The many meanings of the age of upheaval

  • Themes: Culture, France

Upheaval is a feature, not a bug, of humankind’s recent assumptions about progress and identity. It is a deeply felt aspect of the present era, but it is not uniquely of its time.

Isabelle Huppert in Madame Bovary directed by Claude Chabrol.
Isabelle Huppert in Madame Bovary directed by Claude Chabrol. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

The impulse to blacken the past in light of the perceived moral advances of the last century is generally seen as a regrettable manifestation of ‘presentism’. The historian Lynn Hunt defines presentism as the tendency to interpret ‘the past in terms of present concerns’, leading to a deluded sense of ‘moral complacency and self-congratulation’. And yet, the inverse tendency, just as potent, is generally underplayed and far more poorly understood: the impulse to blacken the present in light of the past. It indicates, according to some pundits, that we are living through an ‘age of upheaval’.

In 2022, the editors of the Collins dictionary selected ‘permacrisis’ as its word of the year. The rhetoric of upheaval trips nicely off the tongue. Alex Beecroft, head of Collins Learning, comments: ‘We are in an ongoing state of uncertainty and worry’, following ‘upheaval caused by Brexit, the pandemic, severe weather, the war in Ukraine, political instability, the energy squeeze and the cost-of-living crisis.’ Buttressed by terms such as permacrisis and its close cousin, polycrisis, the ‘age of upheaval’ is another artefact of an anxious, fact-free commentary that takes the novelty of contemporary challenges for granted. A more constructive response might be, as Hunt explains, to ‘remind ourselves of the virtues of maintaining a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past’.

The term ‘upheaval’ was first popularised by the geologist Charles Lyell in the 1830s. Travelling by mule up Mount Etna in 1828, he gathered evidence that led him to debunk the belief held by leading authorities of the day, including Alexander von Humboldt, that geology was the history of one-off macro-events, of vast, cataclysmic revisions of the natural order. According to Lyell, the Upheaval Theory espoused by his contemporaries cleaved to the erroneous assumption that volcanoes had been formed when ‘the ancient bed of the sea’ had been ‘lifted up bodily’. Drawing on his observations of volcanic activity in Sicily, Lyell substituted a narrative of steady accumulation in place of dramatic incidents: volcanoes had thus been formed in much the same way as cliffs are sculpted out of solid rock by the steady wash of the sea. Even extreme events like volcanic eruptions could be explained in the same terms as rather less sexy geological processes, such as the glacial gouging out of valleys and mountain ranges from flat land.

Upheaval, Lyell observed, is so much more than a rupture; it is a creative working out of age-old processes of evolution. The fact that upheaval has its origins in a rhetoric of anti-upheavalism lends its use in later literature a distinctive flavour. Take Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a spectacular legend of scientific progress: the eccentric Professor Otto Lidenbrock leads an expedition into the bowels of the earth through the crater of an extinct volcano, and they return to the surface via a volcanic eruption, at once purified of faulty misconceptions about what lies beneath and burdened with new knowledge. Verne playfully mixes his fiction with contemporary scientific figures and celebrated accounts of the origins of the earth and early human development. The evidence that Otto and his young companion Axel gather on their subterranean journeys part confirms and part confounds, among many others, Humphrey Davy’s theory of a cooling earth, and the views of Georges Cuvier and Élie de Beaumont on the correct dating of fossilised human remains.

Although Verne sets his tale in Germany, most of the scientific authorities whom Lidenbrock and Axel invoke are French. That French literary tradition is saturated in geological metaphors inspired by adventures in pre-history and deep time should not be cause for surprise. Vigorous scholarly debate combined with public interest in archaeological finds put France at the centre of the study of older worlds, earning it the title of le berceau de la préhistoire (‘the cradle of pre-history’). The country has nurtured and sustained a tradition of speculative thought and hard-nosed scientific investigation that continues to the present day. Werner Herzog’s 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams testifies to decades of careful work undertaken by the French state and its scientific community to explore and explain the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which contains some of the oldest known examples of paintings by human hand, some dating as far back as 32 millennia. When Herzog characterises the drawings as ‘proto-cinema’ and as evidence for ‘the birth of the modern soul’, he is engaging with a long national tradition of claim and counterclaim about humanity’s origins and its place within the planet’s many physical transformations.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as well as being a grand tale of scientific discovery, is also a highly conventional love quest: the young hero Axel is charged by the object of his teenage love to prove himself in daring exploits, and on their return a mature and worldly-wise Axel is instantly betrothed to his childhood sweetheart. The expedition, however, is a failure. The troop does not in fact reach the centre of the earth, and the knowledge the travellers return with is disturbing: monsters roam the deep in subterranean seas; ogres and giants trample ancient woodlands preserved from centuries before by rocky carapaces. Verne suggests that, as we go deeper and learn more, the weirder it all gets. A world preserved from time’s arrow is scary and purposeless. Ultimately, humanity is better off up here, in the advanced world of the 19th Century, a world of material progress and burgeoning scholarly debate.

In Madame Bovary, published in 1857, seven years before Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Gustave Flaubert channels a sense of unrest and dissatisfaction into geological imagery: even in this rarefied age, tectonic forces are never far from the surface. At a crucial waymark on Madame Bovary’s journey from respectability to perdition – her first exposure to a world beyond provincial shabbiness at a country ball hosted by local aristocrats – Flaubert concludes: ‘Her journey to Vaubyessard had made a hole in her life, like one of those great crevices that a storm will sometimes make in one night in mountains.’ The contrast between the ease of the beau monde, the grandeur and variety of the ball, and the plain ordinariness of her provincial life in Tostes, in which her only activity is to perambulate in her tiny garden and walk the dog, creates a feeling in Emma so powerful, so awe-inspiring, so earth-shuddering – virtually a new territory scooped out from the interior of her very soul. It is grimly ironic that this absence, this ‘hole in her life’, cannot be filled, as she believes, by the pleasures of romance and adventure, a life of heroes and villains, of crevices bridged and mountains scaled. Hers, as Flaubert slyly notes, is a life guided by high sentiment rather than real emotion.

