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?”