David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is essayist, poet, critic, and New York Times Poetry Columnist, Elisa Gabbert. Gabbert holds degrees in linguistics and cognitive science from Rice University, and an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Paris Review, among many other places. She’s the author of the poetry collections, The French Exit and L’ Heure Bleue: Or the Judy Poems, of the hybrid collection, The Self Unstable, which the New Yorker and The Poetry Foundation listed as one of the best books of 2013, and of which Teju Cole said, “It was the most intelligent and most intriguing thing I’ve read in a while, moving between lyric poetry, aphorism, and memoir, and with thoughts worth stealing on just about every page.” She’s also the author of the essay collection The Word Pretty, a New York Times Editors’ Pick of which The Chicago Review of Books said “‘The Word Pretty’ Is So Smart, It Hurts.” Elisa Gabbert is here today to talk about her latest essay collection, just out from FSG, The Unreality of Memory. It too, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice and has garnered a starred review at Kirkus. Andrew Sean Greer says of The Unreality of Memory, “Terror, disaster, memory, selfhood, happiness . . . leave it to a poet to tackle the unthinkable so wisely and so wittily. A work of sheer brilliance, beauty and bravery.” Alexandra Kleeman for The New York Times says, “Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity. 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. 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.” Finally, Sarah Manguso says, “Amid impending disasters too vast even to be perceived, what can we do—cognitively, morally, and practically? Gabbert, a tenacious researcher and a ruthless self-examiner, probes this ultimate abstraction in her essays, goes past wordless dread and comes up with enough reasoned consideration to lead us through. Do you feel—and how can you not—as if your emotional endurance is exhausted by horrors already well underway? Then you should read this book.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Elisa Gabbert.
Elisa Gabbert: Thank you for having me, David.
DN: Just to orient our listeners to when we’re talking, we’re talking on Thursday morning of election week. We still don’t have a president-elect though I’m cautiously optimistic the blue wave did not happen with the House of Representatives and the Senate, but I’m wondering how you’re holding up this particular week of weeks since we are talking about disasters and apocalypse?
EG: Yeah. It’s changing from hour to hour. [laughter] I’ve gone from just right on the edge feeling like, “I can’t stand this one more minute,” to “It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. Trust the process.” [laughs] Right now I think I’m in a pocket of it’s going to be fine. I slept very badly the night before last night, and then last night around 8:30 Mountain Time, my husband and I were following what’s been going on in Arizona and somebody was talking about this tranche of votes and depending on if it was under 60% for Trump, he probably couldn’t make up the difference, but if it was over 60% and they said a portion of the tranche was at 59% and we were both just like, “Oh, my God, just turn it off. Make it stop.” I can’t handle this much information. I felt like I was going to die. [laughter] I went into a panic sleep. I can’t not watch the news but I also can’t read or do something calm and mindful. I just took Benadryl and went to sleep for 10 hours.
DN: I have to say that your tweets on Tuesday night about not doing well, which also included your panic nap where you also said, “I’m not despairing. I’m puking–” [laughter]
EG: Stevie Smith referenced to be clear.
DN: You were cheering for the wolf reintroduction bill in Colorado and tweeted, “Come on wolves. I’m going to need you to eat me,” I found these tweets very comforting and calming particularly so. That’s also something that I felt about your book, a book that is about Chernobyl, 9/11, Ebola, Trump, super volcanoes, climate apocalypse, and a book that never tries to comfort the reader about any of these things. You said that other people have had similar responses, and I searched on Twitter and it’s true. A professor of psychology tweeted, “I started reading ‘The Unreality of Memory’ and it is mesmerizing and dark and peculiarly comforting.” A writer says, “A book about disaster, in a time of constant disaster, disaster is everywhere and always imminent, and oddly reading this book feels comforting.” When I tweeted about this—maybe a month ago—about being comforted, tons of people were agreeing, from Michele Filgate to Yashwina Canter here at Tin House. I wondered if this was surprising to you or if it was by design; and if it’s the former, I wondered if you had any theories about it.
