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A Change in the Weather

Jeanette Winterson, the British novelist, wonders in the Times of London (and which I found via BroneteBlog):

As the floodwaters rose around me and we sank in a summer of rain, I tried a kind of homeopathic charm; what books could I find on my shelves where floods and rain played a part?

Multiple lightning strikes; image: NOAAWinterson rattles off the usual list of suspects, including the biblical flood story and (weirdly) the movie version of Frankenstein (which movie? and why not the novel?). What’s odd to me is that almost none of the academic eco-criticism types have picked up on climate as at least a viable leit motif for analysis. In my reading of gothic lit, climate and weather are veritable characters. Wouldn’t it be useful (something that is normally very difficult to say about contemporary literary studies) to analyze climate and weather in literature with an eye toward shedding some light on our current crisis, a crisis which, in our inability to do anything concrete about, is surely as much moral and psychological as scientific and economic?

I took a stab at it a couple years ago by presenting a paper at a low-level, regional MLA lit-studies conference. I was met with blank stares, for the most part, perhaps because I eschewed the jargon of the trade as much as possible. Because they could understand all the words I used, the audience may have felt talked down to. Or maybe it’s just a crappy paper. It certainly doesn’t delve deep enough into the implied thesis: that climate is a character or anyway a means of characterizing roles.

In any case, here’s the paper as presented at the conference in 2005. Perhaps it’ll be of some use to an eco-conscious scholar attempting to open the field of climatocriticism.

A Change in the Weather

essay by Brian Charles Clark

The Little Ice Age was almost over when, in 1830, Bulwer-Lytton published Paul Clifford, the novel that begins with that infamous phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night….” Five hundred years of dark and stormy nights, indeed, of entire years without summers, were about to end as our blue-green marble headed into a long period of warming. During this long warming trend a number of historical sciences—such as geology and climatology—gained a foothold and the idea of the temperate Holocene became a commonplace. In a PMLA “Letter,” Michael P. Cohen points out that the idea of a “temperate climate” has served as a kind of default setting of interpretation of the past and prognostication of the future. The concept of the temperate, he says, is “a particular kind of culturally sanctioned reading by an interpretive community [which] created the discourse that we now use to judge our past and create our future.” Climatologists have pointed out pretty much the same thing: we once thought that human evolution had been blessed by a perpetually temperate Holocene. We now recognize the idea of Holocene stability for what it is: a myth. We owe the dispelling of the myth, especially in regard to the history of the last thousand years or so, to the labors of climatologist Harold Lamb, historian Leroy Ladurie, biogeographer Jared Diamond, neuroscientist William Calvin and many, many others.

What I want to do in this short presentation is to sketch out a climatocritical approach to two of the earliest Gothic fictions. There’s a deep intertwining of weather, in particular, and Little Ice Age climate more broadly, in both Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Beckford’s Vathek. In other words, these Gothic romances are examples of what Alice B. Wallace, in “What Is Ecocriticism?”, calls “ecoliterature…”; namely, “Writing that examines and invites intimate human experience of place’s myriad ingredients: weather, climate, flora, fauna, soil, air, water, rocks, minerals, fire and ice, as well as all the marks there of human history. [This is] [w]riting that sifts carefully among old metaphors regarding natural phenomena (…including humans) and casts about for new ones, conscious that metaphors serve not only as our links to these things but also as our provisional truths about them.” My thesis here is that weather-magic, a criminal offense in the early modern era became, after the Enlightenment, a metaphor deployed in the aforementioned Gothic fictions. The metaphor, in short, is this: weather is supernatural.

I’m limiting myself to two examples from the Gothic canon, but the supernaturalism of climate and weather, as has recently become painfully clear, is an idea that is still with us. Every where disaster strikes the news media bring back images and voices of victims asking Why? We are perfectly able to rationalize and contextualize the overwhelming power of heavy weather but that has never quite relieved us of the need to question metaphysical agency when disaster strikes. Hurricane after hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico kill thousands at a time and leave many more homeless; droughts result in genocide in Darfur and the great out-migration of the Dust Bowl era. “Disasters,” it has been pointed out,” occur when hazards meet [human] vulnerability” (Blaikie, 1994). because “In areas where there are no human interests, natural phenomena do not constitute hazards, nor do they result in natural disasters” (wikipedia, “natural disaster”).

