the everyday occurrence: it looks like rain, fine tomorrow, a change coming through, remember an umbrella. But climate is a more abstract concept; climate is langue to weather’s parole, the language in which the conversational remarks of day-to-day weather are uttered. So Geiser is thinking climatically when he understands his physical and mental collapse in geological terms, and it is this climatic frame of reference that allows Man in the Holocene to be read as a climate change novel.

For Perez, Geiser’s response to the rain is pathological, and his geological terms are nothing more than symptoms of the faltering of his mind: ‘Geiser turns the days of rain into a cataclysmic vision, as if he found it easier to die if the whole village were destroyed, the whole human race wiped out like the dinosaurs: a geological vision of the apocalyptic last days.’ But one could also view Geiser as a pioneer of a new climate change sensibility, a potential model for how to experience a changing geological order. The original German title of the book—Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän—might be better translated as ‘Man appeared in the Holocene.’ This is a statement of geological and anthropological fact: the Holocene, the geological period of roughly the last 10,000 years, provided the climatic conditions for the development of civilization, agriculture, writing, history, philosophy, the humanist subject, ‘man’, etc. But rather than being a story of first appearance, Erscheinung, of the ascent of man, Frisch’s novella is one of disappearance—the disappearance of sense, knowledge, memory, order, coherence, capacity, and so on. So the title raises a question about the coming geological epoch, the age of man’s decline. Now that the youth of the human species has passed, what other geologies will it inhabit?

This is a question of considerable critical interest at present. The humanities have been spurred by the proposal, first advanced by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, that the period of the Holocene has now finished and that our contemporary society has unwittingly crossed a geological threshold, a fault-line in the centuries. The geology of our time, it has been suggested, must instead be acknowledged as the Anthropocene, a new period within the eons of the Earth distinguished by the fact that human action from roughly 1800 to the present is reshaping the environment on a planetary scale. The Anthropocene marks the moment when mankind emerges as a major ecological force, altering terrestrial conditions for millennia to come, as Crutzen argued here in 2002:

Energy use has grown 16-fold in the twentieth century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide pollution per year, more than twice the sum of [the planet’s] natural emissions. More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; nitric oxide production by the burning of fossil fuel and biomass also overrides natural emissions. Fossil-fuel burning and agriculture have caused substantial increases in the concentrations of ‘greenhouse’ gases—carbon dioxide by 30% and methane by more than 100%—reaching their highest levels over the past 400 millenia, with more to follow.

Within the humanities, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued that the concept of the Anthropocene radically challenges the way in which we have hitherto understood history. One way it does this involves undermining a set of distinctions traditionally drawn between natural history and human history, as Chakrabarty explores in his The Climate of History: Four Theses. Scale was a basic tenet of these distinctions, involving the fundamental discontinuity between the timescales of human collective action and the chronologies of the Earth’s crust. So for Chakrabarty the history of the Anthropocene poses a ‘historicist paradox’:

Geological time and the chronology of human histories remained unrelated. This distance between the two what climate scientists now claim has collapsed... How do we hold the two together as we think the history of world since the Enlightenment? How do we relate to a universal history of life—to universal thought, that is—while retaining what is of obvious value in our postcolonial suspicion of the universal? The crisis of climate change calls for thinking simultaneously on both registers, to mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history. This combination, however, stretches, in quite fundamental ways, the very idea of historical understanding.

In literary criticism, similar concerns have been raised about the novel; in this comment, apropos Ian McEwan’s Solar:

I suspect Solar’s failure is also reflective of some of the conventional realist novel’s more general limitations, especially when confronted by an issue as large, and as systemic as climate change. The problem is that the things social realist novels are good at – characters, narrative, interiority, social context – are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to something like climate change…It’s very difficult to imagine how one could encompass such a subject in a conventional novel without projecting some sort of coherence or shape onto it which does violence to the scale and difficulty of the problem.

Viewed in this context, Geiser might appear less as a solitary case of senility than as an example of someone who is beginning to think through and to feel the nature of our current predicament. Max Frisch’s work often counterposes classical forms (including the forms of classical modernism) to modern technical rationality, and Man in the Holocene restages this collision of scientific knowledge and humanist values. Geiser, we learn, always preferred factual books to novels, ‘the classics and others’; his personal library includes books on Hiroshima, gardening and encyclopedias, ‘as well as maps and rambling guides that provide the geology, climate, history, etc., of the district.’ The friction between these two ways of seeing the world—Geiser’s malfunctioning technical approach and the melancholy humanism of its framing—provides the source of Frisch’s characteristic attitude of irony; this is the historical meaning of the tone of negative detachment in his writing. It is the source, too, of this novel’s humour.

So in Frisch, literary form suggests historical correspondences beyond any apparent in McCarthy or McEwan. Many historians now believe that history borrows the shapes of its stories from fiction. If so, the contemporary fiction of climate change offers possible models for the writing of our future history. Solar suggests conceptual exhaustion as corpulent farce. The Road stages history as dirge, an endless night of the zombies. By contrast, viewed from today’s perspective, Geiser provides a more plausible model for a possible climate change subject. Or rather, the challenge of the novel is to hold these two interpretations together in the mind at one time: to understand Geiser’s geological vision as an idiosyncratic expression of this particular individual life, but also as the collective horizon in which the destiny of our species will play out. This problem, of reconciling the existential moment of individuality with the time-dimensions of geological and evolutionary cycles, is posed within the novel itself as a problem of novelistic form and purpose:

Novels are no use at all in days like these, for they deal with people and their relationships, with fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., with souls, usually unhappy ones, and with society etc., as if the place for all these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.

