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Paul Kingsnorth’s Surprising Conservatism

The British author’s latest novel explores human limitations in the wake of an ecological catastrophe. Right-wingers, take notes.

Alexandria, by Paul Kingsnorth, (Graywolf Press: 2020), 408 pages.

In recent years, an unholy alchemy of marketing quackery, public relations spin, and abstruse academic theory has popularized the idea that slanted vocabulary can change facts on the ground. Unjustified police killings have become “officer involved shootings.” Violent riots are written up as “mostly peaceful protests.” Depending on who you ask, the outgoing president is either un-PC or a white supremacist. Political disputes are now defined by competing terminologies that obscure more than they illuminate.

There is, however, a more plausible theory of language, one that consciously holds that patterns of speech and writing reflect certain underlying cultural, biological, and environmental conditions. This idea has been used to great effect by the British author Paul Kingsnorth, whose latest novel, Alexandria, is written in a unique English dialect shaped by the book’s post-apocalyptic landscape. A simplified, broken syntax, talk of “picking plastik” out of clay, and characters’ repeated references to the hot, sticky climate do more to convey how England might look and feel after an environmental catastrophe than paragraphs of florid description.

Alexandria is the third book of Kingsnorth’s Buckmaster trilogy, and the two previous installments were also notable for their linguistic gymnastics. Beast, set in modern England, is the most accessible to modern readers, though its abrupt transitions and periodic abandonment of punctuation effectively convey the disintegrating mind-state of a recluse in the English countryside. For The Wake, the first book of the trilogy, Kingsnorth famously created a modern approximation of Old English to introduce readers to Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon landholder whose world is upended by the Norman Conquest. Alexandria’s post-apocalyptic English is more accessible than Buccmaster’s archaic dialect, but it has the same transportive quality. Sounding out sentences and wrestling with characters’ vivid but limited vocabulary forces the reader to immerse himself in a new and unfamiliar world.

Alexandria follows the last days of an isolated religious community in the English countryside some 900 years after an environmental collapse. The group’s members are gradually being picked off by a stalker in the woods, although Kingsnorth confounds the reader’s expectation of a survival-horror story. Revealing further details would spoil the book, but once again, language plays a key role. The jarring reintroduction of 21st century English reveals that radically different societies have survived the climate catastrophe. The collision between these communities and their divergent worldviews—embodied by their radically different dialects—is the fulcrum of the book’s plot.

To certain readers, especially those familiar with Kingsnorth’s background as an environmental activist and climate change Cassandra, this might sound like left-wing ecological primitivism. Alexandria’s environmental message will certainly resonate on the left, but there is also an  idiosyncratic strain of conservatism running through the book. One expects a modern fable set in a small religious community to valorize characters who violate taboos and question the established order. Kingsnorth neatly inverts this expectation. In Alexandria, the received wisdom turns out to be true. Those who ignore the community’s strictures and wander off into the forest are lost.

A profoundly traditional view of human nature lurks just below the surface of Kingsnorth’s fiction. In Alexandria, taboos and customs are vital guardrails against our darker impulses, the same impulses that nearly destroyed the planet some 900 years ago. This apocalyptic pessimism echoes the Catholic science fiction of Walter Miller, who imagined a community of monks painstakingly preserving scientific knowledge after a nuclear holocaust in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller’s book ends with humanity rediscovering science, ignoring the church’s warnings, and promptly destroying the world all over again. The apocalyptic visions of Miller and Kingsnorth are quite different from each other, but both authors take a dim view of technological advancement and humanity’s capacity for collective restraint.

Kingsnorth has said that, “The central question that runs through the novel—the question that has riven humanity and created an entirely new world—is to what degree humans should live within the bounds that nature has set for them, and to what degree they should attempt to break them and remake the world in their own image.” The question of limits extends to the book’s surprisingly conservative treatment of human biology. Alexandria squarely rejects the desirability of transcending our bodily constraints. The book also endorses a strikingly traditional understanding of gender. Kingsnorth’s matriarchal religious order, for example, is designed to keep men’s destructive impulses in check.

Alexandria is ultimately a cautionary fable, a warning about what happens when we ignore natural boundaries. Kingsnorth, meanwhile, is best understood as a full-spectrum conservative, someone who believes in limits in all facets of life, from society to human biology to the environment. He is also something of an outlier in our modern political landscape. Why is this brand of conservatism such a rarity?

It wasn’t always thus. In 19th century England, the squires and landowners of the Tory Party were often skeptics of industrialization. This strain of conservatism endures on both sides of the Atlantic: James Howard Kunstler critiques the fossil fuel economy in the pages of The American Conservative, while Prince Charles carries the torch for a certain strain of aristocratic environmentalism in the UK. Yet these figures are notable precisely because they’re so rare. For the most part, conservatives are skeptical of our ability to transcend human nature, while the left worries about our efforts to transcend ecology.

Perhaps Kingsnorth’s full-spectrum traditionalism is a useful corrective to a conservative movement that too often cedes environmental issues to the left. But his worldview leaves little room for other human qualities, namely our desire to explore, to tinker, to create. Alexandria does acknowledge these impulses—one character speaks in frank admiration of humanity’s achievements before the collapse. Kingsnorth is a sharp observer of human nature, and even a thoroughgoing conservative must acknowledge our deeply held and very human instinct to probe the unknown.

This instinct was present even in the primitive communities Kingsnorth draws inspiration from—a recent study suggests that our Paleolithic ancestors purposefully set out to reach Pacific islands they could not actually see on the horizon. The breathtaking audacity of these prehistoric voyages recalls modern technological breakthroughs, as well as our exploration (and eventual colonization?) of outer space, an enterprise Kingsnorth has derided as foolish and wasteful. Maybe so, but the drive to explore is at least as human as the constraints imposed by our environmental and biological circumstances. For our sake, and the sake of the planet, one hopes there is a balance to be struck between Kingsnorth’s conservatism and whatever instinct spurred those ancient mariners to venture beyond the horizon.

Will Collins is a high school teacher in Budapest, Hungary.