Opinion

Embodied Imagining: Exploring Climate Through Literature

Nanda Jarosz explores deep collaboration and the power of literature as a mode of climate communication, exemplified in Shubhangi Swarup’s prizewinning novel Latitudes of Longing.

Andaman Islands, via Unsplash.

There is nothing new about information on the climate catastrophe, scientists have been warning us with increasing levels of concern about the dangers of a warming planet for over thirty years. Yet it doesn’t seem like the message is being heard loud enough to make a difference. So why, despite all of our scientific understanding are we still falling short of the types of unified global action required to avoid climate disaster?

As philosopher Dalia Nassar makes clear in the 2021 Iain McCalman lecture and essay, something is missing from the ways we talk about climate change. Nassar claims that this gap between knowledge and action on climate change must be filled by what she terms as a process of “deep collaboration” between science and art.1

Nassar claims that “deep collaboration” yields a perspective that is “not neutral and detached, but passionately involved in and affected by a dynamic world”.By way of an example, Nassar presents how the nature writing of eighteenth-century scientist and philosopher Alexander Von Humboldt helps us as readers to “imagine ourselves in the landscape, experiencing it in an embodied and emotive way”.3 By doing so, we are able to re-think our relationship to the natural world and how we will respond to the challenges of a rapidly changing and dangerous climate over the next ten years.

In support of these claims, I suggest another piece of literature that has the power to meet the demands of Nassar’s conception of “deep collaboration”. Winner of the Sushila Devi Literature Award for Best Book of Fiction Written by a Woman and longlisted for the Dublin Literary Prize, Shubhangi Swarup’s 2018 novel Latitudes of Longing encourages an imaginative exploration of nature. By focusing on the positive side of humanity’s shared experience with the natural world, Swarup’s book awakens our imagination to the possibility of an ecologically viable relationship with nature.

Three key factors contribute to the sense of ecological embeddedness that lies at the heart of this book. First, representations of deep time in various landscapes gives readers the sense that they are part of an ecological continuum that stretches beyond the presence of human life on earth. On the power of mountain landscapes to transform human consciousness, Swarup writes, “from the highest place on earth, when you peer down into the deepest depths, you can see beyond layers of soil, ice, gravel, sand, rocks and embers. And when you do, you cease to be human”.4 Our perception of time is altered through an imaginative experience of these environments and gives us the power to see the natural world from beyond the perspective of human history.

Second, the telling of four parallel and surprisingly interrelated stories that constitute the structure of Latitudes of Longing is representative of the intricate connections that link all of life on earth. Characters from one story appear in different forms such as ghosts or dreams that occur later in the chronology of the book. In this way, Swarup’s masterful understanding of the fluidity of time means that a character can be simultaneously imprisoned and yet free “somewhere in the distant certainties of the future”.5 By demonstrating how human lives are impacted by changes and processes that go beyond merely human scales of magnitude, Swarup is able to weave a tale that illustrates a relational sense of responsibility between entities across different time spans and geographical dimensions.

“By demonstrating how human lives are impacted by changes and processes that go beyond merely human scales of magnitude, Swarup is able to weave a tale that illustrates a relational sense of responsibility between entities across different time spans and geographical dimensions.”

Third, Swarup engages the concept of the sublime to instil a sense of appreciation for nature in the reader caused its infinite power and complexity. At the end of the first story, Swarup describes the awful power of a tsunami: “It is on the sloping beaches such as this one that it arrives in its full glory: destructive and dramatic”.6 Categorised by the paradoxical sensation of awe and terror in the face destruction, Swarup harnesses the aesthetic of the sublime to challenge common assumptions of human dominance over nature. Instead of attempting to flee the danger of the tsunami, the protagonist sees it as a “moment to be savoured, down to every cell and atom”.7 Even though the wave will ultimately claim his life, it also provides an opportunity for him to bask in the most basic forms of his entanglement with the earth.

“In pursuit of creating further awareness about the climate crisis, many authors have chosen to emphasise the dangers of humanity’s power to alter planetary systems. This has led some readers down the path of climate nihilism or even apathy.”

In pursuit of creating further awareness about the climate crisis, many authors have chosen to emphasise the dangers of humanity’s power to alter planetary systems. This has led some readers down the path of climate nihilism or even apathy.Instead, Swarup’s book offers a positive view of life on earth – the sense of being embodied within an ecological landscape. Latitudes of Longing inspires an appreciation for nature that leaves the reader with the feeling of being at home in the world. By focusing on the positive side of humanity’s shared experience within the natural world, Swarup awakens the imagination to the possibility of an ecologically viable relationship with nature.

References
1. Dalia Nassar, “Shallow and Deep Collaboration: Art, Ecology and Alexander von Humboldt” (Iain McCalman Lecture, University of Sydney, Sydney, February 3, 2021), 4.
2. Nassar, “Shallow and Deep Collaboration,” 14.
3. Nassar, “Shallow and Deep Collaboration,” 13.
4. Shubhangi Swarup, Latitudes of Longing: A Novel, (India: Harper Collins, 2018), 226.
5. Swarup, Latitudes of Longing, 170.
6. Swarup, Latitudes of Longing, 124.
7. Swarup, Latitudes of Longing, 124.
8. Susanne C. Moser, “More Bad News: The Risk of Neglecting Emotional Responses to Climate Change Information.” In Creating a Climate for Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 64–80.


Nanda Jarosz has a PhD in International Comparative & Literary Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney. Her research examines how the concept of the sublime, from Kant to contemporary aesthetics, can be harnessed in the pursuit of ethical responses to climate change.

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