Geiser no longer trusts this bedrock of novels, of narrative forms and perhaps of history too. Reporting from within the climatic crisis, the conditions that once seemed to construct the untroubled and unremarkable background to human society no longer appear to him entirely stable. ‘At no time within human memory has a village in this valley been overwhelmed...The beds of the streams have not changed within living memory.’ But Geiser senses the contingency of the ground we stand on, and remarks on the significance of this for literary fiction.

Man in the Holocene sets out to novelise this geology that makes the novel form itself seem redundant and absurd. Why read novels knowing that mountains slide into the sea, that the seas overwhelm the mountains, that life-forms mutate as the earth beneath them transforms? Frisch bases his novel on this paradoxical acknowledgement that the literary culture in which it participates depends on conditions over which that culture has no power, and which the novel itself recognises to have become uncertain, mutable, treacherous. And it understands these conditions to include not just the long accepted social and economic context of writing, but now to be also ecological, climatic and ultimately geological. Man in the Holocene poses the question of how to write when our dominant narrative forms—the novel, above all—appear no longer of any use, given that the schema of past, present and future through which our narratives have organised their focus on human change rest on an unspoken sense of continuity, of the solidity and fixity of the schema itself, that can no longer be taken for granted.

For Geiser, this problem, that of how to write when the once tacit conventions of writing no longer hold, is quite concrete: ‘It is idiotic to write out in one’s own hand (in the evenings by candlelight) things already in print.’ Geiser’s solution is to cut out items from his encyclopaedia and other texts that he finds to be worth remembering and to paste them on his walls: ‘Quite apart from the fact that print is easier to read than an old man’s handwriting—though he has taken the trouble to use block letters—no one has that much time.’ The cut-outs appear as text-boxes in Man in the Holocene:

Geiser’s collages convert the text itself into something like a geological stratum. The page is made up of the petrified fragments of other texts, a peculiar cross-section of modern knowledge. The excerpts, which follow Geiser’s reading of ‘geology, climate, history, etc.’, resemble the distinctive glacial detritus that scientists use to identify geological formations; or the chemical compositions of past atmospheres that climatologists recover from ice core-samples. Chakrabarty has recently commented here, in reference to David Archer’s book The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, that

This is not a scale of time that we can visualize or (in a hermeneutic sense) understand…Historians are not used to dealing with time-scales that we cannot bring imaginatively into the realm of our “experience.”

By embedding the natural history of humanity within Geiser’s own personal narrative, Frisch’s cut-up method could be said to achieve just this crossing of discontinuous scales of knowledge. And similar collage techniques have been used not only in literary fiction, but also in the writing of history. For example, the pages of Negt and Kluge’s history of German capitalism, Geschichte und Eigensinn, bear a strong visual resemblance to those of Frisch’s novella:

And as commentators have noted, Negt and Kluge’s experimental collage allows them to return the history of class relations to the much longer perspectives of evolution and even geology—precisely the task facing future historians of climate change.

But while formal models may already exist for some aspects of the historical imagination that Chakrabarty seeks, climate change presents historians with further problems. Specifically, as Chakrabarty argues,

To say that humans have become a “geophysical force” on this planet is to get out of the subject/object dichotomy altogether. A force is neither a subject nor an object. It is simply the capacity to do things…As a geophysical force, we now wield a different type of agency as well—one that takes us beyond the subject/object dichotomy, beyond all views that see the human as ontologically endowed beings, beyond questions of justice and human experience.

But here, too, it may be possible to locate in Man in the Holocene a way of telling stories that traverse these boundaries of experience. Frisch’s sentences in this novel often proceed by way of apophasis, the rhetorical figure in which you say something by denying that you are saying it, as in ‘There’s no way I would ever tell you I slept with your sister last night.’ In Frisch, such sentences tend to introduce a thought by denying that anyone might think it:

A lake, the color of brown clay, gradually filling the valley, a lake without a name, its water level rising day by day and also during the nights, joining up with the rising lakes in the other valleys until the Alps become an archipelago, a group of rocky islands with glaciers overhanging the sea—impossible to imagine that.

Apophasis is part of a family of rhetorical figures that flirt with the unsayable or unspeakable: apophatic speech communicates via an apparent refusal to communicate. So it is a peculiarly appropriate way to express what lies beyond expression—a way to convey an impossible experience, or even to suggest a more profound impossibility of all experience itself. It is a rhetoric that entwines denial with assertion, the negative speech of unacknowledged knowledge. The novel inhabits this paradoxical space of apophasis. It sets out to novelise the geological conditions that make the novel form seem irrelevant, absurd, and to narrate the contradictions of a time in which ‘one cannot spend the whole day reading’ but in which ‘there is nothing to do but read.’ If we can now recognise that time as our own—the Anthropocene—then it could well be that the future history of this time will also need to invoke the apophatic register. So maybe Man in the Holocene will turn out to be a prophetically useful novel, as well as a funny one. Will the same prove true of Solar?

With any luck, my next entry will be shorter, and come rather sooner, than this one. I’m keen to write about Michael Crichton, but if anyone has any other suggestions, please let me know.


  1. Dear Thomas I am just writing a paper on Frisch´s Holocene. And this is really the best comment on this text I´ve read so far during my research. Good work!