EG: Yeah. It’s a little surprising, I mean I guess the thing is it stopped being surprising because I’ve heard it so often. To some extent, it shouldn’t be surprising because I found the process of writing the book very comforting. Doing the research, immersing myself in disasters that are no longer happening and that can’t possibly directly affect me because they’re in the past, that was comforting to me. It just gave me this sense of perspective and made me feel like my miniscule little life matters less. It makes me able to project into a future where my personal pain and suffering no longer exist. Somehow that was comforting to me. But for whatever reason, I didn’t necessarily expect that the product of all that research would be comforting for other people, but I’ve loved learning that; feeling like I can somehow represent that effect on me on the page so that other people can take part in it. But there is a little nagging worry like, “Is that what I’m supposed to be doing? Should I be comforting people?” [laughs] I don’t know. I think you could make the argument, especially if you take activism seriously as a writer, I would like to think that there’s some element of activism in my work that what I’m doing is infuriating people or making them want to get up and act versus feel comforted. [laughs] But I don’t know, when I say that I really mean I don’t know. I don’t know what the right path forward is or what is the true effect that I want to have on people. Maybe comfort is activism.
DN: I found two compelling theories on Twitter about it that neither one of them suggests—and I don’t think you do this either, it actively feels like the writer is trying to comfort us—but one of the theories was, Alyssa Harad said, “My theory is containment. It’s a deeply ethical book in that way. It’s not there to reenact the drama of what’s described.” The second one is by a poet who said, “I’m taking regular breaks from doom scrolling to read essays about apocalypses in The Unreality of Memory instead.” I think it’s helping, something about brilliant analysis coupled with elegant prose really takes the edge off. But either way, somehow you’ve written a book that is of the moment and one that therapeutically is buffering us from the moment. It’s like this double effect that I do want to explore further, but before we do I wanted to talk about a certain irony about the book, and that is that I’ve seen a lot of people misremember the title.
EG: [laughs] I’m glad you noticed this.
DN: They misremember the title as The Unreliability of Memory which is so great because it’s such a meta mistake. But I’ve also seen people presume that unreality means non-existent. I was hoping you could talk to us about unreality for you and how, if at all, it relates to unreliability and the unreal.
EG: Yeah. I’ve also noticed that. It seems to me like a bug, not a feature even though, of course, it’s ironic. [laughs] It never occurred to me that people would misread it as The Unreliability of Memory which seems like a terrible title to me. [laughter] But I also don’t know if they are misreading it and then reproducing the error when they type it or if it’s just a typo, and they know it’s unreality but their fingers type unreliability, or maybe their word processor doesn’t recognize that unreality is a word, I’m not sure. But I do think, of course, part of the “unreality of memory” is that memory is unreliable but that seems to me like one small part of the much larger, and I think much more profound statement, The Unreality of Memory. What I like about the word unreality is it always feels like you could split it two ways. It could mean like un-reality like the opposite of reality; or it could mean unreal-itty, the quality of unrealness, which I do see like a very slight difference between those two connotations because unreal doesn’t really mean non-existent, it just means hard to believe. I talk about this in the Epilogue because when I found that essay, The Unreality of Time, that really is meant to be a proof of the non-existence of time like the philosopher who wrote that, John McTaggart, really believed that time didn’t exist, and I don’t think rea– I don’t think memory—I almost said I don’t think reality doesn’t exist. [laughter] Arguable—I don’t think memory doesn’t exist but I just think it’s profoundly unreal, and so in a way, you could push that belief so far and to the point where it’s I’m saying that it doesn’t exist. But it’s not like the process of memory doesn’t exist, of course, the process of memory exists, but your memories themselves are just like a shimmery mirage that we don’t have the direct access to that we’d like to think we do, I think memories are very much like dreams, they just fade quickly and lose detail. The memory is our only access to the past really aside from documentation, the documentation is built on memory or all the kinds of forms of documentation that we have, whether they’re film or whatever, they tend to reproduce the same faults and failures that our minds, our memories have. There’s just no way for us to record history without introducing the errors of memory. That is what I find so fascinating I guess.
DN: Speaking of unreality, in some regards, you’ve confronted a phenomenon that’s more common for science fiction writers, and that’s that people are characterizing you as having predicted the future. The Washington Post’s review was titled Meditating on disasters, she predicted a pandemic. Lots of interviews are asking you how you did this. I didn’t get the sense myself that you were trying to or had predicted the future, but at the same time, it was uncanny, maybe unreal, to see Dr. Fauci and pandemics as topics in your book. I guess I wanted to hear about this ascription of Nostradamus-like qualities to you in relationship to The Unreality of Memory.
