THE UNREALITY OF MEMORY
And Other Essays
By Elisa Gabbert
For more than a year, I’ve been in the daily habit of visiting an online forum where members post about natural disasters, terrible accidents and emerging diseases — events that could become catastrophic over time. There are more than 200,000 members, so each time I refresh the page I’m assured of at least one new item to read, whether it’s an article updating me on a situation I already knew to be disastrous or one on some frightening new thing that’s gone wrong. In a section called “Weekly Observations,” users give updates from all over the world, cataloging the eerie mundane: an absence of insects in the countryside, a shortage of coins, a 500-year flood at a moment when the surrounding lakes are at their highest in recorded history.
These days, there’s no dearth of catastrophes to document — and yet, sifting through the data online rarely brings a sense of insight. The more I read, the further I feel from clarity. Writing in oblique reference to the Holocaust and the atrocities of the 20th century, the literary theorist Maurice Blanchot declared that disaster “escapes the very possibility of experience — it is the limit of writing.” Disaster defies not only comprehension but representation: When we try to translate it into language, we grant it a tidy order that contradicts its essential nature.
This paradox is the starting point of the poet Elisa Gabbert’s new collection of thematically linked essays, “The Unreality of Memory.” At a time when extreme climate change, economic recession and a global health crisis make it crucial to recognize our predicament clearly, how can we make the disastrous seem real enough to inspire effective action? In her opening essay, Gabbert (the Book Review’s poetry columnist) describes watching a computer-animated re-creation of the sinking of the Titanic, a high-tech rendering that is also a reduction: “There is no violin music, no voice-over. The ship is lit up, glowing yellow in the night, but the only sound, apart from a few emergency flares and engine explosions, is of water sloshing into and against the ship. The overall impression is of near silence. It’s almost soothing.”
Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity — from survivor’s guilt to survivor’s elation, to the awe and disbelief evoked by spectacles of destruction, to the way we manage anxiety over impending dangers. Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval. An essay titled “Threats” begins with scientific models that foresee a cataclysmic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, moves swiftly to the massive supervolcano that lies semi-dormant beneath Yellowstone National Park and arrives eventually at Chernobyl, where residents who survived the nuclear meltdown often felt more afraid of visible threats (the cleanup crews destroying crops or shooting pets) than the invisible hazard of radiation. What’s more disturbing, Gabbert asks: the idea of not knowing a threat exists or knowing that it does but being unable to prevent it? Is prediction a form of protection, or just a comforting placebo?
If the first part of the collection focuses on the ways in which catastrophe upends reality as we know it, the second and third take an elegant scalpel to the notion of reality itself. Gabbert turns her attention to the blind spots and mistaken impressions that constitute our subjective experience of self and world, from false memories and phantom limbs to witch trials and compassion fatigue. In the piece that gives the collection its title, passages on the “Mandela effect” (a popular term for collective false memories) and Holocaust denial are interwoven with Gabbert’s own memories of her grandmother’s house, a place that remained vivid in her mind even though she had not been there since she was young. At one point, her mother mentions a room in the house that neither Gabbert nor her father have any knowledge of. Where her mother insists the room’s entrance stood, she and her father remember only the patterned wallpaper on an uninterrupted wall. As her mother continues describing and explaining, Gabbert suddenly experiences an impression of herself in the room from an external, bird’s-eye view — the image “flimsy, like a memory of a dream.” Is her vision of the missing room real or fake? And if our basic apprehension of reality is suspect, are familiar notions of stability and normalcy illusory as well?
With its expansive curiosity and encyclopedic style, Gabbert’s book can make for unsettling reading, especially in a time of actual crisis. Though she finished it before the outbreak of Covid-19, zoonoses make an appearance in a section on infectious disease and epidemics, as does Dr. Anthony Fauci. The essays often seem uncannily to anticipate circumstances that the author simply couldn’t have known about: They have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future.
But I imagine Gabbert would offer an alternate explanation for this oracular effect. Increasingly, the threats and fissures that mark our reality are known, but this doesn’t make them any easier to comprehend. It’s only when a potential disaster turns actual that it becomes real to us — and in that moment it will still feel incomprehensible, impossible, unforeseen.