No Time Left But Fiction

As we are facing lasting wounds, the arts throw us a lifeline.

by Tim Leberecht

This past weekend I visited, for the first time, the inside of the Pantheon in Paris, the French “hall of fame” where some of the nation’s greatest thinkers and leaders are buried and honored. I expected to be awed by the graves and decorum, as well as by Foucault’s pendulum, also on display. But I was completely caught off-guard by the permanent exhibition of works by German artist Anselm Kiefer and French composer Pascal Dusapin. Commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, the exhibition premiered during a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2020 that marked writer Maurice Genevoix’s entry into the Pantheon. Genevoix is the renowned author of Ceux de 14, in which he describes the horrors of World War I based on his experiences fighting in the trenches.

A hundred years

The exhibition is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is the first time since 1925 that new art has been installed in the Pantheon. Second, to grant this honor to a German artist is a significant symbolic gesture. Then there is the art itself. Congenially augmented by the soundscapes of his collaborator Dusapin, Kiefer created six large glass-and-steel vitrines featuring phrases written by Genevoix (as well as one by the Romanian poet Paul Celan) amidst rusted barbed wire and ruins, lead books, stained uniforms and shirts, flowers, golden ears of corn, and a battalion of broken bicycles.

In addition to these vitrines, Kiefer also allowed two of his larger-than-life paintings, La voie sacrée and Ceux de 14 — l’Armée noire — Celles de 14, to be displayed in the Pantheon temporarily. Portraits of war-torn winter landscapes, these two works are both silent screams of despair and serene monuments of inner transcendence. If you look closely enough, amidst the devastating deconstructs of our raw humanity, you can find glimmers of hope. “In spite of the subject he cannot, one cannot avoid beauty. Can the artist prevent evil, the worst horror under his hands, from becoming beauty?” Kiefer wonders.

After spending time with the art works you begin to realize why it took almost 100 years for this exhibition to take place. There will never be enough time to forget and forgive the monstrosities of war, but the passage of time may at least help create some distance from the pain. If it’s true what Picasso said — that “art is a lie that tells the truth” — this doesn’t mean that truth becomes more bearable. But at least we can look it in the eye.

Stories of tomorrow

That same evening, I had dinner with my friend Mathieu Lefèvre, a dual US-French citizen who is the co-founder and CEO of More in Common, an organization with the mission to help overcome polarization and heal social divisions. His uncle is the late Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Agreement that sealed the end of the Yugoslavian War in 1995, and Mathieu himself spent three years in wartime Afghanistan on behalf of the UN. He is no stranger to violent conflict and for that reason a passionate advocate of soft power, a concept first developed by the American international relations scholar Joseph Nye.

Soft power presents a complex truth. Robert Winder, in a new book, calls it “a storytelling competition” among nations. In the spirit of not competing on story but potentially collaborating on it, Mathieu’s organization More in Common just published “The Endless Sea,” a manifesto and framework that aims to inspire a new positive narrative for our pandemic-and-climate-torn societies. The title is borrowed from a quote by Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” The ideological and socio-economic gap between different factions in our society, More in Common argues, can also be viewed as a “hope gap.” And hope is created by story. To have a tomorrow, we need to have a “story of tomorrow.” Once this story is articulated and shared, the hard work of change can begin.

The right time

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, the wise (and “pantheonized”) Victor Hugo knew, but it is also true for many ideas that their time never comes. Timing is everything. I remember my literary agent once telling me when I complained that I didn’t have enough time to write my new book: “It’s not because you don’t have time; it’s because you don’t have an idea yet.” She was right. Likewise, Nick Cave, in his fabulous The Red Hand Files newsletter, once responded to a fan’s question about writer’s block that he may think he is not ready to write the song, but the truth is the song was not ready for him.

In business, too, timing is of the essence. It seems that nothing expires as fast as a product that was rushed to market. You can’t always manage time; you want it on your side. Steve Jobs, famously, almost broke Apple by delaying product launches. Several of them were one or even two years behind deadline because he felt the product wasn’t ready. Sony CEO Akio Morata, the mastermind behind the Walkman, stored the wood of Sony’s TV receivers for weeks or even months so that it could “become ready.”