EG: I find the idea that I personally predicted a pandemic very silly in a way. [laughter] I didn’t predict anything. I just read some books and tons of scientists and epidemiologists have been predicting a pandemic for years and years and years. [laughs] Eventually, they were going to be right and probably sooner rather than later. The fact that my book happened to come out during one, it’s a weird coincidence but it’s not like I wrote this book thinking I believe there’s going to be a pandemic in 2020. That was really just a very unlucky coincidence. But I think just in terms of, “Oh, it feels like I’m predicting things I couldn’t have possibly known,” I think that effect is just because all disasters have these certain features in common. There’s a certain way that humans are going to react in terms of the way they think, the way they feel, and what behaviors they start engaging in anytime they’re going through a gigantic disaster or crisis. When you read about the way people felt during the Black Death or the way people felt during Chernobyl or after a tsunami hit in Indonesia, there are going to be things that feel so familiar and uncanny like, “That’s exactly how I felt last week,” or “That’s exactly how I felt when we first went into lockdown.” Because once you give everybody the same input, the output is—it’s not going to be exactly the same—but there’s going to be a lot of overlap. I think that sense of uncanniness or prescience is an illusion. You could get that from reading any history that deals with crisis and catastrophe.
DN: This pandemic flirted with The Unreality of Memory when it was still being finished. You had an option to potentially nod to it in the book explicitly if you wanted to. Talk about that deliberation—if that was a deliberation—and your decision not to actually fold it explicitly into the book.
EG: My final second pass edits were due in late April of this year so there were a few just queries from editors like, “Do you want to mention the current pandemic in this essay at all?” That essay I originally wrote in 2018 and it just felt like just a laughable impossible question like what could I possibly say at this point? We were clearly just so early, it was all just beginning to unfold and it just seemed like it would be such a pointless footnote just to try to even mention it. I knew that when people were reading it, they were going to have COVID-19 very much in mind even if things had gotten a lot better by the time the book came out in August, which, of course, it didn’t really. I just knew that everybody would be thinking of COVID like it would already be there like a shadow to the text and it seemed almost undermining to make that more explicit.
DN: Yeah. I’m confident that you made the right decision, myself as a reader. [laughter]
EG: Thank you. I did decide though, based on that question, to put the year of composition at the end of each essay because I figured in a few years, it may not be as clear that essay would have had to have been written before the pandemic started and so I wanted it to be clear for posterity, if there are still people reading this book in five years, maybe there won’t be. But I just decided like, “Okay, all of these essays were written at a moment in time where they’re not going to stay up to date.” It’s not like the climate science could stay up to date, or one of these other disasters that I talk about like a nuclear disaster, for example, there could be a big nuclear disaster next year and I wanted to be clear that I wrote the nuclear essay before that so I decided to add the little date of composition. But in a way, it did feel like, “Oh, is this a weird flex I’m trying to make it seem like I do have these Nostradamus powers?” [laughs]
DN: Yeah. The dates were super powerful for me but for an entirely different reason. They did so much with such a small gesture in a way. In your BOMB interview with Lincoln, you said something that I really liked, that you felt that not that you knew what was going to happen but that you felt pre-abandoned, that it was obvious with the Trump administration that we would see all the current disasters get worse but also that there would likely be one or more unforeseen disasters and that the incompetence and cruelty you anticipated with Trump, and how he would handle it, made you feel pre-abandoned by the administration. I have to say that the dates have this outsized effect in that regard for me because Trump isn’t a big part of the book but he felt huge because of the dates. The inclusion of the year at the end of these essays, whether you’re talking about something from 100 or 500 years ago or something that might happen in the future, it just kept reminding me that you were writing from within a disaster.
EG: I like that. I definitely started thinking of it as a book right after the election in 2016. Coming out before this election, to me, it feels very contained like this is my book of the Trump years, which I’m not religious but I’ve done some superstitious praying over the past few days, [laughter] I’m praying this is the beginning of the end of the Trump years at least.
