Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a Time of Beauty and Loss
by Delia Falconer
Simon & Schuster
Published September 2021
by Delia Falconer
Published November 2020 (second edition)
I’m always hungry
when my library is full of loss
full of wonder
when the polis is breaking— Peter Gizzi, ‘Speech Acts for a Dying World’
and casts a shadow
over all of me,thinking of it
In her new afterword to Sydney (first published in 2010), Delia Falconer writes of ‘sad wonder’. This feeling is perhaps two feelings: wonder and loss. In Falconer’s work, they are rarely far apart. When James Halford declared her first novel, The Service of Clouds (1997), ‘one of the more successful Australian experiments with magic realism’, it was her way of oscillating between these feelings that he had in mind. Magical realism typically refers to novels that present the supernatural as natural, but in Falconer’s case it captures a sensibility torn between wonder and doubt. One pleasure of The Service of Clouds –a love story told in retrospect –arises from these rhythms of enchantment and disenchantment. One moment the narrator, Eureka Jones, indulges in a form of stylistic cloud-gazing, and the world teems ‘with the grand dreams of elsewhere’; the next, she brushes it aside with a phrase: ‘At least that is how Harry Kitchings might tell it’. Metaphors are worked into splendours and quickly disavowed. ‘At last, sudden fists of wind’ – as Eureka describes the spectacle of rain falling upwards –
shook the clouds by their corners until light rushed out of their folds, shivering and racing between the cliffs at the far end of the valley at quickening intervals, until, drawing closer, it struck wood and stone and revealed itself as brilliant veins of silver lightening […]. At last, I leaned over the railing, the first cold raindrops, as heavy and erratic as bumblebees, flew up into my face.
But already something has fallen between the narrator and this vision: ‘I thought, This must signify something, and yet, when I looked down into that great space, my loneliness returned’.
In the last decade, Falconer has written two major works of non-fiction and her fascination with wonder and loss has, if anything, become more direct. In her most recent book, Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a Time of Beauty and Loss (2021), these feelings have found their way into the title. Signs and Wonders is a collection of small and various acts of witnessing. It gathers recent essays and diary entries that respond to the climate crisis. Sydney is a personal portrait of the city, written in vibrant and accessible prose. As an essayist, Falconer makes similar tonal pivots to those in The Service of Clouds. She moves from something lyrical and expressive to a mood more like self-scrutiny and self-revision. Often a mournful grandeur will suddenly give way to something lighter: ‘a tiny registration of haphazard life—and a rebuff to my tendency to see the world in grimly overdetermined terms’. But at their core, both Sydney and Signs and Wonders are books that attempt to think with ‘complicated feelings’. This is not simply to say that Falconer writes essays about feeling that are themselves keenly felt. The essayist determined to witness ‘how this world goes’ must be ready to ‘see it feelingly’, as if mapping the dark room of insight with her hands.
Sydney is an elegiac book. Its epigraph is ten lines from ‘Five Bells’, the poem Kenneth Slessor wrote for Joe Lynch, who drowned in the city’s harbour. But unlike ‘Five Bells’, Sydney cannot credit its sense of loss to any single cause. Instead, Falconer hungers to explain why—for all its grit and spectacle, its ‘feral vigour’ and ‘Deco lightness’—Sydney is a fundamentally melancholy place. ‘[A] changeful town, haunted by loss’, she calls it, arguing that almost all of its emotion, ‘even the most violent, can be traced back to a longing, which sometimes seems to have an almost geographic force. When we love it, that love is aching, even our famed showiness is driven by a sense of loss’.
The closest Falconer comes to identifying a cause for these feelings is in the opening chapter, ‘Ghosting’. Here she recounts watching Peter Solness at work on the Bondi golf course. Solness is a photographer and ‘ghosting’ is how he describes the process behind his ‘Aboriginal Engraving Series’. Falconer explains that Solness uses light painting (a technique involving long exposure and a penlight in a darkened setting) to illuminate Aboriginal rock carvings. He sets his camera on a tripod and then, dressed in black, walks slowly around the rock carving, tracing its outline in the air. By angling his penlight, he casts shadows accentuating the stone’s grooves. ‘This can take ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes he will even allow himself to restore a part that is missing, as he has done here with the lizard man, whose skull ends abruptly at the fairway’. Solness’ aim, as Falconer understands it, is ‘simply to remind people in the city of the presence of these ancient pictures’.
