When Elisa Gabbert began writing The Unreality of Memory in 2016, she said she was writing about the end of the world. Disasters, more specifically. Her mother corrected her once, though, saying, “Isn’t it more about how we think about disasters?” which Gabbert says is a loose summation of what her second essay collection is about. From Chernobyl, 9/11, global warming, and the 2011 tsunami in Japan to the state of journalism, selfies, witch hunts, and “compassion fatigue,” Gabbert considers personal and global catastrophe to determine our preoccupation with disasters, and exactly how and why they come to define our lives.
The dozen essays are broken into three categories: Part One on national and international catastrophes (the Challenger explosion, the Titanic sinking); Part Two on philosophical quandaries, such as identity and consciousness in the digital age; and Part Three on politically enhanced schisms, including journalistic practice post-Trump and the limits of empathy. Gabbert is a self-described believer in an impending end for humanity, but over the course of completing these essays she writes that her conception of disaster has changed:
“My own thinking, at least with regard to the disaster – the end – has shifted. To be clear, I do worry that civilization is doomed. (The word ‘worry’ seems inadequate; I almost wrote ‘believe.’) But I’m not sure that doom will occur like a moment, like an event, like a disaster. Like the impact of a bomb or an asteroid. I wonder if the way the world gets worse will barely outpace the rate at which we get used to it.”
Gabbert wrote these essays before the coronavirus pandemic, but the somber conclusions she draws from past disasters can be easily applied to our current emergency. In “Doomsday Pattern,” Gabbert delves into the effects of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters to discuss the nuanced impact of nuclear accidents on families, communities, and nations. Gabbert’s explanation of the invisible enemy (“what was, and is, so uncanny about radiation: You can’t see it; you can only see its effects”) and the post-Chernobyl term “radiophobia” (“It expresses the feelings of the Soviet people, who are torn between the truth as told to them by the government, and the rumors they hear through unofficial channels”) are uncomfortably close approximations of our pandemic reality.
In “Big and Slow” Gabbert takes on our inability to grasp the immensity of climate change due to our limited viewpoint, what the writer-philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject. If we can’t comprehend something that is happening everywhere all the time, how can we feel individually empowered to do anything about it?
“Having seen the global warming problem coming for more than 100 years, then, it seems quite incredible that we have yet to act decisively in order to do something about it. Or maybe not so extraordinary,” Gabbert quotes from Bill McGuire, the author of Waking the Giant. “Humans, as individuals, as groups, and together as a society, seem to be hard-wired to respond quickly and effectively to a sudden threat, but not to a menace that makes itself known stealthily and over an extended period of time.”
The same could be said for the extending moment of uncertainty that we are living in. As a society, we have found it difficult to sustain a sense of urgency over months, let alone years or decades. In an essay titled “The Great Mortality,” about a potential virus that scientists predicted would overtake humans, Gabbert quotes from writer Connie Goldsmith’s book, Pandemic: “[F]ive global trends–climate change, disruption of animal habitats, increased air travel, crowding megacities, and overture and misuse of antibiotics–all increase the risk of a pandemic.” We have known for years that a global pandemic was on the horizon, so why were we not better prepared?
For all of the prescience in the first two sections, some of the essays in Part Three feel prematurely aged. In the essay “I’m So Tired” Gabbert writes about the feeling of apathy after the 2016 election, and the calls on social media for people to stay mad. “Most of the time, outrage itself feels largely useless,” she writes. “It did, in fact, get hard to stay mad.”
She uses journalist and scholar Susan D. Moeller’s concept of over-saturation by negative news as a cause of what Moeller dubbed “compassion fatigue.” Gabbert ties this fatigue to an over-exertion of empathy, similar to how emergency room workers report feeling after working for extended periods of time with highly unstable patients. “If caregivers are at risk because they give care to the traumatized, then empathetic news-consumers are at risk because they consume the news,” she writes.
Amid the protests that began in response to the murder of George Floyd, the points made in this essay ring with white passivity. By framing news consumers as empathetic rather than immediately impacted, Gabbert is denying, whether she means to or not, that each individual’s freedom and safety rests on the freedom and safety of society as a whole. By saying, “I am empathetic to your suffering, but I am tired,” she aligns the extent of her activism with those who post a black square in solidarity on Instagram but never confront structural racism in an active way.
In terms of environmental threats and the disasters caused by global warming, it is clear that the world we inhabit faces new and constant threats. As we adapt to living inside our homes, and outside see the results of collapsing economies and mismanaged industry, such as the recent explosion in Beirut, we adjust to a life where suffering becomes the norm. Gabbert’s timely essays consider how to navigate this new reality, and the duality of knowing disaster is imminent, but living as if the future is bright. As Gabbert writes at the end of the essay “Doomsday Pattern,” “I feel this way all the time now. Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.”
The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays
By Elisa Gabbert
Published August 11, 2020
Claire Mullen is a writer and audio producer. She lives in Mexico City.