digital collage: a boy in the clouds looking down with a magnifying glass

Richard Powers’s Romanticism

In his Booker Prize-nominated 2021 novel Bewilderment, Richard Powers tells the story of Robin, a nine-year-old boy struggling to cope with the death of his mother and with the difficult truths of climate change. Robin’s empathy for the wild causes him trouble: he’s unable to shut out the pain he feels witnessing what humans are doing to life on earth. His concerned father, Theo, signs him up for decoded neural feedback, an experimental therapy that hooks Robin up to an emotion-regulating machine. The mechanism works by partnering the patient with an AI, and the neuroscientist in charge of Robin’s treatment decides, in the weirdest plot development of the fiction, that he should train on the artificially recreated intelligence of his dead mother Allison, an animal rights lawyer and enthusiastic bird watcher. The sessions help Robin direct his empathy towards objects in the living world that impart ecstasy rather than rage. He gains the patience to sit for hours sketching animals in danger of going extinct, and he fills notebooks with detailed observations and questions.

At the core of Bewilderment is a concern with how we make kin with other living beings on a damaged planet. It’s a question that Powers first addressed in his sprawling 2018 novel about ecoterrorism and forest ecology, The Overstory. What makes Bewilderment distinct from the earlier novel, besides its relative brevity and sci-fi plotline, is Powers’s attention to childhood. Only one of the nine main characters in The Overstory becomes a parent, a detail that contributed to some readers’ impression that Powers had more to say about human beings’ relationship to trees and ideas than to one another. Perhaps in an attempt to redress this blind spot, Powers’s newest novel focuses on the bond between a father and son, reviving a big-R Romantic notion of childhood as a time of intense reverence for life.

In an interview with Emergence Magazine, Powers comments that Robin has “that kind of pantheistic quality that children have as they discover the living world.” Another word he uses is “biophilia,” the biologist E.O. Wilson’s term for human beings’ innate tendency to connect with nature. The proposition that children are born nature lovers often enough seems confirmed by experience. The kids I know really do like animals. Robin’s interest in living creatures is, however, of an entirely different order; he actually seems to feel their pain. Upon discovering that only two percent of all animals are wild, his face bunches up “like he’d been punched.”  Rebecca Onion writes that Robin is “often far too sensitive and wise to sound like a real kid.” She compares Powers’s portrait of Robin’s “angry fragility” to liberal adults’ hagiographic and politically impotent reception of the youth climate activist Greta Thunberg. I admire Onion’s take, but Powers’s intervention may appear more nuanced if we take a closer look at the Romantic nature poems that helped bring into common currency the discourse about childhood with which he’s engaging.

The idea that children have a particular way of looking at and dwelling in nature can be traced back to lyric poems composed in the early nineteenth century. In Ode: Intimations on Immortality, William Wordsworth presents childhood as a time of joyful, divinely favored integration with the universe. There was a time, he recalls, when “The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light.” At this early stage in life, he remembers feeling united, as if in the “glory and the freshness of a dream,” with the earth. In Beachy Head, Charlotte Smith nods to Wordsworth as she recollects her own quasi-religious devotion to nature: “An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine; / I loved her rudest scenes.” Like Wordsworth, Smith reaches back to childhood as an original site of biophilia.

Feelings of easy connection to life converge around the memory of youth in Wordsworth’s and Smith’s poems, but that stage is fleeting and so their ecstasy is suffused with a sad awareness of change. The speaker of Ode laments the disappearance of childhood’s “celestial light”: “the things which I have seen I now can see no more.” Smith returns to Beachy Head—the chalk headland that hangs over the sea in East Sussex—to measure the distance between present and past. The emotional force of her poem’s lyric component is generated through her evocation of how her sense of place has changed over time. In “these upland solitudes,” Smith reflects, “I once was happy.” She equates the end of childhood with her move, at age eight, from Sussex to London. An early “exile” from the South Downs, she regretfully contrasts “the polluted smoky atmosphere / And dark and stifling streets” of London with the expansive view as seen from “the southern hills.” Removed from the environs of Beachy Head, Smith looks differently at the world; she is no longer happy, nor even a believer in happiness. Wordsworth’s and Smith’s memories of childhood are tied to an underlying consciousness of self-alteration. Emphasizing discontinuity as a fundamental feature of their subjective experiences of the living world, these poets create a powerful psychological narrative.

Insofar as Romantic lyric poetry’s depiction of childhood discloses a total rupture between the past and present, it may have something to say to us in our current era of climate chaos. A recent Pew survey revealed that 71 percent of Americans report having experienced some form of extreme weather in the past year. Today, then, almost everyone has a story to tell about how the places and seasons have changed over the course of their lifetime. Last year, I asked my students in upstate New York to compose personal climate stories. They described disruptions to seasonal pastimes like ice skating in a backyard rink, skiing at Christmas, biking to work and reading on the front porch in summer. The harms of global warming are unevenly and unjustly distributed—the global poor bear a greater burden than my students or me—but none of us can fully escape the sense of something lost. Like Wordsworth and Smith, we are witnessing the end of the world in which we lived as children. The difference is that our personal experience of loss in an era of climate change fuses with a larger-scale awareness of planetary death.