Sydney equally seeks to trace a presence in a city built on the unceded land of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. The earlier version of Falconer’s book mostly registers the ‘enormity of what has been lost’ by Aboriginal people in the invasion of Australia through acute expressions of settler melancholy. In the same paragraph, for instance, as noting that ‘the language and stories of the Eora that made sense of the place are largely gone’, she muses: ‘There is a sense in which Sydney is dogged by hauntedness itself, haunted philosophically; its ghostliness is almost depthless, as if – so quick and thorough has this forgetting been – there is a tremor in the bedrock of reality itself’. In moving so seamlessly from considerations of Aboriginal dispossession to a generalised, geographic sense of haunting, Sydney is in keeping with an enduring ‘mythscape of the settler nation’, as Jeanine Leane calls it (one that has been analysed memorably in recent years by Evelyn Araluen, Jonathan Dunk, and Michael Griffiths). According to a longstanding medical doctrine, melancholy (from melan-, ‘black’, and kholē, ‘bile’) is an illness arising from a build-up of black bile. In this sense, Falconer’s suggestion that Sydney’s eighteenth-century settlers likely ‘brought with them some […] version of humoral theory’ is surprisingly apt. But whereas the earlier version of Sydney emphasised that ‘the melancholy, chthonic darkness and determinedly short memory of this city have their roots in the unreconciled colonial violence of its founding’, Falconer’s new ‘Afterword’ revises this slightly: ‘today, thanks to the generous work of others over the last decade, I’m also more aware of the people and Country that have survived’.
More often, though, the sense of loss that Falconer evokes is diffuse and formless: ‘a nagging sense that something is missing’; a conviction that the city has ‘a secret life that resists you’. Rereading Sydney a decade later, she finds these feelings undiminished. This is not to say that Falconer is solely mournful about a decade of urban change. Where she once explained, with evident pride, that Sydney’s beauty was never ‘far from rage, and perhaps even the urge for destruction’ (she was relishing the audacity of a note left on a small silver car ‘in black texta: I just backed into your car, and now I’m pretending to write a note. FUCK YOU!’), she is also grateful to have gained admission to a ‘gentler Sydney’—a city, experienced through her children, that is ‘almost magic realist in its curated pleasantness’. But there is something wistful about this new mildness, and so it is hardly surprising when Falconer’s ‘Afterword’ finds its way back to a familiar tone. Over two pages, to the rhythm of the word ‘gone’, she compiles an inventory of things altered and remade:
The wooden steam crane perched like a praying mantis over Garden Island, gone now. Gone, too, the democratic view from the stairs to the Domain over the grass-covered Woolloomooloo oil reservoir tents, territory of rough sleepers, fenced off for the Sydney Modern gallery extension […]. At Millers Point, in The Rocks, dust from heritage builders’ work drifts from the old Housing Commission terraces, now millionaires’ homes and boutique hotels, toward Barangaroo’s dark glass casino towers. (The concrete observation tower of the old container wharves, a brutalist landmark, also gone.)
The original book was also filled with things ‘no longer’ and ‘since disappeared’, but now even the mourner, the ‘old self’ who wrote Sydney, is gone. Instead, it is loss that remains. Like Lares and Penates, it has become a kind of small deity – a vital force that makes selves and animates cities.
With the reprint of Sydney, Falconer’s focus has shifted, however, to an even more powerful source of wonder and loss. In a diary she kept during the Black Summer megafires, she notes sitting down to write Sydney’s new afterword. It is a brief diary entry, positioned amidst jottings on falling ash and the meteorology of the pyrocumulonimbus cloud:
[E]ven I with my tendency to gloom, have taken for granted that certain things would remain fundamental to my city for some time to come: the wet air with its fecund umami smell, the subtropical green, the hot days cooled in the afternoons by slamming southerly busters. Now it’s clear we risk losing these too.
Signs and Wonders is Falconer’s attempt to fathom a source of loss so powerful and existential that it is sublime, ‘miraculous’, ‘awe-inspiring’. This is the Anthropocene: a proposed geological term for the present, human-dominated epoch that has replaced the hospitable climatic conditions of the Holocene. The term swiftly rose to prominence after the now famous outburst of the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen at a conference in Mexico in 2000, but it is largely beyond scientific circles that it has been most generative and contentious. For Falconer, the Anthropocene ‘denotes the astonishing concept that […] our signature will persist, stamped into the earth’s strata, for longer than it’s possible to imagine’. It astonishes not simply because it seems to encapsulate in a single term the myriad and grave ecological predicaments of the present, but because it forces us to consider the role of humans as – to revisit the influential argument of Dipesh Chakrabarty – ‘a geophysical force capable of changing with fearsome consequences the climate system of the planet as a whole’.