DN: We’re counting on you and your prayers.
EG: Yeah, I know. It’s all up to me. [laughs] But I did feel this gathering of focus right after the 2016 election that made me just more urgent I guess in the projects I wanted to work on. I feel a little alienated from that state of mind now because I’ve completely reverted to just wanting to write about poetry and novels. I think it was just a lot to be thinking so much about climate change and politics and problems that are potentially too big to solve, period, but certainly too big for me to solve. I’ve gotten a lot of questions this year that I just don’t know how to answer. [laughter] But I think that also might be part of what people find comforting about the essays is that I don’t reach for the sophistry of simple explanations because I don’t have any.
DN: If I were to characterize the three sections of the book, I would say that part one—which focuses on disasters from Chernobyl to 9/11, Ebola, super volcanoes—isn’t really about disasters but about the spectacle or lack of spectacle of certain disasters and how that affects human behavior and human mini making. That part two takes that into the brain and also into the realm of philosophy stepping back from disasters to look at the nature of self, of perception, and of self perception, and that part three then, armed with that knowledge, brings us back out into the world to look at morality, empathy, and responsibility, compassion and compassion fatigue in face of all that is going wrong around us. But instead of starting with disasters like you do, I wanted to start with part two because part two feels like it most connects to your work before The Unreality of Memory, the questioning you do of what a self is and how real the self we think we are really is seems to be one through line through a lot of your work, so the book The Self Unstable is the most obvious example—not just the title—which opens with the line “What is the self?” In interviews for it, you’ve said, “Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue.” But you also see this in the Judy Poems where you write poems through the persona of the fictional character, Judy, from one of Wallace Shawn’s plays, but not only are you writing as someone else, that someone else is a self unstable because as you learn at the end of the play, she’s actually dead and we’ve been listening to a ghost who, herself, is questioning the nature of theater while acting within one. [laughter] Quite a lot of levels of metanarration there but even in The Word Pretty, your last essay collection, we learn that when you read old journal entries, it is easy to imagine they were written by someone else and also that you fantasize in the third person where you are both in the scene and watching yourself in the scene and then wondering which one is you. While your answer to this question will likely be unreliable and unreal, do you have a self-narrative for why you have this interest or obsession with the self and the ways it is less stable than the way we act it is?
EG: No, I don’t. [laughter] I don’t know. I will say that part two, that’s my favorite section in the book. I think you’re absolutely right that it’s the most deeply connected to my other work. [laughs]
DN: You don’t even have a theory that you tell yourself even if you’re skeptical of it about why you return to this? Because it feels like there’s something that just continues unendingly, regardless of the form you’re writing in, that returns you to this question for you to trouble it over and over again.
EG: I really remember this one day when I was a little kid. I think it was second grade, I went to an elementary school that was right down the street from my house. My mom would walk me to school. I remember one day just being really worried and upset and she was trying to get me to explain what the problem was. I was afraid to say it and I finally said that I just constantly hear a voice in my head and maybe somehow I’d heard something on TV or in a movie that said if you hear voices, that means you’re crazy, and so I was afraid that the fact that I heard this voice—it was just my inner voice [laughs]—but I thought it meant I was crazy. My mom was like, “No, no, no, sweetheart. You’re just thinking. That’s just you narrating your own thinking.” [laughter] I seem to remember that she told me, “It means you’re going to be a writer,” [laughs] That could be a complete invention, maybe I’m projecting back, but I really seem to remember that. Whenever I would talk to a teacher or something when I was a kid about what I should be when I grew up, they would always say, “Oh, of course, you should be a writer. You’re going to be a writer.” For whatever reason, I didn’t really take that seriously when I was a little kid. It didn’t sound like a career to me I guess. But just that internal—I guess you could call it an internal monologue—but I don’t think all my thinking happens in language. I feel most myself when I am thinking a language and I feel like my absolute best self and my most intelligent self when I’m writing because I get to actually see it and perfect it and really perfect the language and make it better than whatever the muddled cognition that’s just happening in my mind is or would have been in a way that feels like myself, my true self, that thinking linguistic self. But there’s always this feeling that there’s a doubling that occurs. I don’t feel completely unified with that either. There are two levels, it’s the whole idea of the homunculus like where is your free will coming from? I guess I could just never get away from this feeling that I’m somehow split or doubled, that there are multiple levels that cannot possibly be reconciled, and because that’s my whole experience of everything in the world, whenever I’m awake, whenever I’m conscious, whenever I’m thinking, whenever I’m doing anything—when I’m looking at a piece of art, listening to music, eating—that there are two very similar but not quite the same cells.