As author and naturalist Robert Pyle once said, “Make no mistake…. Nature bats last.”

A fascinating example of nature batting last is taken up by the German historian Wolfgang Behringer, a scholar of European early modernity. In the mid-to-late 1990s he wrote a book and several articles on witchcraft. In his 1995 paper, “Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch-Hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality,” he argues, based on his study of primary sources, that the notorious witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern era were motivated by fear of “weather magic.” (A similar paper, is here.)

In case after case, Behringer demonstrates that weather, and its dire consequences, crop failure and famine, are implicated in the murder of individuals and entire groups on charges of witchcraft. Let’s bear in mind, as Behringer urges, that much of Europe—indeed, I would add, the world—was engaged in agriculture. Agriculture historians point out that as much as 90 percent of the human population was engaged in subsistence agriculture until as late as the 1890s. Subsistence agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate shifts: a change in the weather can mean famine and death for large numbers of people.

The Little Ice Age, a period of climatic history spanning the centuries between, roughly, 1350 and 1850, is noted in the climatological literature as one of sudden and extreme changes. The Sixteenth century, especially, was harsh. Crops, as historians such as Le Roy Ladurie have shown, were poor or failed altogether over large areas of western and central Europe. The key point here, though, is change, sudden, dramatic change: a decade of very bad growing seasons could be followed by a few blessedly good ones. We now know that this was almost certainly due to flips in what climate scientists call the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). A tiny change in the salinity of North Atlantic waters results in a big shift in the direction of prevailing winds which, in turns, determine famine or feast, foul or fair, for agriculturists on the Eurasian landmass. We know that now; the Europeans of the sixteenth century certainly did not. They scapegoated famine and glacial advance on to witches.

So here we have, per Wolfgang Behringer, a direct correlation between climate and a tragic social phenomenon. Nobody known why, after centuries of fine weather, known as the Medieval Warm Period, the NAO suddenly became unstable and started doing murderous flip-flops. Environmental scientist William Ruddiman, though, has a dramatic and controversial hypothesis. He argues that there must have been a drop in atmospheric carbon. Carbon, along with methane, are two of the primary climate forcers, a fact we are painfully aware of here at the start of the twenty-first century. What, Ruddiman asks, might account for this drop in carbon levels? Ruddiman points to the Black Death: the huge depopulation of Europe in the fourteenth century might be the source of lowered carbon levels. Fewer people, in other words, meant fewer trees being felled. The regrowth of forests on abandoned farm land acted as a sponge, lowering atmospheric carbon levels. In Ruddiman’s view, discussed in his new book, Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, this accounts for the onset of the Little Ice Age. Furthermore, he argues that the “discovery” of the Americas in the late fifteenth century resulted in another huge drop in population: before the genocides that took place in the Americas there were the germs. Something like ninety percent of the population of the Americas—some fifty million people, Ruddiman says—died of European diseases that spread like wild fire, and against which the original Americans of course had no immunities.

Whatever the cause or causes of climatic instability in the early modern period, the witch hunts ended with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Superstition, Behringer claims, was replaced by a more scientific mindset. I can understand how a historian might come to this conclusion, but for me it’s only the beginning. Superstition, and specifically weather fear, didn’t go away. Rather it shifted, if you will, modes of expression. In the late eighteenth century the NAO is still flip-flopping, but agriculturists, especially in England and as a result of the enclosure movement there, had a better buffer against poor harvests. But, again, the superstitious hold weather has on us didn’t go away. In fact, it’s still alive and well. A recent poll indicates that one in four Americans think that hurricanes are acts of God. What I now want to show is that weather superstition reemerges quite clearly in late 18th-century Gothic novels.

Vathek most clearly and simply demonstrates my thesis that weather-fear shifted from the sociological to the literary mode of expression in the 18th century.

Vathek, the “ninth caliph of the race of the Abassides” was expected to have a “long and happy” reign (109). “His figure was pleasing and majestic: but when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger” (109). Caliph Vathek is “much addicted to women and the pleasures of the table” (109). His “generosity was unbounded and his indulgences unrestrained: for he did not think… that is was necessary to make a hell of this world to enjoy paradise in the next” (109).

