Fintan O’Toole: Greta Thunberg is a prophet, preacher, rulebreaker, avenging angel

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The climate activist is incapable of blocking out truths the rest of us prefer not to think about

Ghosts are usually supposed to come from the past. They are revenants, spiritual leftovers from some trauma that has not been properly reconciled. But Greta Thunberg haunted the United Nations this week as a ghost from the future.

If she seems preternaturally aged for a 16-year-old, it is not just because she speaks with such imperious authority, the child rebuking her elders for their adolescent callowness – “You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” It is also because, in her short and ferocious speech, she artfully presented herself as an avenging angel, returned from the ruined Earth of 2050 to denounce those who could have saved it but chose not to do so.

For the hellfire preachers, retribution for sin will come in the next world. For Thunberg there is no other world: this is the only one we've got, and the hell we are creating is a hell on Earth

Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that...

Posted by Greta Thunberg on Saturday, February 2, 2019

Thunberg scares the climate-change deniers and they respond by painting her as a gormless naif being manipulated by others. But there is nothing remotely naive about Thunberg. She is, as her spine-tingling speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday showed, a considerable rhetorician.

She understands the power of brevity: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has 272 words; Thunberg’s UN address, at 506 words, was only a little longer. She instinctively used classical rhetorical devices.

She began by dramatically undercutting her own presence in such an august gathering, making it not an honour but a shame: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope?”

She used repetitions (“how dare you”) and alliterations (“entire ecosystems”; “the world is waking”). She used the powerful oratorical drama of seeming to lose control of her emotions while remaining in reality utterly in command of them and of her audience.

But, most importantly, she deployed two rhetorical devices that classical orators called litotes and apostrophe.

Litotes is a way of making a point by ostensibly denying it, the use of a negative to affirm a positive: “I would never suspect Boris Johnson of anything other than rigid adherence to the truth in all his utterances.”

Thunberg used it very cleverly to evoke an awkwardly large concept: evil. “You say you ‘hear’ us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you fully understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that.”

This is a highly sophisticated linguistic manoeuvre: I’m not saying you are evil, but the only imaginable alternative is that you are ignorant.

But it is Thunberg’s other main device that gives her speech such a haunting quality. Apostrophe is the rhetorical gambit of turning away from the immediate audience to address other, imagined listeners who are not present.

It is usually bad rhetoric, summoning such abstractions as the spirit of the nation, the dead generations or the gods. Hack Roman orators had a stock phrase: “O maiores, quid diceretis de hac re?” – Oh, you ancestors, what would you say about these goings-on?

But Thunberg’s most powerful and brilliant tactic is to turn this stock device around, to summon into the room not our ancestors but our descendants. She speaks not just in the name of her own generation but explicitly of “my children’s generation”.

But then she goes even further. She warns world leaders: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you.” And then she adds: “If you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.”

Note what happens in these two sentences: all future generations become herself. She is not just evoking them; she is becoming them. She is, rhetorically, a time traveller, coming back from the era that has not yet dawned to admonish and forewarn.

One might say that there is not much new in this. Thunberg is part hellfire preacher, part prophet, and those figures have been around in some form for millenniums. Her call is a familiar one: repent or be doomed. It has echoed from street corners and pulpits throughout history.

And this is what Thunberg's more sophisticated critics say about her, that she is just another wild-eyed millenarian, spreading unnecessary panic in order to launch her own version of the Children's Crusade. (It is ironic that many of the supporters of the two most dangerous climate-change deniers, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, are themselves followers of apocalyptic evangelical preachers.)

Greta Thunberg is trying to do something unprecedented. Leaders always say: trust me, I will lead you to a bright future. Thunberg says: we must prevent the future

But Thunberg is in fact different in two crucial ways. One is that, for the hellfire preachers, retribution for sin will come in the next world. For Thunberg there is no other world: this is the only one we’ve got, and the hell we are creating is a hell on Earth. She has come not to put the fear of God into us but to put into us the fear of mankind and of what we are doing to ourselves.

The other is that her prophecy is no mystical vision. It is just science. The coming disaster is not some capricious act of a vengeful god whose actions can be divined only by those gifted with second sight. It is a process that is visibly and palpably under way.

And yet how dare this one kid purport to speak for the future? Nobody elected her. She does not even represent an organised movement: she came to notice with a school strike that she launched, as she put it herself, “all by myself”. What gives a loner the right to haunt us in the name of countless billions of people as yet unborn?

The only answer is that somebody has to. The past has a voice: it is encoded in art and history and memories and photographs. The present is noisy with its all-consuming clamour for attention. The future cannot speak. And yet there has never been a time in human history when we have known it so well.

Previous generations have speculated about the future, dreamed about it, imagined utopian and dystopian versions of it, sometimes even sacrificed their lives for it. Yet we are the first to know it. Not all of it, of course, and not in detail. But we have a very clear picture of what the rest of the century looks and feels like. We are on a fast-moving train and we know what the destination will be if we do not get on a different track.

If Greta Thunberg seems in some ways an eerie figure, it is because she is. She is trying to do something unprecedented. Leaders always say: trust me, I will lead you to a bright future. Thunberg says: we must prevent the future.

She is, in a terrible sense, ahead of her time. She is afflicted with an incapacity to do what most of us survive by doing, to block out the truths we would prefer not to know.

Is this connected to the way her brain is wired? Perhaps. Writing earlier this year of her Asperger's, Thunberg explained: "Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Asperger is not a disease, it's a gift. People also say that since I have Asperger I couldn't possibly have put myself in this position. But that's exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been 'normal' and social I would have organized myself in an organisation, or started an organisation by myself. But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead."

Her condition surely, then, affects the way she has campaigned, her startling individuality. It also in part explains the way she addressed the UN conference – her fearlessness and her lack of interest in the social rules of such occasions. She is not socialised to indulge the usual flattery of the great and good.

Thunberg's curse is not that she has any unique ability to see what is to come but that she has a rare inability to carry on regardless. That becomes her uncomfortable gift to the rest of us

But perhaps it also at least partly accounts for her inability to lie to herself. The “normal” brain is very good at switching itself off from what it does not want to think about. “Humankind”, wrote TS Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.”

Thunberg is different because she apparently cannot bear too much unreality. She cannot act as if she does not know the reality and consequence of climate change.

Is that a gift of a curse? Perhaps both. The curse of Cassandra in Greek mythology was that she was granted by Apollo the gift of seeing into the future but, out of spite, he added the twist that no one would ever believe her.

Thunberg’s curse is not that she has any unique ability to see what is to come (any literate person can do that with climate change) but that she has a rare inability to carry on regardless. That becomes her uncomfortable gift to the rest of us.

Her anger and her agony come from her acute knowledge that she should not have to be as she is. She knows better than anyone that the very existence of Greta Thunberg as a public figure of urgent import is terrifying.

Her rage at the United Nations was very like Hamlet’s: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to put it right.” If that anger breaks through the wall of denial, Hamlet’s next line might also be hers: “Nay, come, let’s go together.” Go, that is, not towards the future she inhabits but away from it.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer