It is the Natural World But . . .
Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, ruminating on Richard Powers’ 2021 Bewildered, a work of fiction currently pushing my thinking on the scope of nature and the natural world.
When we started this series, I used my preferred search engines to explore meanings of “natural world.” The results confirmed what I’d learned in school, especially as a reader of British Romantics and American Transcendentalists, those who lived on the cusp of cultural change, a turbulent change to urban and industrialized from rural and agrarian systems. What felt like a separation from the sphere of plants, animals, seasons, landscapes, felt dehumanizing, people being easily replaced by machines and technology. These feelings generated literature that prizes humanity’s embeddedness in the natural world and criticizes technology’s means of production which is fairly far removed from the natural world, especially of its rhythms and seasons. Confirmed in my prior knowledge, I felt ready to grapple with Powers’ take on the state of the world.
But, well, not so much.
Of course, the novel presents dire omens that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, and pretty quick. But the novel also plays technologies and scientific research as offering pathways of hope and new ways of comprehending the structures and forms of a “natural world.”
The narrator of Bewildered is a college professor of astrobiology, a branch of science that studies life in the universe; an occupation that generates ways for he and his son to imagine life on planets and galaxies far, far away with unique natural laws quite different from those on our planet Earth. These imaginings are also a way to calm the son, whose cognitive functioning so varies from the norm that he is bullied and recommended for pharmaceutical treatment. When the son’s outbursts become increasingly violent, the father pursues a therapy that interfaces his son’s brain patterns with those of his dead mother, a former participant in neural research. Trips to nature preserves where the father and son camp and hike in relative seclusion are also key in the novel, mostly as a way these guys reconnect with their wife and mother, a legendary environmentalist, who seems ever present in this natural world and increasingly manifest in her son’s ways of thinking and being.
Some reviews label Bewilderment as science fiction. Others note that Powers’ work builds from ongoing research. Astrobiology is a thing, research largely theoretical, at least until inter and intra-galactic and multi-universe forays are funded. Also, it’s not widely known whether the neural-cognitive therapy depicted in the novel is available, but a review of the novel on Bibliofile.com directs readers to a gadget that looks like a headband but monitors brain activity and vital signs. Friendly note: the device, posted on Amazon, is currently out of stock.
Overall, Powers’ novel is dominated by “a feeling of being perplexed and confused.” The key characters consistently fail to grasp current and personal events that happen to them. Characters consistently lack agency. Yet in thinking about this novel, what I feel more than anything is a sense of bewonderment. For one, my having stretched my thinking about environment from local to regional to global clearly falls short of universal. Likewise, it’s encouraging that the changing ways living entities inhabit brains and bodies are redefining concepts of normal, normative, and natural. Even demarcations between life and death are malleable. For future generations, what constitutes the “natural world” will be much different from what we were taught in school. Probably a good thing.
The ability of the human mind to imagine, to speculate, to create is astounding, reason to bewonder. And efforts to curtail, censor, and suppress all of this seem all the more, well, bewildering.
For High Plains Public Radio, and trying not to go political or pedantic, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.