One day a Giaour, a demon from India, appears in the court of Vathek. “Giaour” is a loan word from Turkish via Persian via Arabic into French and means “non-believer” or “infidel.” The Giaour by turns mystifies, fascinates and then annoys the Caliph and his courtiers. Finally, in annoyance, the Caliph kicks Giaour. But the Giaour, “being both short and plump, … collected himself into a ball, and rolled on all sides at the blows of his assailants” (121). The demon-ball is kicked and rolls all over the palace, “from one apartment to another,” drawing “every person after it,” such “that the whole palace was thrown into confusion, and resounded with a tremendous clamour” (121). The ball rolls out of the palace, across “the plain of Catoul,” and into “the valley at the foot of the mountains of the four fountains” (122).

Vathek and his party camp out near the valley where the Giaour has disappeared, waiting for the mysterious being that has them all so fascinated to reappear. After many restless days and nights, Vathek “wildly gazed at the stars” when “on a sudden, the clear blue sky appeared streaked over with streams of blood…. Terrifying as these prodigies were, this impression upon him was no more than momentary, and served only to stimulate [Vathek’s] love of the marvellous” (123-124). The meteorological “prodigies” are compounded when “the earth trembled beneath [Vathek], and a voice came forth, the voice of the Giaour, who, in accents more sonorous than thunder, thus addressed [Vathek]: ‘Wouldest thou devout thyself to me? Adore the terrestrial influences, and abjure Mahomet? On this condition I will bring thee to the Palace of Subterranean Fire. There shalt thou behold, in immense depositories, the treasures which the stars have promised thee; and which will be conferred by those Intelligences whom thou shalt thus render propitious” (124).

Caliph Vathek cannot resist such an offer. The Giaour, however, requires a terrible price to be paid for what he offers up. For instance, the Caliph must trick fifty young and beautiful boys (see also: “Beckford’s Heaven of Boys.” Potkay, Adam. Raritan. New Brunswick: Summer 1993. Vol. 13, Iss. 1; p. 73) into the chasm were the Giaour is hiding out and where the Giaour will devour them. The Caliph’s mother, herself a practitioner of the dark arts, tells Vathek, “This Giaour, it must be confessed, is somewhat sanguinary in his taste; but the terrestrial powers are always terrible; nevertheless,” she says, what the Giaour has promised “will prove sufficient indemnification.” Furthermore, “no crimes should be thought too dear for such a reward” as the Giaour offers. The Caliph reluctantly agrees to follow his mother’s advice and accept the Giaour’s offer of wealth and power. He is indeed reluctant for, although a man of sumptuous tastes he is nonetheless a devout Muslim, so when “Prayer at break of day was announced… Vathek ascended the steps which led to the summit of the tower, where [he] remained for some time, though the weather was lowering and wet. This impending gloom corresponded with [his] malignant disposition….” (130).

A long journey ensues full of the usually Gothic accouterments: cemeteries, ruins, and the occasional “pestilential blast” of wind across a plain (172). Vathek’s faith is constantly tried and his greed constantly overcomes him. At every turning point, at every point where Vathek might conceivably back out of this fool’s quest for gold, glory and power, there is a meteorological prodigy that overwhelms his better self. “[T]he sun hid[es] himself beneath a gloomy cloud,” for instance, while “the waters of two little lakes, that were naturally clearer than crystal, became of a colour like blood” (182). Vathek’s mother, following secretly behind the Caliph’s own party—for she doesn’t trust him to follow through and make good on the Giaour’s promise—at one point becomes a dust devil, “a rapid whirl that rendered her invisible” (193).

Vathek clearly keeps alive the ancient weather-fear: at every point in the short novel the evil temptations of the Giaour are signified by some meteorological anomaly. The Caliph has plenty of opportunities to turn away and resume his life of luxurious faith, but his “malignant disposition” is overshadowed by a dark cloud of “impending gloom.” The correspondence of foul weather and bad character closely mirror those we find in various accounts, such as in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah or in historical accounts from the Little Ice Age where bishops were asked to perform exorcisms over advancing glaciers. Beckford began writing Vathek in 1782, one of the wettest years on record (indeed, that April was the second wettest since records were begun to be kept in 1766; the number one year didn’t occur until 2000). Between June of 1783 and February of 1784 the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted and spread a sulphurous reek across much of Europe, causing as many as 20,000 deaths in England. The winters of 1783/84 and the 1784/85 were both very severe winters, with the three successive years of 1784 to 1786 being among the top 10 coldest on record. Beckford finished the book in the early months of 1785. He may have been drawing on ancient tropes associating morality with climate, but the years he was writing Vathek were particularly harsh.