DN: This is exactly where I wanted to go. I wanted to take this from metaphysics to cognition, looking at your brain and then asking you a question about how much of us, looking at your brain, tells us about brains more generally or not. [laughter] Because one of the reasons why I brought up this mistake around the way people misremember the title as The Unreliability of Memory is because I feel like you’re attracted to these moments, these uncanny moments, these meta moments, and obviously, meta moments having this double vision and even self-reflexiveness to them. I’m going to borrow a technique that you often use in your own writing of mixing high and low sources and include some things you’ve written, some things you’ve said in interviews, some tweets of yours, and some lines of poetry as a sort of Elisa Gabbert brain medley prelude to my next question. [laughter] Number one, “When I’m working on an essay I experience a heightened consciousness: I notice what I’m noticing, I think about how I’m thinking. My approach as a writer has always been to make this stuff explicit, like the essayist (me) is there in the essay, almost as a character.” Number two, “I always listen to my own interviews, it helps me calibrate exactly how much I should hate myself!” [laughter] Number three, “I can’t decide if the symptom is confusing or confusion is the symptom.” Number four, “Part of suffering is the useless urge to announce that you’re suffering. There is no other way to say it: I’m suffering. Just to say ‘I suffer’ helps.” Number five, “Animals can think about thinking, a grand failure of evolution. The best experiences involve no thinking at all, much less self-reference, much less an endless/strange loop. Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking,” that’s just amazing, that last one. [laughter] My question about this meta aspect to the way your brain works, this heightened consciousness or awareness of yourself watching yourself or thinking about yourself, do you think this is something unusual about you or do you think you yourself are a heightened example of something that happens for all of us and that it actually tells us something more generally about how animals think something about how our brains function that is usually invisible or made invisible? What is happening behind that curtain?
EG: I’m very skeptical of any theory that tries to separate humans and animals but people have said before like, oh, the difference between higher intelligence and regular animal intelligence—which I don’t know how you would prove this—is that humans can do metacognition, they can think about thinking and crows can’t. But, again, I don’t know how you could prove that a crow doesn’t ever think about thinking. But I don’t know, I studied linguistics and cognitive science in college, that’s where it really solidified that my two favorite things are language and thinking. I thought a lot about metacognition during that time, reading about how the brain works. I read Gödel, Escher, Bach—I don’t remember that much of it—but that book is very much obsessed with meta stuff, self-reference. Maybe just ever since then, I’ve always just been hyper aware of it and maybe just doing it more and more. I think if you’re an obsessive, anxious type, which I am more and more as I get older—I think again that’s only heightened because you also have meta feelings in addition to meta thoughts, feeling bad about your feelings, “do I have the wrong feelings?”—all of that, I will say, I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t trust, even though I wrote in that poem “Don’t start thinking about thinking,” [laughs] I don’t really trust mindfulness advice about being fully present in the moment. I see the argument for it and I think there are moments of pure joy where you feel fully contained in the present, but most of the time I just don’t live that way. I think a lot more about the past and the future than the present.
DN: But one of the things you might have in common with mindfulness practice isn’t “live in the moment” but this impulse to try to get around the cascading stream of thoughts. What is there underneath it, beyond it, or around it that at the edges of the way our brain functions, it feels like that’s an impulse of a mindfulness practice, maybe to a different end than what your end is but that there’s something on the other side of that waterfall of thinking.
EG: Part of it is also that I’m really good at recognizing my own patterns of thinking and feeling to the point that I’ve always resisted doing therapy because I feel like a lot of the point of it is to have somebody point out when you have a bad habitual pattern of thinking that holds you back. I always feel like I already know all those. [laughter] I think I’m good. If I’m still doing it, it’s because I think I need it in some way. I’ve decided that the pros outweigh the cons.
