Sixty years ago, Anglican children used to sing, with some gusto, a hymn extolling the beauties of the Earth, from “Greenland’s icy mountains” and “India’s coral strand” to other examples of the Creator’s artistry. Two lines, however, suggested a glitch in the divine plan: our planet is a place where “every prospect pleases, / And only man is vile.” Caught up in our singing, we paid little attention. Few of us were budding deep ecologists.
If humanity were originally charged with the stewardship of a wonderfully designed world, as the story in Genesis claims, then it is easy to think we have failed in our responsibilities. We have modified the Earth’s surface — as well as the oceans and the atmosphere — in all manner of unattractive ways. But then, so have other species. Beetles have devastated elm trees around the globe. Ants have altered the vegetation and topography of regions they have invaded. Ivy, gypsy moths, and beavers have wrought their own kinds of devastation. Perhaps we have acted on a vaster scale than other species, but it seems unfair to charge Homo sapiens as uniquely vile.
If the idea of stewardship is taken seriously, it must be rethought.
Where do new words come from? Few are purely invented, in the sense of being coined from a string of sounds chosen more or less at random. Most tend to be existing words given new meaning (“to tweet”). In other cases, a word changes its parts of speech (“to Photoshop”, “to Facebook”). And in some of the most creative instances, people chop words and recombine them to make new ones (as in “sexting”).
New words mostly become embedded through use. A few countries have official academies that declare when a word has been accepted, but they have little actual influence over how people speak. Which words make their way into a language says a lot about where phrasing comes from today.
Some writers believe that they have to ease their readers into darkness. It's a popular gambit, and to an extent, it makes sense — you don't want to lose the reader by plunging them instantly into misery; there has to be some glimmer of hope at the beginning, even if you plan to extinguish it eventually.
Neel Mukherjee, thankfully, is not one of those writers, as his stunning third novel, A State of Freedom, proves. His latest book starts off benignly enough, but it doesn't take long at all for him to twist the knife, letting the reader know that this isn't going to be a saccharine, feel-good story. It's a brutal novel that gets darker and darker, and it's as breathtakingly beautiful as it is bleak.
In 1835, Mary reflected on how “the true end of biography” was to deduce “the peculiar character of the man” from the “minute, yet characteristic details” that punctuated the life: from the specifics of place and clothing and bodily experience in which Sampson’s biography excels. And it is their shared faith in biography as a valuable exploration of character, despite the imperfections of the genre, that is perhaps what brings Sampson closest in her search for Mary Shelley.