A Note on Richard Powers’ Bewilderment (2021)

The novel’s horizon is the extinction of the world as we know it, through climate change and connected cataclysmic events–including a form of encephalitis that starts in Texas among the cattle but soon extends to humans. The ongoing civil war is exacerbated.

There is an extreme political urgency–alleviate the suffering of everything alive–but its result is precisely the worst–the triumph and extension of Trumpian politics all the way through. The withholding of federal funds for any school system that insists on teaching evolutionary biology–only creationism is allowed–is only one of the first measures. The withholding of funds for any research that cannot promise to generate new money is also implemented in a systematic way.

In that context a scientist, an astrobiologist, desperately tries to discover more life in the universe, hoping it could inspire some. He connects to another scientist, a neuropsychologist, whose experiments on behavior modification are promising. Little Robin, the son of the first scientist, needs help. But both efforts will be brought to a dead end through, yes, Trumpian politics, if you may call it politics and not simply the exacerbation of human stupidity. The dominant political world sees no percentage in discovering life in the universe, as it would complicate their privileged connection to religion; and they see no percentage in behavior modification techniques, surely some sort of liberal conspiracy.

In the meantime, little Robin finds, through the machine, an alternative to human life as we massively know it. He absorbs a different understanding of life, a different relation to being.

But he dies.

I have not said anything about the novel that cannot already be found in recent reviews–the skeleton of the novel. I do not want to spoil anything else for readers.

But allow me to make two points: the first is the underlying trust in science and technology, as if Powers were making the point that it is only through them that we could come to some other side of our terminally ill behavior.

The second is of course the radical suspension of any kind of belief in a politics that could be commensurate to the protection of life on Earth.

This is a sad book, but it offers something: the very notion that an infrapolitics is possible, if only we could arrange to modify our behavior in some essential sense and bring it closer to the being of beings, to life as it is, to the life of the universe. One thinks of Anaximander, of the order of time, but mostly about the tisin of necessary compliance with the way things are beyond stupid adikia, beyond the strenuous mismeasurement of violence.

The book, it seems to me, connects with a famous Hölderlinian verse: “he who thinks the deepest loves what is most alive.”

And yet the little boy dies. But the technology that gave him happiness is still functional in an obscure Wisconsin lab.

We can wait for it to become available to all, or perhaps we can do something else.