DN: This is where your collection and reality itself gets really fascinating and very weird when you go into the nature of perception itself, an investigation that suggests that it isn’t just an unreality of memory but an unreality of reality. One of the things that you raise in the book is a theory of Bergson’s that says that memory and perception arise and exist at the same time—if I’m understanding your summary of it—that we don’t experience reality “as it is” and then recall it later in a distorted way, but that even the first time we live through it, we are already experiencing a warped version of it. I don’t know if I’ve said that well but talk to us about why you wanted to engage with Bergson here, and maybe also orient us as to whether his theories are even accepted by others at this point. But it feels like it was a really fruitful engagement that you had with this theory around—talking about making memory weird but you’re not making memory weird on its own, you’re making back to the present moment, be in the present moment that the present moment itself is constructed and manufactured.
EG: Yeah. I should say that I’m not an expert on Bergson, though I would like to be, he’s really fascinating. But what I did get really interested in at the time that I was writing the Epilogue specifically was this debate between Bergson and Einstein—which I write about a little—Essentially, Bergson was hugely famous in his time. He was friends with Proust, I think he married Proust’s cousin or something like that. He was like a celebrity. People would show up, just storm the lecture hall when he was giving a lecture. Then he’s contemporary but I would say Einstein came up a little bit after Bergson. Einstein basically thought that the entire way that people had been talking thinking about time was just poppycock, “This is nonsense. This is all just armchair theorizing. This is actually what time is like, it’s perfectly testable and provable. It’s not this floofy thing that you can just make up theories about.” Then Einstein became this huge celebrity and they had a big debate about it and basically Bergson got laughed out of the room because people thought he didn’t understand Einstein’s theories—which may be true, they’re difficult to understand and they were very new at the time—but I think he was just talking about something else entirely. He was just talking about the way you and me and anyone experiences time which is still a great mystery, regardless of the fact that we accept like, “Oh, yeah, okay, time is very well understood from a physics perspective.” The philosophy, just in terms of how do we experience lived time, is different and there are still interesting things to say about that and unanswered questions. There’s a really great book called Why Time Flies by Alan Burdick that I cite in the book as well and I really recommend it, it’s fantastic. It’s like a contemporary look at that question like, “How do we experience time? Why is it so weird? Why does it still feel like we can’t understand it?” I was thinking about that dichotomy which Einstein thought like, “Oh, I fixed it. No one’s ever going to have any questions about time again,” which, of course, isn’t the case. [laughter] Another framework that I found really helpful for thinking about time and memory, and the present versus the past, the Umwelt and Umgebung, it’s just this idea that we can only experience what we have, like the equipment to experience and process. The simplest example is dogs have a much stronger sense of smell than us, so they’re experiencing smells basically off the spectrum, and owls can see colors or eagles can see colors that we can’t see, stuff like that. The Umgebung, I believe, is that which you cannot possibly perceive or know because it’s just not perceivable by your equipment. We tend to think of whatever we perceive as reality but, of course, we don’t even know what we’re missing, we don’t know what we don’t know as Donald Rumsfeld would say. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. The part that I really focused on with the Bergson for me was the possibility that instead of memories eroding the accuracy of the past-present moment, the present moment itself is warped, which I think would then argue possibly that this doubling that you experience is actually a doubling that’s hardwired into something about us or about biological organisms perhaps. But the places I went aren’t all in the book but I was just thinking about how, for instance, if we’re thinking about the present moment that we experience as if it was “as it is”—so when sound and light will arrive at our brains or at our heads at different speeds—if an event produces both simultaneously, they don’t arrive to us simultaneously. Our brain actually holds one of them and doesn’t let us perceive it or experience it until the other one has arrived and it can make them simultaneous and construct the experience, not as it is, but in a weird way as it was at this other point in space.
EG: Yeah. Your brain does a lot of correcting that way to make things seem more coherent. There’s a lot of stuff also just to save processing power, if we’re both sitting in rooms, my brain isn’t constantly actually perceiving the room that I’m in because it knows it’s static for the most part. It’s like the room is cached, like in a website, the images are saved locally. [laughs] I’m not constantly seeing it all anew just in case something changes. My brain is set up such that if there’s a flicker of movement or something somewhere on the screen like a radar screen, then it’s going to reload maybe. But it might not even reload everything, it might just reload that part of “the screen”.
