On The Lamentations of Zeno

By David Lee Astley

At a Bureau de Change, I recently spoke to a woman about her holiday plans to the Maldives. She was going diving, excited to see the beautiful reefs. Mentioning the recent scuba-aided session of parliament, the conversation moved to the rising sea-levels, and so she revealed the motivation of her travel: to visit before they disappear. Global warming tourism may be a burgeoning trend in the market. Like poverty tourists or those who pursue travel to locations “unspoiled by tourism”, the woman appeared ignorant of the malignant irony of her visit. The sense of fait accompli to this diver’s holiday plans echoes the most chilling scene in Herzog’s Nosferatu. As the plague overtakes the town, the citizens dine and dance with flat, sullen faces. “We’ve all caught the plague but enjoy each day that is left”, one diner tells Lucy, the only citizen battling the malice brought by Count Dracula. In Ilija Trojanow’s recently published The Lamentations of Zeno, this scene is evoked as the passengers of the MS Hansen enjoy an open-air BBQ while the ship passes by the floes and bergs of the Antarctic waters.

Touring the Southern Ocean, the cruise is led by Zeno Hintermeier, a recently retired and divorced glaciologist. Throughout his career, Zeno had studied the same glacier, the one that had been left in his care by his old supervisor. With rising global temperatures, his glacier, like the fate of so many, had receded and vanished. In the grey and empty valley, his career had also died. Mirroring the disintegration of his glacier, his marriage had fallen apart. Through anonymous sex clubs and his relationship with Paulina, a Filipino worker on the MS Hansen, Zeno had found replacement to his marriage. He could not, however, replace his glacier. The glacier haunts him. They ‘visit [him] in his [his] sleep to mock [him]’, a fate he cannot escape: “There’s no worse nightmare than no longer being able to save yourself by waking up”.

The glacier was not just his career; it was where he felt complete. Akin to Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude, Zeno would abandon himself ‘to the tranquillity of the ice’. Through the encouragement of a colleague, Zeno took up the lectureship aboard the MS Hansen. Spending each Antarctic summer teaching the rich and privileged the basics of glaciology provided him with the ‘sojourns in the ice’ that he ‘couldn’t live without’. As the years passed and the temperatures rose, Zeno’s prominence and exasperation at inaction grew. In the cruise documented by Trojanow’s novel, he is the expedition leader and has assured himself that ‘something has to happen’.

The cruise moves between sites of human destruction in the Southern Ocean on its voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Abandoned whaling ports and mined beaches are admired by the wealthy western passengers between lectures on ice and ornithology. Though he doesn’t protest, Zeno views the guests with contempt. They are the ones that fuel global warming. They destroyed his glacier. And their hypocrisy sickens our narrator. “If I’m being called to do something for the environment, then count me in”, one declares. But Zeno rightly questions their inability to ‘renounce their comfortable lifestyles, despite all the harm they cause’, a point equally relevant to Zeno’s complacent friends who ask “how come you have to be so negative?”

Taking the form of a journal that he hopes to be published, The Lamentations of Zeno is at its finest in the exploration of Zeno’s own position amongst his analysis of global warming and society, revealing a complex and saddening irony. Is he not as ignorant and individualistic as his fellow passengers in his motivation to be aboard the MS Hansen? Indeed, even his concern for global warming, how much of that is fuelled by an anger born of the death of ‘his glacier’ and his career? It is telling that Zeno never mentions the effects of global warming in other parts of the world. He shows no concern for his lover’s native Philippines, a country more at risk of the effects of climate change than his comfortable existence in Bavaria. But Zeno is self-aware; he knows it is ‘our profit-driven turpitude’ that pushes up the mercury. He is a hypocrite, like us all, one that tries to hide his contribution through anger. As the man in Ushuaia puts it to Zeno before boarding the MS Hansen: “You let off steam, you shout your mouth, but otherwise you’re just like the rest, no you’re worse, because you understand”.

Like Zeno, many of us know this feeling. We protest, shout, lambast against a system but still participate within it. We are guiltier than the next person for we know the destruction it brings. When Zeno confesses, “I am tired of being human”, he speaks for so many who see the glaring incompatibility of our lifestyles and tackling global warming. This sense of humiliation is explored by Timothy Morton in Hyperobjects. Morton suggests that global warming, like the Copernican revolution or the theory of evolution, humiliates mankind by shattering perceptions of our importance. Science has ridded us of the centre of the universe and godly image, now it shakes and unsteadies certain western ideals, our greatest pride and export. Global warming tips the pedestal upon which these values stand, exposing their gaping fallibilities and testing the fundamentals of many people’s humanity. Are individualism, nationalism or even capitalism sustainable if we are to stop global warming? Presently, it appears not. For all capitalism’s appropriation of sustainability, Frederic Jameson’s assessment feels strikingly prescient: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The spatial and temporal scales of global warming mean that my individual action is inept. Have you ever heard a libertarian discussing climate change? As Nosferatu’s Lucy was bound to failure on her own against Count Dracula, so are we in our personal campaigns against global warming. Instead, collective action on national and international scales is the only solution. So far, however, this has been devastatingly conservative in ambition. Why so? Certain corporate and political powers are of incredible importance to inaction on personal, national and international scales, as noted, for example, in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In The Lamentations of Zeno, however, Ilija Trojanow explores the personal, and so will I.