Powers doesn’t directly reference Romantic poetry in Bewilderment, but he does allude to Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, writers who brought Romantic ecological sensibilities to American environmental thought. Carson found in Romantic lyric poetry a language with which to mark the harms of industrial agriculture. The title of Silent Spring, her groundbreaking book on the lethal toxicity of pesticides, was inspired by John Keats’ ballad about a knight who wakes from a dream to a ruined landscape where “no birds sing.” She warns that such a scenario may come to pass in future. Writing after Carson, Powers treats loss as an inevitable feature of human beings’ relationship to the biotic world.

The arc of Powers’s narrative—the story of Robin’s emotional adjustment to death in an era of rapid geophysical change—is deeply melancholic. At the beginning of the novel, Theo brings Robin to the Smoky Mountains, one of “the last little scraps of Eastern Wilderness,” to grieve and heal. They stargaze, camp out, and come across a ribbon of fungus “as convoluted as an Elizabethan ruff.” Immediately upon reentering civilization, however, Robin has a meltdown. When he sees tourists make a spectacle of a bear on the side of the road, he asks Theo, “how would you like to star in a freak show?” After thinking for a minute, Robin remarks that bears “used to be everywhere…Before we got to them.” The neural feedback machine becomes necessary because, in a world of diminished wilderness, joy is not Robin’s primary response to nature.

Sessions with the machine strengthen Robin’s capacity for ecological ecstasy. He becomes more conscious of the restorative dimensions of nature: he develops an intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of living things as well as a keen observational power. When a scientist asks Robin what’s changed since he started the treatment, he responds, “I’m all mixed up in this really huge thing.” At the same time that he reaches for an all-encompassing, capital-N idea of Nature, he’s on the watch for minute wonders. He finds red hairs growing on the underside of the leaves of the Scarlet Oak and shows a group of rascally teenagers where to spot a great horned owl. When Theo asks him how he learned about the bird, Robin responds, “Easy. I just looked.” In this stretch of the narrative, Robin reminds me of Romantic poetry’s visionary child of nature. In the interview cited above, Powers explains that he wanted to build a “fable around the mind coming into the light and then being forced back in darkness again.” His models are Daniel Keyes’s science-fiction novel Flowers for Algernon and Plato’s allegory of the cave, but his summation also calls to mind Wordsworth’s brief awakening to a “celestial light.” Bewilderment and Ode are both reworkings of Plato’s allegory, adaptations that evoke a child’s intense, fleeting kinship with nonhuman nature.

Unfortunately, Robin’s ecstatic connection to nature is short lived. He falls into destructive habits of feeling after an anti-environmental, Trump-like tyrant cuts funding for decoded neural therapy. As his emotional gains fall away, Robin can no longer modulate his reaction to anthropogenic harm. He finds a video of “demented cows” stumbling and slipping to the ground in consequence of an infection spreading across feedlots in Texas and hammers his head against the wall as if “in final penance.” Desperate for a cure, Theo takes Robin back to the Smoky Mountains, a wild setting that serves, like Beachy Head, to dramatize personal loss. The locale hasn’t changed, but Robin has. In the same woods that lifted his spirits just over a year before, he falters attempting to identify a plant using his field guide and fixates on cairns that pose a threat to riverine life. During his initial visit to the creek, he hadn’t seen the rock piles at all.

Having survived the death of childhood and all its glory, Wordsworth’s speaker has time left over to “keep watch o’er man’s mortality.”  “Nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass,” he insists, but there is comfort in “years that bring the philosophic mind.” Robin isn’t afforded time to gain a perspective on death; that’s the purpose of the therapy, but it fails, and he dies in a fatal accident on the cusp of adolescence. Ours is a different world than Wordsworth’s, one in which interspecies affinities are undoubtedly more troubled. Still, the ending of Bewilderment left me cold. Christian Lorentzen observes that, in the final pages of the fiction, Robin is less a boy than an allegory for the planetary casualties of business-as-usual rationality. His death shuts down hope, leaving the merits of neural feedback technology curiously ambiguous. In Bewilderment, Powers entertains the possibility that a machine (or a book) might foster empathy for nonhuman nature but stops short of imagining a world where the arts and sciences might genuinely help us learn how to live and die together on a damaged earth.

My disappointed response to the conclusion of Powers’s novel is conditioned by Romantic lyric poetry, which looks for hope in art and philosophical wisdom even while mourning the loss of childhood and changes in our experience of nature. Ongoing political inaction on climate change makes Powers’s pessimism understandable, however, and I sometimes wonder whether Romanticism’s faith in the power of literature is overstated. Are the arts and sciences meaningful jumping-off points for philosophical contemplation and ethical action within our rapidly deteriorating environment? Most days, I cling to a more Romantic attitude on this matter than Powers.

Catherine Engh is a graduate of CUNY and a Visiting Professor of First Year Seminar at Siena College. Her research and teaching focus on questions of nature and environmental justice in literature. Her scholarship has appeared in English Language Notes, Approaches to Teaching Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and is forthcoming in European Romantic Review.

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