DN: But not even caching only, there are things that the brain either adds that aren’t there or things that it edits. For instance, I’m thinking of the blind spot that we have where we have no rods or cones in our eyes, and our brain fills in that with extrapolated material so that we don’t walk around seeing a black spot in our vision and we edit out our own nose in our vision. There’s this way in which this feels like a doubling, because the brain is creating an experience that is a sense of seamlessness that we’re experiencing something coherent, and yet when you’re talking about the Umwelt, it feels like you have this impulse to try to get to the margins of it and to see what’s happening behind the curtain again. So there’s these two selves. As you said when you’re comfortable about language as close to who you were but also uneasy that you sense that there’s this other thing underneath it, it seems like that’s actually literally true. [laughter] I don’t know where I’m going.
EG: Another example of that in the book is the part in the essay about mirrors where—and I heard about some mental condition, I can’t remember what it’s called—but basically, if you somehow have either a tumor or some damage to this part of your brain where you store your constructed self, you won’t be able to see yourself in the mirror. Even though your eyes are fine and you can see everything else, you can see the mirror, you just don’t see your reflection. That really strongly suggests that what you’re seeing when you look in the mirror is not your reflection but just this construction of what you expect to see because yourself is a construction. That blows my mind.
DN: Yeah, no, I love that. I don’t know if I can explain why but it also attracted me to something you said in The Paris Review about Proust. You said, “I pulled Swann’s Way off the shelf, read the first paragraph, and was astonished. Its obsessive attention to memory, time, and the minutiae of experience as it occurs through thinking—it was not just good. It was, as they say, extremely my shit.” [laughter] But I was thinking about the syntax of Proust with all of the nested clauses and the ways you can be unmoored within a sentence and find your footing within a sentence before it ends, dwell with inside of one, I wondered if it was somehow mimicking something about our brains in relationship to this weirdness.
EG: It makes me think of just how frequently I interrupt myself, really both in talking and in writing because I’ll start to say something and then constantly just rethink it, double think it, [laughs] unthink it. That’s what clauses and em dashes are really good for. As you read before, I do listen to my own interviews. I can hear myself doing it when I’m talking too, it’s less well organized. But there’s the sense where I’ll say something and then I’ll go off and I change it and then I’ll come back so I’m doing these long mental parentheticals. I haven’t told you this em dash thing, have I?
DN: I don’t think so.
EG: When I was going through the final edits of The Unreality of Memory and just trying to make sure I wasn’t overusing certain words, phrases, and stuff like that, at some point I decided to do a search to see how many em dashes I had used in a particular essay, and it was 40. Then I was editing the next essay and I did it again, and again it was 40 em dashes. [laughs]
DN: No way, 40 exactly.
EG: Exactly. [laughs] Yeah, so I was like, “Oh, my gosh. An essay is a piece of writing with 40 em dashes,” [laughter] that’s what it is. Then a month or so ago, I was writing a shorter, I guess it was a book review, it was an essayistic book review, a little bit longer than a column like a thousand words but not a full-length 4000 or 5000 word essay. I want to say it was about 2000 words. I was chatting with a friend about it and I was like, “Yeah, this is just a shorter essay or it’s probably going to have 20 em dashes. [laughter] I did, I checked at the end and I had exactly 20 em dashes. [laughter]
DN: I can’t wait for this class. I’m going to sign up for this em-dash class.
EG: [laughs] There’s just this very predictable rate of times that I’m going to feel like I need to use an em dash to enact a sense of interruption or changing my mind. If I don’t do this enough times, it’s not going to feel like a complete piece to me.
DN: And 40 is the number of weeks in the pregnancy so it’s the gestation of your essay. [laughter] You need to do 40 em dashes before it’s done.
EG: That can’t be coincidence. [laughs]
DN: Nope. I want to take this weird brain science and philosophy of self into the realm of disasters and the way we engage with disasters, but before I do, I was hoping you’d read an excerpt from Part One.
