Home Books The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays: by Elisa Gabbert

The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays: by Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert’s essays in The Unreality of Memory cover difficult subjects with an unusual grace. Essayists will often stand at a distance from their subject and from the reader as well, but Gabbert’s inclusion of personal details and her self-disclosed tendency to go meta, “writing about the self-watching the self,” create an intimacy that strengthens both the arguments and the speculations that thread through her essays.

The first essay, “Magnificent Desolation,” was written in 2016, yet at the time of publication in 2020, Gabbert’s perspectives on disaster lead to reflection about the coronavirus pandemic. She speculates that the appearance of a disaster – how it looks mostly through mediated images – is key to how we assess its scope. The Columbia shuttle disaster, for example, rained debris across Texas and Louisiana. Seven astronauts were killed. While the loss of life was not significant, the appearance of devastation had an impact in feeling like a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from coronavirus, and the death toll is often compared to September 11, plane crashes and wars. Yet the pandemic seems not to have the spectacular visual impact that leads audiences to acknowledge its devastation.

Gabbert’s essay “Doomsday Pattern” carries forward this idea of measuring the scope of a disaster by its spectacle. Here, she takes on several different disasters, beginning with the atomic bomb and ending with Chernobyl. She notes that J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the atomic bomb was created, was asked why it would be a more powerful weapon than the napalm that had been deployed over Japan. Oppenheimer explained that the a-bomb’s power was the visual devastation it would create.

The discussion of disaster-as-spectacle as the means by which people understand the scope of devastation carries over to global warming as well. Capturing the visual power of a mostly invisible threat makes it difficult to see climate change as a looming threat: when we can see the spectacle of it, Gabbert argues, it will be too late to stop. Her powerful descriptions of both the natural and made world are often cinematic, whether calling to mind the Kelpies, an enormous sculpture of two horses in Scotland, or the enormity of the ocean that feels endless in its depth and its horizon.

These essays are populated not only by a compelling aesthetic but also by a delight in the everyday facts of the world. Gabbert notes what she calls “a bizarre study” showing that people who are infected with toxoplasmosis, often carried by cat feces, are more likely to show an entrepreneurial bent. Equally surprising is the social urge experienced by people who are exposed to the flu virus, often going to bars or parties while still asymptomatic because the virus actually compels interaction. The narrative thread that runs through the book reveals Gabbert as a longtime fan of science writing, enhancing the sense that she is enthusiastically determined to share her fascinations with the reader.

Gabbert’s casual disclosure of her research – a documentary about Yellowstone that she found on YouTube or a boyfriend from graduate school who told her about the Cumbre Vieja that, when it collapsed, would result in a tsunami in Boston within five or six hours – is both welcoming and disarming. The rhetorical strain of writing about climate change-induced disaster is generally off-putting, often coming across as blaming or paranoid. The chatting-over-a-beer manner of Gabbert’s writing creates ethos rather than diminishing it.

Essays in the second section, focused on ways the human mind and body operate, have a slightly different register. In moving from global scale to human scale, Gabbert’s work becomes more personal. She writes poignantly about visiting her grandmother’s house and how her memories of the rooms are frozen in time, although perhaps not accurately. This reflection spins out into a discussion of collective false memory, phantom limbs and how we experience “the unreality of memory.” This idea may lead the reader to reflection, and it is nearly impossible not to consider the self in the essay “Vanity Project,” where Gabbert writes about how we perceive ourselves differently in mirrors and in photographs. She brings to mind the phenomenon of the inner avatar – that we are somehow able to see ourselves in our memories, through an impossible perspective outside of the self. This is just a sampling of the curious and compelling topics that Gabbert brings to bear.

In an essay in the final section, Gabbert writes about the tumultuous addiction to news that, like millions of others, came into full focus for her in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. She considers the Trump presidency in the context of the pseudo-event, a concept articulated by Daniel J. Boorstin in 1962. Boorstin argued that the news does not report on what has happened as much as it creates a happening in order to have content to report. She also traces the history of compassion fatigue, initially situating the concept in instances where caregivers – whether medical professionals or people taking care of family members – lose the capacity to feel compassion for the person they are caring for. As a means of self-protection, caregivers unconsciously distance themselves from the emotional drain of their responsibilities. Compassion fatigue has since been used in media studies to explain how the consistent flow of images and information of people suffering, of devastating natural and human-rendered disasters, reaches a point of saturation for audiences. Yet Gabbert also notes that compassion fatigue can’t exist without compassion to begin with; audiences are not fundamentally heartless and cruel.

The closing essays relate back to the opening discussion of disasters: networks thrive on the sensational, spectacular news coverage that can overwhelm audiences, leading them to turn away from crises out of emotional exhaustion. Gabbert’s essays are deeply engaging, full of questions and anecdotes the reader is likely to recall, whether scrolling through social media or deep in conversation with friends.

Gabbert’s essays are deeply engaging, full of questions and anecdotes the reader is likely to recall, whether scrolling through social media or deep in conversation with friends.
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Contemplative and Relevant

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