Likewise, the summer and fall of 1764, in which Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, was very wet, as had been the summer before. Historian of climate H.H. Lamb lists the summer of 1763 as being 181 percent above normal precipitation, while the severe thunderstorms of the summer of 1764, in which lightening destroyed a number of churches and a naval ship, hastened the adoption of the lightning rod. As we’ll see, The Castle of Otranto features claps of thunder at key points.

Horace Walpole self-published what is generally considered to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in time to be given out for Christmas of 1764. In a letter to William Cole the following March, Walpole asserts that he discovered the subject matter of his novel in a dream:

I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle… and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it—add that I was very glad to think of anything rather than politics—in short I was so engrossed in my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drunk my tea, about six o’clock, till half an hour after one in the morning. [Letter of 9 Mar. 1765]

To “think of anything rather than politics” and to find a novel’s material in a dream suggests the means by which old fears, suppressed (or repressed) by the ratiocination of the Enlightenment, might subversively reassert themselves in a new modality of expression. While I’m not particularly convinced by the Freudian concept of “the return of the repressed” to explain pathological conditions, I do think the hydraulic mechanism of repression can be usefully redeployed to theorize a return of narrative. I want to all too quickly note here that I think of “narrative” and “plot” as two different thing. “Plot” is a literary feature; “narrative” is a cognitive feature; plot entertains; narrative explains. The narrative here is one which recovers repressed fears and which thickens certain novelistic plots through the deployment of certain symptoms, or more generally, signs, which reveal the hidden motivations or “natures” or particular characters.

The Castle of Otranto begins with a prophecy: “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner shall be grown too large to inhabit it” (17). The “real owner” is this “gigantic hand in armour” Walpole dreamed of, and not just the hand, but an entire suit, bits of which inconveniently fall from the sky. The helmet, also of course outsized, falls on Conrad, the son of the “present owner” of the castle, Prince Manfred. Conrad, a “sickly” fifteen year old, is to be married off that very day to a beautiful virgin, Isabella. Hopes and dreams are literally crushed when the helmet smashes poor Conrad to a pulp. This is all so bizarre that everybody, nobles, servants and dutiful readers, are left pretty much speechless with shock. The characters, as E.F. Bleiler says, are “thunderstruck.” As we learn in the final pages of the book, this is literally true.

Walpole, though, was by no means shocked into silence; he dashes on as if in a fever dream. What ensues might be summarized as a long, fatal sex chase. Manfred’s sole male heir is dead, leaving the bride-to-be unattached. Manfred decides he should divorce his wife, since she’s “sterile,” and marry young Isabella. Isabella doesn’t like this idea at all and at the first intimation of Manfred’s intentions she goes underground. “Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness,” Manfred says; “my fate depends upon having sons,—and this night I trust will give me a new date to my hopes. At those words he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half-dead with fright and horror. She shrieked, and started from him” (25). With giant pieces of “armour” clanking mysteriously in the background, Isabella, Manfred and their deeply confused allies (would be or otherwise) run in circles through the bowls of the castle and environs.

So much of the action takes place inside the castle, and in other interiors, such as a cave and a convent, that we only get a few glimpses of what the weather is doing. That helmet, though, is standing in the castle courtyard. The helmet is affixed with plumes which signal which way the wind is blowing. (65) The wind is blowing against Manfred. He’s a usurper: the Castle, and his princely title, are not his at all. The giant suit of “armour” is the return of the repressed, or at least a metaphysical stand-in for the “true owner.”

