A common charge used against ecological politics is that it hates humanity and reflexively rejects the benefits of progress. Consider, for instance, this New Yorker cartoon of 2006, where two cavemen muse on the fact that they have clean air and organic food, yet don’t survive past thirty (never mind that infant mortality accounts for the “low” life expectancy before 1900, and that in the Paleolithic if you could make it to 15 you had a decent chance of making it to 54). This kind of charge is little more than a cudgel that reduces all of environmental politics to a deep ecology caricature. At the same time the charge does not come from nowhere, and what’s more, it’s not at all clear that (eco)misanthropy is necessarily a bad thing, especially as a corrective to the kind of blunt anthropocentrism that gave us Interstellar.
Ilija Trojanow’s novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno, the paperback edition of which appeared this year) is an exploration of a character given to a kind of ecomisanthropy. Zeno Hintermeier is a glaciologist through whose eyes we see that such a seemingly taboo attitude at least comes from an understandable place. Reflecting on how whale oil was a source for glycerine, Zeno thinks:
Was für eine bewundernswerte Innovation, aus Walen Sprengstoff herzustellen, was für ein leuchtendes Sinnbild des Fortschritts: Wesentliches zerstören, um Überflüssiges zu produzieren.
What a marvelous innovation to make explosives from whales, what an illuminating symbol of progress: destroying the essential for the production of excess. (131)
Zeno is based in Munich for most of his career, and his work is devoted to a distressed Alpine glacier. When he visits his beloved glacier to find nothing more than a few scattered, muddy blocks of ice, his personal and professional lives sink into crisis. He joins a company that takes ecotourists on Antarctic cruises, where he gives talks about the local ecology. The text of the novel shifts between his journal entries and montage of mass media language from after the novel’s end, in which we slowly discover that Zeno has hijacked the ship, marooned all the people on board, and eventually committed suicide. The protagonist has an interesting name: Zeno of Elea, after all, is known for his paradoxes of motion, such as that when traveling we never reach our destinations as we are only ever halfway. Global warming is a kind of catastrophic personal and environmental break-out from this non-movement in movement: Glaciers hit definite points of no return as they melt, a circumstance correspondingly mirrored in the activation of Zeno Hintermeier’s Todestrieb towards the end of the novel.
Zeno is something of a latter day Cassandra, who is now not simply ignored, but dismissed as an irrational wet blanket:
Er war eine Spaßbremse, er war ein Spinner, aber wenigstens ein Spinner mit Überzeugung, Sie werden ihn nicht verstehen.
He was a party pooper, he was a nut, but at least a nut with conviction, you will never understand him. (140)
As a teacher Zeno is in the bind of wanting others to appreciate the subject he specializes in, and frustrated that his students necessarily don’t share his appreciation or devotion. During an expedition to the glacier he has devoted his life to, he remarks of his students:
Sie waren nicht einmal peinlich berührt ob ihrer Ignoranz, als stünde ihnen das Grundrecht zu, Vernichtetes zu vergessen.
They did not even have a touch of embarrassment over their ignorance, as if they had a fundamental right to forget what had been destroyed. (56)
The situation is presumably worse on the ship. Zeno shares an enclosed space with a group of passengers present for the aesthetic consumption of nature. We learn, for instance, that the cruise ships space themselves out so that all on board have at least the illusion of being the only humans in a space radically other from civilization, even as human economic activity is transforming the terrain before their very eyes. In this context Zeno is little more than a form of infotainment, the knowledge he shares ultimately does not result in any change in his audience’s attitudes towards nature or everyday practice. At one point a passenger sees a skua steel an egg from a penguin’s nest. The passenger saves the egg, for which she is rewarded with a bite in the hand, causing her to fall down and crush another penguin and the eggs in her nest.
One of the questions I pursue in my research is how an environmental thematic squares with a certain historical notion of the autonomy of the work of art. The reception of the novel was initially cold partly because it was seen as didactically coerced. My own feelings about the novel were mixed. Zeno’s ecomisanthropy is actually quite interesting, but the character’s own voice makes for some exasperating moments. The descriptions of sex struck me as particularly hackneyed. That would just be a complaint about artistic merit, except that the female characters end up appearing as distant and flat. Zeno’s ex-wife is a shrew, and even the more sympathetic Paulina, with whom Zeno has an affair in the novel, appears as a more distanced sexual object viewed through the lens of national stereotypes. This doesn’t combine well with the portrait of the ecomisanthrope that the novel sketches. And that’s unfortunate, because instead of a nuanced portrait of an attitude that is often quickly dismissed, we encounter in this novel yet another example of an ugly and ultimately self-defeating masculine brand of conservationism.
On edit: 27. April 2016: Eistau is now available in English under the title The Lamentations of Zeno.