An apocalypse is supposed to be something sudden. Devastating storms roll in; bloody war breaks out; a mutating contagion turns everyone into zombies. Or maybe several nuclear explosions get the job done fast. In a few blasts, we’re gone.
But what if the end is more gradual? Elisa Gabbert’s new essay collection, The Unreality of Memory, is a meditation on living in the midst of apocalyptic events: nuclear brinkmanship, pandemics, war, famine, and climate change. Gabbert, a poet and critic, examines how we respond collectively and individually to encounters with trauma and tragedy. She grapples with the ethics of outrage at what feels like the end of the world.
The Unreality of Memory is divided into three sections, each related to the others by resonances rather than a single argument. The first section sets out a series of disasters, past and present, including the Titanic, 9/11, Hiroshima, the Challenger explosion, and Chernobyl. Gabbert observes the giddiness associated with shock and spectacle, and our tendency to blame hubris for mistakes (even when we know the risks involved in something like space travel).
In particular, Gabbert is interested in disasters that unfold gradually: “slow violence” and “slow death.” Tragic effects continue even after a news cycle moves on from a story. People poisoned by radiation fall ill. PTSD persists. Global warming plods along even after a hurricane dissipates. In an essay called “Big and Slow,” Gabbert discusses the physics of other dimensions, the long half-lives of radioactive materials, misguided techno-optimism, and megalophobia (the fear of large objects like ships and statues) to illustrate the helplessness we feel when confronted with very big things like space, time, and death.
This gathering of material is a strength of Gabbert’s essays. They’re curious, interdisciplinary, and wide-ranging. In her prescient entry on pandemics, she discusses the mechanics of zoonosis (the leap of disease from animals to humans) and our historical tendency to see plagues as moral punishments. She considers antibiotics, vaccines, and mosquito-borne illnesses. An immunologist named Dr. Anthony Fauci is quoted. “Many experts think the most likely culprit of a future pandemic is some version of the flu,” Gabbert writes. This essay, with its eerie anticipation of COVID-19, epitomizes Gabbert’s points about slowness and inevitability. We know the floods and fires are coming, the oceans are acidifying, a future virus will be deadly—and yet, we’re surprised when disaster strikes, caught without proper dams or protective equipment. “Perhaps we have to make the real threats fascinating,” as interesting as an explosion. “But how, if we lack the cognitive capacity to see them?”
What is the citizen to do, stuck in all this disaster like a fly in honey? “Worry, like attention, is a limited resource,” Gabbert acknowledges. “We can’t worry about everything at once.” This concern is addressed in the collection’s third section, which considers disasters observed online. The media, desperate for clicks, is primed to report on battles and gaffes, not famine. The consumer eats it up: “I gorged on the news like I was starving.” Empathy is exhausting; to be close to trauma is like inhaling “second-hand smoke.” “What good is compassion if it doesn’t translate into concrete, external action? It’s rational to cut off the supply of emotion if it amounts to wasted energy.” But even the engaged citizen, who calls her congressman, signs petitions, and goes to protests, may experience compassion fatigue. The essays in this section are more overtly political, and more obviously infused with frustration. Gabbert doesn’t hesitate to implicate herself: “I know what it means that I eat meat whenever I want, that I work in advertising, that I fly many times per year, that I’m psychologically dependent on a device that was built under sweatshop conditions. When it breaks, or just gets slow and inconvenient, I’ll buy another. I know because I read the news, and I keep doing it all anyway.”
Gabbert’s right about all of this: we are complacent, oversaturated, helpless, and privileged, all at once. But in spite of their good arguments, I found the essays in the third section less compelling than others in the collection. Perhaps it’s because, as Gabbert writes, “I’m so tired.” The position of being a conscious person in a broken world is, clearly, impossible. Our complicity remains, no matter how many times we acknowledge it. Our sacrifices, such as they are, will always be insufficient. Gabbert’s essays mention war in Syria, climate change, the 2016 election, and then...they move on. They must. I know about concentration camps in China and child hunger in West Africa: and yet, here I am, also moving on. This kind of writing about moral responsibility is not wrong exactly, but it doesn’t take us very far; self-awareness is indispensable but also totally inadequate on its own. None of us have figured out how to live in a world with so much information about so much pain. For now, this big, slow thing has got us beat.
The essays in the middle section of The Unreality of Memory are different: softer and quieter, more about problems of psychology than external threats. Human minds are fragile. We misremember and misperceive. When we lose sight or hearing, we have trouble recollecting visual and auditory scenes: “If through injury or illness we lose the code to our memories, if we can no longer embody the method of encoding, we lose the memories entirely.” We feel phantom limbs and inexplicable pains. We don’t recognize ourselves in photographs, because we’re accustomed to seeing our own mirror images. But some rare people lose the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, too, perceiving menacing strangers instead of familiar selves. We are tricked by placebos; we get possessed by demons; we fall into collective hysteria (i.e., the Salem witch trials). We copy others’ eating disorders and suicides, and form communities around fictitious diseases. We lose ourselves under the influence of anesthesia and other drugs.
Placing this meditation on weird psychological phenomena between sections on external catastrophes might seem like an odd choice. But, in fact, this is the section that holds the entire collection together, posing quiet questions about our abilities to control, understand, and improve even ourselves. Gabbert writes in the epilogue, “We don’t experience reality as it is, and then warp it in recall...even the first time we live through X, we are already experiencing our warped version of X.” If it isn’t only our memories but our very perceptions that are unreliable, how can we ever hope to clean up the messes we find ourselves in? So many prejudices and mental glitches undermine the clarity of mind we’ll need to address the complicated global problems Gabbert writes about in the first and third sections of her collection. Our minds pick out patterns where there’s only blind chance. At the same time, we misconstrue real patterns as a series of unrelated one-off events (fires, hurricanes, droughts). What are the odds we can overcome these mental traps in time?
The Unreality of Memory
$16 | 272 pp.