Falconer finds company with the many writers troubled by what this ‘geological agency’ means for representing and imagining reality. But for her, the Anthropocene is not simply unthinkable within current frames of reference, it is also ‘ungrievable’ (to purloin Judith Butler’s term). ‘Talk to anyone about global warming for just a couple of minutes’, as Maggie Nelson has it in On Freedom (2021):
and you’re likely to get some variation on “I just can’t deal”. It’s too depressing, too overwhelming, too paralyzing, too sad, too frightening, too unimaginable. […] And who really cares how we feel anyway, when the real business in front of us should undoubtedly be action? Why on earth would I continue, at this moment in time, to perseverate on feelings, rather than lobby for the Green New Deal?
Falconer is similarly concerned with the utility of feelings. Playing on the ‘Great Acceleration’, she declares that we are living through a ‘“Great Acceleration” of feeling’. Her meaning is, I think, this: despite the intense and complex feelings provoked by the Anthropocene, we may still lack the ‘emotional repertoire to take in such enormity’ and ‘to hold these dimensions in our mind at once’. In other words, many people experience the climate crisis without the terms, rituals, and affective registers to express, fathom, and possibly to even be moved by it at all.
The difficulty of putting the affective dimension of the Anthropocene into words is already the subject of a vast body of writing, with numerous coinages vying to articulate what often remains an unintelligible sense of loss. Glenn Albrecht’s ‘solastalgia’, Nick Land’s ‘geotraumatics’, Emily Apter’s ‘planetary dysphoria’, the widely-discussed notion of ‘ecological grief’, and many others terms attempt to make sense of the feelings provoked by a changing climate. It would be easy to see such terms, like Falconer’s ‘sad wonder’, as expressions of resignation and misanthropy, but they may also hold potential for resistance, outrage, and protest. In brief, and in keeping with the unflagging wordplay, the Anthropocene may be what Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr’s riotous and underrated poem of ‘new Sapphic rage’ calls the ‘#Misanthropocene’.
The ‘Misanthropocene’—to run with this for a moment—is not necessarily a matter of odium for human beings, but for the economic and political roots of the crisis. In this spirit, there may be grounds for a melancholy environmentalism, one that would seek to translate environmental grief into grievance (as Anne Anlin Cheng puts it in another context). Melancholy, to return to Freud’s well-known discussion, is a kind of mourning that remains stuck. (Freud in fact extrapolated this to the environment, even speculating on ‘a geological era in which everything that lives upon the earth has passed away’). But for writers like Falconer, it is necessary to read Freud against his conclusions: the aim is not to ‘get over’ the crisis and return to a false sense of normality, but to derive a political ecology from the unsettling dynamic of inconsolability. To experience environmental melancholy, to dwell indefinitely on loss, to even make this loss a part who one is, may give rise to unexpected insights. Yet, even if we don’t go this far, it may be worthwhile to tarry with difficult feelings. To go back to Nelson, these feelings ‘shape our experience of our lives, determine how we treat others, and decide the ways we are able to “stay with the trouble” [Donna Haraway’s term], sometimes even determining whether are able to do so at all’.
The essays of Signs and Wonders seek to ‘stay with the trouble’ in different ways. ‘Birds’ is an elegy for Falconer’s mother voiced obliquely through a meditation on deep time and the evolutionary history of birds. It builds on a vignette from Sydney, in which the sound of lorikeets eating a quartered apple is compared to ‘a wet finger on a mirror, or a cloth cleaning glass’. ‘Coal: An Unnatural History’ assembles an alternative account of modern Australia from laconic fragments on coal. In its finest moments, Falconer’s micrological scrutiny ‘comes straight out of things like wine from grapes’, as Walter Benjamin puts it. The contradictions of history are implicated in compartmentalised details: when Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in the House of Representatives, it ‘had been treated with a coat of lacquer to stop its black dust from coming off’; Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour began its life ‘in the coal and whaling port of Whitby as a merchant collier, The Earl of Pembroke. Cook knew Whitby well because, at seventeen, before he joined the navy, he had found his first job there with a coal merchant. He would undertake each of his three subsequent journeys to the Pacific in a repurposed “Whitby Cat”’.
In the title essay, ‘Signs and Wonders’, Falconer seeks to read loss in spectacle, and so gathers the ‘visceral augurs’ and ‘uncanny marvels’ of the present into an uneasy gallery of wonders. The temptation is to list them: an unearthed wolf cub, perfectly preserved in Canada’s Yukon, was ‘[s]even weeks old when it died 50,000 years ago’; a Hungerstein (‘hunger stone’), now visible as the watermark of a river in Central Europe recedes, states ‘When you see me, weep’; a Twitter account (@LegoLostAtSea) posts beached remnants of plastic toys; an entire deconstructed greenhouse is found in the stomach of a sperm whale washed up in Spain; a thaw slump in the Siberian forest is ‘a kilometre long and almost 800 metres wide’. Falconer’s essay tries on and abandons a whole vocabulary to describe these images. She speaks, for instance, of their ‘haunting strangeness’ and ‘eerie charisma’. She even compares a scientist pulling seemingly endless strips of plastic from a dead whale’s abdomen to an ‘haruspex’ – a Etruscan diviner who would interpret thunderbolts and read portents from the entrails of sacrificed sheep. But at other moments she seems more sceptical. Where George Monbiot and Caspar Henderson are hopeful that wonder might ‘save the world by countering the sanitising numbness of scientific language’, Falconer confesses that she remains suspicious. Wonder, she adds, ‘rarely translates into action’. For all the power she finds in these images, she remains bothered by the thought that they might not signs to waiting to be deciphered at all. Perhaps they are merely a way to ‘turn a dying world into a […] cabinet of curiosities’.
The most ambitious and suggestive essay in Signs and Wonders is ‘How It Feels Now (After “Hysterical Realism”)’. Its ambition lies in Falconer’s attempt to connect two very different discussions, taking place decades apart: one in the year of 9/11; the other a recent reckoning with climate change. Both are preoccupied, in different ways, with how the novel might respond to contemporary events. They ask: what is the novel good for?
Falconer’s essay begins by staging a return to James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). Wood’s review is unusual: it sets out to define a genre. He takes White Teeth as another instantiation of ‘the contemporary “big, ambitious” novel’. By this he means something quite specific – a novel characterised by a zany and self-conscious postmodern maximalism. Wood has in mind Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). ‘[A]s if ashamed of silence’, these novels ‘continually flourish their glamorous congestion’; they are a vast and unlikely web of interrelated subplots and stories. Wood’s term for this kind of storytelling is ‘hysterical realism’. The rationale behind his coinage (which plays on magical realism) is that, due to the sheer quantity of interconnected characters and stories, ‘the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked’.
Falconer considers Wood’s review of White Teeth alongside its shorter reprise, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’ This brief essay was published in The Guardian less than a month after 9/11. It reiterates Wood’s chief objection to ‘hysterical realism’, which is at core an ethical one. Wood claims (in his original review essay) that arguments against hysterical realism ‘should be made not at the level of verisimilitude but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality – the usual charge – but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself’. What is the ‘reality’ being avoided here? For Wood, the reality of realism depends above all on the representation of fictional character. In this respect, his idea of realism is not so far from the widespread idea that fiction provides an encounter with otherness: a way to see things, in the words of Marilynne Robinson, ‘through someone else’s eyes’, a means to ‘imagine being otherwise’. Looking back on Wood’s essay, it would seem he has been vindicated. In the conclusion of ‘Tell me how does it feel?’, he offers his hope that 9/11 might open a new space for the novel beyond the ‘false zaniness of hysterical realism’ and the ‘easy fidelity of social realism’ – a return to ‘the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror’. Since Wood wrote these words, there has certainly been a turn away from postmodernism’s irony, irreverence, and extravagance to a fiction that allows us to ‘slip into the skin’ of characters different from ourselves, as Bernardine Evaristo puts it. One of its most outspoken advocates today is Zadie Smith.