What’s climatically interesting in Walpole is precisely the way revelation of usurpation and the restoration of the just order are signaled. We hear “[a] deep and hollow grown, which seemed to come from above” (73-74) but which is written off, significantly, as “the effect of pent-up vapours” (74). From ancient times and well into the nineteenth century all manner of phenomena that we now consider geological were classified as meteorological, including “pent-up vapours” that signal volcanic activity. The ancient fear of earth- and weather-magic is here sublimated as a sign of repression; what is “pent-up” is about to be released in a revolution of movement that changes the established, unjust order and restores the true and just order of things. For next we hear “a clap of thunder, that shook the battlements” (74); this is the first in a series of thunderclaps that “throw… down” the walls of the Castle “with a mighty force” (104). As the Castle walls go down, Alfonso, the sublimated meteorological agent of justice, rises up, “dilated to an immense magnitude”: “‘Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso!’” the armored apparition intones in a mighty voice. “[A]ccompanied by” yet another “clap of thunder,” “the vision” of Alfonso “ascended solemnly towards heaven, where, the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and, receiving Alfonso’s shade, they were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory” (104).

St. Nicholas is “the conqueror for the people,” that is, for those who have been unlawfully dispossessed. After the fall of the Castle, Manfred makes his confession: the rightful heir is Theodore, the son of Alfonso. Alfonso was poisoned by Manfred and left dead on the Crusader battlefields of the Holy Land. Theodore, who has been present the whole time but unrecognized until the climax of the novel, was left for dead on some distant shore after being shipwrecked by a storm (105). What this all amounts to is a very typical Gothic-romantic plot: the seemingly powerful are revealed as criminal usurpers, who by fate or metaphysical fiddling are stripped of power and position while justice is done to their victims by the restoration of the true owners.

This has been a mere sketch of what I suspect, after surveying the available scholarship, could be a new direction for ecocriticism. In a review of Jonathan Bale’s The Song of the Earth, Robert E. Burkholder suggests [subscription required] that Bale wants us to ask “the same sorts of questions about poems that ecologists ask about biological organisms: ‘How are they influenced by climate? In what kind of landscape do they flourish? What are their modes of creating shelter, their relations with other species?’” I’ve tried to give some idea of ways we can begin to answer questions about climate in literature. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

We should continue from here, logically, to look at Shelley’s Frankenstein. We’d note that, just as in The Castle of Otranto and Vathek, key plot points are accompanied by descriptions of weather fair and foul. Indeed, Shelley, long celebrated for her keen eye for the details of landscape, is much more sensitive to the influence of climate than either Walpole or Beckford. Victor Frankenstein, after all, is, as a young boy, set on his chemico-physiological course by reading the texts of the great alchemists on a rainy day. This is a subtle bit of weather-magic which steers the would-be scientist in the wrong direction before he finds the light of reason in the new science of chemistry. Once he’s done his dreadful work and created his nameless creature, storms abound, for every time the creature kills, the wind picks up, the clouds gather and a bitter rain begins to fall.

Staying with the idea of weather fear and magic we could also look back to The Odyssey and its famous storms. Or to The Tempest, written in the heart of the witch-hunting era, with Prospero consoling Miranda that it was he who made the storm that has shipwrecked them.

Or we could come into the 20th century. In Raymond Chandler’s first novel, for instance, we are introduced to Philip Marlowe’s art of detection over the course of five days in October. The locale is Los Angeles in arid southern California. Marlowe, puzzled and feeling in the dark most of the time, is rained upon throughout most of the action. Except, that is, for key moments when the sun breaks through and Marlowe himself has a breakthrough.

Or perhaps most topically for this year of devastating storms—one in a long string of such years, I’m afraid—we might look anew at Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. My hidden agenda here, I’ll at the end confess, is not only to provoke ecocritics to expand our horizons, but to extend the ways we teach literature as well. Most students—indeed, most of us as teachers, as well—will never take a class in climatology. It’s a complex science full of uncertainties, but the basic physics is not difficult to grasp. What better way to raise critical awareness of changing climate, and the sociological effects of heavy weather, than through a book like Their Eyes Were Watching God?

We’re already great at getting students to work critically at the intersection of race, class and gender. Along with landscape, which ecocritics have done so much to raise awareness of, we should now proceed to bring climate into the mix. In the wake of Katrina and Rita we can use a text like Hurston’s to compare the response this year to last year’s hurricanes in Florida. Just as ecocritics have helped bring biology and the importance of sense of place to the literature classroom, so too can we be activists for awareness by bringing to class knowledge of anthropogenic forcings and by inspiring critical thinking about the effects of weather.

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  1. Brian says

    Apparently what I was writing a few years ago and calling ecoclimatology or critical climatology is now being called “paleotempestology You can find more info on this word at World Wide Words:

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