Not all business leaders were so wise. The history of business is replete with ideas that came to market either too late — Google TV, RSS, and Microsoft Zune — or too early — Google Glass (and even before that, the Sony Glasstron), the Nintendo Virtual Boy, the Apple Newton, Friendster, and Polaroid Polavision, to name but a few. Or take Virtual Reality, which has been around as a concept since 1949, and somehow, even with the technological advances of the past decade, still seems premature.

Social change, too, takes time. On the one hand, it is exhilarating how much our social norms have evolved over the past few years, especially at the workplace, where diversity, equity, and inclusion are finally moving where they belong: to the center. On the other hand, it is worth stating that calls for gender-neutral pronouns and attempts to create new pronouns had already begun around 1850. Or take the suffrage movement and women’s right to vote: in the US, activists and reformers had to dedicate themselves to nearly 80 years of concerted organizing and mobilizing to win it.

All of these social movements needed not just hard work and persistence, but also the right timing and patience, as well as a powerful narrative that inspired their followers to embark on a journey through an “endless sea.”

A new age

The conundrum, however, is that today’s most pressing challenge — the climate crisis — is acute. We, as a species, are running out of time. The recent weeks, with their heat waves and floodings, and the news that the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it absorbs, have proven the point in evermore piercing fashion.

It’s just the beginning of torrid destruction. The planet may survive, but there will be unimaginable human suffering. The calls for climate adaptation are therefore getting louder, and the arts will play a crucial role in preparing us for the great transition to a new era, in which not only living with the (or a) pandemic will be the new normal, but living with extreme climate will, too.

The anticipation of this era has spawned an entire new literary genre: climate fiction or cli-fi. H.G. Wells had already imagined future Earth scenarios when he wrote The Time Machine in 1895, but Octavia Butler is widely credited as one of the first writers in the genre, with her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower. Most of the cli-fi books published since have leaned towards the dystopian. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, for example, depicts the U.S. after massive floodings, coming to the conclusion that the colonization that caused it is one within us. Likewise, Charlie Jane Anders, in City in the Middle of the Night (2019), describes how humanity, having relocated to a new hospitable planet, descends (again) into fascism.

Such negative narratives can cause a sense of powerlessness and anxiety. According to a 2018 study, only 26 percent of respondents reported positive emotions after reading a cli-fi book. While they are more likely to attribute climate change to human action, research indicates that this effect doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change.

In contrast, one of the most prominent examples of a more optimistic brand of cli-fi is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future (2020). It deviates from post-apocalyptic scenarios by projecting in great detail how humanity can rise to the challenge — and in fact solve the crisis.

Experts expect to see fewer extreme fictions the more extreme our lived reality becomes. As climate change directly affects more and more people, the genre will be less binary. Instead of portraying strictly dystopian or utopian outlooks, the climate crisis will simply serve as backdrop for increasingly complex human stories that leave the reader with ambiguous perspectives. It is as much a sign of the genre’s growing maturity as it is of the climate crisis’s inevitability.

Positive narratives, hopeful “stories of tomorrow” such as More in Common’s “The Endless Sea” or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future are critical, but we also need artists like Kiefer to create the kind of beautiful terror that forces us to stare into the abyss, rid us of illusions, and have us feeling devastated and elated at once. For we will only take action if we feel more.

Rebecca Roanhorse said about the climate crisis:

“I once heard someone say that Indigenous peoples’ lives were a land-based love story. That, in some languages, the way to say ‘I love you’ could be broken down to, ‘I care about you the way I care about the land.’ Climate change feels like watching the inevitable decline of someone you love, and knowing that if we don’t do something quickly, your loved one will die.”

In 100 years, will the Pantheon still stand? If so, what art will it exhibit to bring to mind the inhumanity we are committing today — and lift people’s spirits at once?

Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global community for making business more beautiful.

Attend the masterclass on “How to Rewrite Your Future” with novelist Aditi Khorana on Friday, July 23, from 6:00–7:30 pm CEST.

This year’s signature gathering of the House, Concrete Love, will take place in Lisbon and online, and comprise two parts: Acts (Friday, October 29 — Sunday, October 31, 2021) and Actions (Monday, November 1 — Friday, November 26, 2021).

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Photo: Celles de 14 — one of Anselm Kiefer’s six vitrines at the Pantheon in Paris (photo by the author)


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