But why return to this old polemic? Falconer reports that one of her friends today thinks Wood’s essay ‘almost quaint’. She herself views it as ‘premature and excessive’ and devotes some of her essay to censuring these excesses. But Falconer is also in the thrall of a deeper intuition. She senses that Wood’s essay means something different when read with today’s understanding of the climate crisis. The problem with realism is that reality isn’t realist. Conspicuous aspects of human experience resist being assimilated into realist fiction. This is the argument of Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Ghosh declares the climate crisis ‘a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination’. His book discusses several aspects of this crisis, but his discussion of fiction has been most influential. He is unsettled and intrigued by the fact that to represent climate change is to ‘court eviction’ from the house of fiction, to risk finding oneself banished ‘to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction’. Interestingly, the justification behind this expulsion follows the same logic as Wood’s complaint against ‘hysterical realism’: both hysterical realism and climate fiction ‘defy the laws of persuasion’. In the background of both Ghosh and Wood’s accounts is Aristotle’s claim in the Poetics that a plausible impossibility is preferable to an implausible possibility. Wood’s charge against ‘hysterical realism’ is that, while each of its stories are possible, the teaming and interlinked panorama of such stories fails to convince. From today’s perspective, however, what may seem unconvincing in the pages of a realist novel is more than a mere possibility. Weather events once considered ‘extreme’ are now ordinary and take place around us with growing frequency and force. And so Ghosh suggests that the most powerful literary polemic is the Anthropocene itself. This ‘sly critic’ looks on our realism but remains unconvinced.
It is here that Falconer’s essay intervenes with an unlikely plea for hysterical realism. She is far from enamoured with Wood’s coinage. ‘Why’, she asks, ‘did he choose to label novels he found unruly and garrulous with a term loaded with the iconography of convulsing female bodies? Why did twenty-five-year old Zadie Smith, a stunningly successful Anglo-Jamaican debut novelist, draw his first fire?’ But for all this, Falconer feels there is something potentially instructive in labelling this fiction with the tainted diagnostic term ‘hysterical’. Here her essay takes a brief detour through the history of ‘hysteria’, led by the conviction is that there is something properly ‘hysterical’ about hysterical realism. At first, she considers this hysterical quality in visual terms, focusing on the ‘disconcertingly stagey and abandoned’ photos of Jean-Martin Charcot’s patients taken by Albert Londe. But when she tries to capture hysteria’s presence in fiction, she finds, like Freud, the limitations of looking to visual evidence (‘with my eyes wide open I was struck by the astonishing blindness’, as Freud puts it in Studies in Hysteria). Instead, Falconer conceives hysteria in fiction as a kind of weather. She describes it as an atmosphere of ‘nervous violence’, pointing to the way these hysterical realist novels register ‘the weather front of a shift of feeling’.
Observing the weather of realism, Falconer claims that what Wood ‘saw as a failure looks to me like the beginning of a revolution’. Instead of being populated with implausible possibilities, hysterical realist novels anticipate possibilities we are only coming now to understand. In Falconer’s words, ‘the “hysterical realist” novels of the late twentieth century [may have] been trying to register a new feeling of turbulence with their ungraceful narrative gestures’. This is the conclusion that her long, digressive, and querying essay has been working its way towards: hysterical realism foresees ‘the unreal quality of our own moment’. Re-reading Wood, Falconer positions hysterical realism as the precursor to a group of ‘newly ambitious’ novels ‘pushing the boundaries of the real’. Her examples of these contemporary, ambitious fictions are refreshingly taken from recent Australian writing (Signs and Wonders sometimes even ventures the strong and less creditable claim that ‘Australia is the best place for writing about uncertainty and loss’). ‘How It Feels Now’ concludes with an analysis of James Bradley’s Clade (2015), Jennifer Mill’s Dyschronia (2018), Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), and Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017), applauding these books for their attempt to think ‘how precarious our present has become, to the point of almost exceeding what we can imagine’.
What Wood found unpersuasive and almost pathological in hysterical realism was its pursuit of ‘relatedness’ and ‘connectedness’ at all costs. In hysterical realism, characters are ‘forever seeing connections and links and hidden plots, and paranoid parallels’. Falconer’s conclusion suggests that this connection-making is far from pathological. On the contrary, its appearance in fiction should convince us more. For the Anthropocene – if that is the right word for it –foregrounds strange and contradictory forms of intimacy and interconnectedness, from the interlinked histories of global capitalism to the vast scales of deep time and intergenerational responsibility. ‘How It Feels Now’ is an invitation to novels yet to be written. It says: you might find inspiration here.