John Sterman of MIT tested 212 graduates from the university (three-fifths from STEM subjects, the rest mostly in economics) on greenhouse gas accumulation after they had read samples from the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers, i.e. the document meant to inform elected officials. He found that over 80% of the students were unable to identify the emissions scenario needed to reduce atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations. The majority of the student participants understood the solution to be plateauing rather than drastically reducing annual emissions, a clear misunderstanding of greenhouse gas residency times. It’s a terrifying conclusion, but perhaps people, including our policy makers, just don’t get it? With this in mind, it’s not surprising that most seem comfortable with a “wait-and-see” approach to global warming, a strategy of catastrophic consequence.

As Sterman notes, tacking global warming is not akin to the Manhattan Project. It cannot be achieved through the effort of a number of scientists in a darkened room; it demands the cooperation and engagement of everyone. And if, as a society, we are failing in this effort, as we currently are, is it not ultimately a failure of science? Surely the task of science is far greater than presenting graphs and charts? In being unable to effectively communicate the gravity of global warming and ensure the necessary change is implemented, more humiliation is revealed, one that disgraces Zeno Hintermeier. He understands his failure. His ‘work had consisted in documenting our delinquency’, becoming ‘the father confessor masquerading as a scientist’. Looking at a photo of an iceberg, Zeno cannot fail but to smudge it, leaving a fingerprint upon the ice like the footprints that remain un-weathered in the Antarctic for hundreds of years. But the touches he lays upon Paulina, his lover, are uncertain, he does not know ‘if the skin will retain’ them.

“Admit it, you didn’t think it possible that they’d simply cast a deaf ear to all your warnings”, a fellow scientist tells Zeno. At the end of each chapter, Trojanow presents a blurt of words, phrases, adverts, news, like a radio being tuned or flicking through TV channels or scrolling down a newsfeed. As we overheat, we are also overloading. In Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s words: “the increasing availability of free, disembedded and deterritorialised information produces excess; that is, information that is not desired or needed, which prevents the building of a coherent worldview, which overflows and is ‘matter out of place’’’. Amongst the noise and debris of the 21st century, global warming is hard to touch – it’s a graph, a projection, that feeling when the weather seems a bit odd. When we are considering global warming, we are considering a slow violence; there is no shock and awe, for now. For most nations, there appears problems and causes of closer proximity, of supposed greater urgency, and with much simpler and less drastic solutions. We need to reverse this, for there is nothing more proximal or urgent than global warming. To do so, we need to break through the noise. Either we retune the radio or cry louder.

For Zeno, the cry of science has reached its limit, what can more graphs possibly change? We must retune the radio. In The Lamentations of Zeno, we are presented with two alternatives – art and violence. Helicoptered aboard the MS Hansen is an artist, Dan Quentin, in the mould of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, celebrity shining brightest, to produce an artwork. ‘An emotional flag’ to be ‘seen across the globe’, supposedly. The artist’s grand image is an “SOS” crafted from the wealthy passengers upon the ice of Antarctica. Intersecting with its creation is Zeno’s exploration of the latter alternative. “Violence is the only language that has yet to be plastered with the ads and logos of sponsors”, he notes. In commandeering the empty MS Hansen and sailing the vessel due north, he achieves two things prior to his suicide. One, he creates a spectacle, the shock and awe, an event to analyse. Second, he legitimises the figurative “SOS”, creating a real emotional response for Quentin to capture.

In wanting to create a more powerful image for the camera and by leaving his journal to be scoured and published, Zeno sees art as possessing the potential for transformative power. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “it has always been among art’s most important function to generate a demand for those whose full satisfaction has not yet come”. There is no less satisfying a circumstance than global warming and yet art, like science, feels impotent. The hammer that Bertolt Brecht promised seems amiss. While much art concerned with global warming is produced, we must ask, who is that art for? Prior to taking his picture, Dan Quentin demands that the Filipino workers of the MS Hansen are not included. It is not for them. The world needs to be transformed, but is that possible through an exclusive medium? Who would look at such a photo, who would read The Lamentations of Zeno? They most likely do not need convincing. So where do we go? Perhaps these would have been the final thoughts of Zeno as he slips through the water to his icy death.

In The Lamentations of Zeno, Ilija Trojanow has created a novel of incredible depth. It is an incisive, humane and, admittedly, bleak study of global warming and the individual. Through his analysis of Zeno, Trojanow has excavated our ineptitude in the glare of global warming and the hopelessness it breeds. For Zeno, he was stuck amongst the matrix of blame and scale, unable to love, death his only hope. The publication of The Lamentations of Zeno is, however, hopeful. Encouraged by scientists, Trojanow is trying to retune the radio. As with our personal changes, a single artwork or novel or graph is inept. Collective and collaborative action is the only solution to global warming. We cannot be like the townsfolk of Nosferatu and become riddled with fatalism. Instead, we need to bring the town together.

Ilija Trojanow’s The Lamentations of Zeno was published by Verso in April 2016. It can be purchased here with 20% off: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2099-the-lamentations-of-zeno

David Lee Astley serves as Associate within the Natural Environment Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford, where he read Earth Science. At university, his academic focus was on climatology, past and present, but he is now concentrating on contemporary climate change. He is especially interested in the interactions that global warming produces between the climate system, environment and societies around the world. David also has a keen interest in politics and culture, especially film, visual art and literature, and is fascinated by artists’ reactions to global warming. The importance of the Polar Regions in both the climate system and how we understand global warming is what encourages his work for Polar Research and Policy Initiative.