After Emma’s first adulterous encounter with a local landowner called Rodolphe, Flaubert writes: ‘For her, something more tremendous had happened than if the mountains had moved from their places.’ On her return home, she finds herself in a state of delirium: ‘A misty-blue immensity lay about her; she saw the sparkling peaks of sentiment beneath her, and ordinary life was only a distant phenomenon down below in the shadowy places between those heights.’ One of the most important features of Madame Bovary is the difficulty the reader has in distinguishing Emma’s internal fantasies from the novel’s narrative momentum: is she the living centre of a romance that shifts the world out of orbit? Or is she merely a paper-thin character shaped by paper-thin stories gathered from cheap, sordid novels? Is the reader borne up, along with Emma, ‘beyond the peaks of sentiment’ or trapped in ‘the shadowy places’ below? Flaubert continually taunts the reader: should we trust him or Emma? Or neither of them? The perception of upheaval inspires Madame Bovary to misread the inner significance of events, to her great cost.

Madame Bovary is a novel which should hold special significance in a technological age in which so much of experience is mediated through images. Emma Bovary, because of her dreary life and unwise marriage, is perhaps uniquely susceptible to the pull of fantasy mediated through the written word. Her mother-in-law attempts to cancel Emma’s mail-order subscription to a bookshop in the city because she believes reading to be bad for her. Guided by rural knowhow rather than real insight into the nature of Emma’s complaint, the practice of reading tout court arouses suspicion in Madame Bovary senior. Flaubert is not trying to argue himself out of a job: it is the type of reading Emma embarks on that concerns him. As a teenager, she reads tales of ‘love and lovers, damsels in distress… and gentlemen brave as lions, as gentle as lambs’ smuggled into the convent where she is schooled. Flaubert shows Emma thoroughly absorbed in her books while ‘in the dormitory all was silent [while] in the distance some belated hackney-cab would still be rattling along the boulevards’. As an adult, she reads increasingly in snatches. She tries to read ‘serious’ history and philosophy but quickly gives up.

Just as the charmed circle of Emma’s psyche is wholly enslaved to the ‘world in pictures’, for the generation born after the millennium there has been no respite from a constant stream of images, continually displayed on screens of various sizes. The modern eye must handle and assimilate much more consistently engaging and varied stimuli. Screen time is not simply a neutral feature of experience: it modifies, stimulates and, in due course, fabricates experience and transforms exterior reality itself. Delusion and resentment are bound to follow.

Marcel Proust observed that the emotions are ‘geological upheavals of thought’. For Proust, to experience an upheaval is to find oneself in a powerful bind. After a profound revision in expectations, sudden death of a close friend, or the definitive departure of a lover, Proust shows how memory and geography become intertwined: loss is an ever-fertile territory for new illusions, until they, too, become exhausted and are replaced by new desires, new wants. ‘Remembrance of a particular form,’ Proust writes, ‘is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’ Places merge with the people and people merge with places, no longer constituted as living personalities but by the emptiness of the present: beloved faces are evacuated of human significance and filled out by the arc of an empty avenue, by winter light prismed by bare tree branches. The effect of a great upheaval is often only dimly perceived by its subjects: it is as if his characters experience moments of shock in a grimy rear-view mirror.

For Proust, the charm lies in memory’s infinite creativity. Proust’s oeuvre is grounded in a geology which is, in literary terms, as infinitely vast as the strata beneath our feet, his human situations as finely differentiated from one another as rows of stalagmites and stalactites. In Search of Lost Time operates as if guided by geological processes still at work: the journey from past to present an inexorable turning of earth, rubble and bones to stone, the filing down of peaks of feeling, pain and loss into the barren steppe.

The difficulty, a century on from Proust’s death, is to work out which of the factors that shape the present are works of imagination and which, reality. In Julian Barnes’s memoir Levels of Life, he reflects on the aftermath of the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh: ‘Just because the emotion is extreme and you’re in a state of extreme turmoil, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more truthful than when things are calmer.’ Barnes kept a diary assiduously in the months following her death. It is reportedly thousands of pages long. His memoir is a thin volume: the raw, harsh spirit of life distilled to perfection. Barnes has maintained a lifelong engagement with Flaubert. They share a pronounced scepticism about the truth value of even the most apparently deeply felt emotions.

Upheaval is a feature, not a bug, of humankind’s recent assumptions about progress and identity. It is a deeply felt aspect of the present era, but it is not uniquely of its time. Our challenge is to sustain the creative tension and Flaubertian critical distance that the greatest minds of past generations managed to preserve between the lessons of experience and the demands of the present.

Rhetoric invoking a new ‘age of upheaval’ betrays an unwise degree of moral clarity about the supposed tranquillity of the past, and risks cutting us off from longer cycles still at play. A major upheaval can, on later inspection, transform from rupture into continuity and the creation of new order. Inner upheaval can be shaped by powerful fantasies. And genuine upheavals leave human perspective in a state of confusion, no longer able to distinguish between the detritus of the past and the stuff of the present.

Upheaval disrupts the story as it is being told; but upheaval also writes its own history. Prophets of a new age of upheaval may be following an ancient script.

If you enjoyed this article by Alastair, listen in through the link below to him in conversation with EI’s Paul Lay:


Alastair Benn