[Elisa Gabbert reads an excerpt from The Unreality of Memory]
DN: We’re talking today to Elisa Gabbert about her latest book from FSG, The Unreality of Memory: And other essays. This section is the most electrifying of the three I think, partially because you explore feelings that are probably really common, but are also taboo to speak out loud. But also about how some of these weird unspoken feelings, when taken from the level of the individual to the level of the state, can become full-on grotesque or evil. One thing this chapter reveals is that our response to disaster isn’t related to the size of the disaster in magnitude or scope which you nod to in the part that you read. Chernobyl is only the 14th worst nuclear accident in history, but not worldwide history. It’s the 14th worst in Soviet history. The continual firebombing in Japan was more deadly than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are orders of magnitude more deaths from the fossil fuel industry than the nuclear industry, and so on. The focus that we give to a given disaster, the ways in which a disaster lives on in history doesn’t correlate to how bad it was if we’re measuring it objectively through death. One of the ways this is true—which is one of the most gratifying and unsettling parts of this section—is with regards to the aesthetic aspects of the spectacular disaster. I recently attended a talk with Claudia Rankine. She was talking about a book she was reading called [What Images Want]. That book makes the claim that even when we are concentrating on the spectacle of death, the dead bodies are actually collateral damage. For instance, what the 9/11 terrorists wanted was the image that the deaths came with, but were not the point of the attack. The point of the attack was to get the image of bringing down the towers. You don’t talk about that specifically, but you talk about a lot of similarly charged taboo topics. I was hoping you could talk about ways you’re engaging with the staging of the spectacle of death with regards to disaster as an image.
EG: Yeah. I love that idea that you just shared. That makes complete sense to me. I think that’s exactly why the Challenger is so indelible in our memory and nobody talks about the Columbia disaster anymore at all. I talked to a writer a month or so ago, he read the book. He told me that he had just completely forgotten that happened. He said that he thought he either just conflated it with Challenger, because we don’t have room in our minds for two space shuttle explosions or he’s like, “Well maybe, it was just too close to 9/11.” But I really think it is that there’s no image associated with it, because it wasn’t filmed. The Challenger explosion happened on film, a bunch of people were watching it live. It was a take-off explosion. But Columbia burned up on re-entry. They didn’t know what was going to happen. [laughs] Nobody was filming that. I don’t even know if you can film a shuttle re-entry.
DN: I don’t know.
EG: That’s an interesting question, but regardless, it wasn’t. Maybe, if it had happened now, that would have been captured on photos somehow, on film somehow, but it wasn’t. When you read a body, you try to picture it or you might have some associated images like debris that fell on the ground. But there’s not this one defining image/gif/short film that shows you what it looked like. I think that makes it so much less memorable, but also less disturbing, less real. It just doesn’t shock us as a culture in the same way so we forget about it. I think that’s one of the truly terrifying things about the pandemic is that it’s not very visual so it feels less real.
DN: I guess, one of the parts about the image, the staging of an image—because of its ability to produce awe, as you say in the part you read—and the staging of a spectacle in order to get an image, it was really haunting to read particularly around the atomic bomb in Japan for me, where you said that the US was worried that if they firebombed Japan too much before they exploded the A-bomb, that the contrast between pre-atomic explosion Japan and post-atomic explosion Japan wouldn’t be as powerful. It would be too small. They were worried about it in an aesthetic sense, essentially. That they were producing a dramatic event to get an image much like the 9/11 terrorists also were going for an image, and I think in both cases we could say for awe.
EG: Yeah. I think they wanted a symbol, like a symbol of American power. As you say, the firebombing was more damaging overall. They destroyed a lot more cities and killed more people. But the symbol was very important to them. That was part of their big argument for using it, that it was going to have a different order of impact than just more firebombing. I think this is something that I still wrestle with about the book in terms of decisions I made. I feel like there are so many decisions when you make a book and some of them I feel like I could 100% defend [to] death. People might have tried to change that thing or challenge that thing ten times. Every single time, I said, “step-step-step,” because I was so sure I wanted it exactly that way. There’s other things that I was never sure about and they never really came up. Nobody called attention to them or thought there was anything weird about them. They were just taken for granted, “Yeah. Let’s leave it that way.” But in my mind, I was always uncertain about them. One of them was including the images. Secondly, including the ones that I did and not more or fewer. That’s one of those decisions that to me, felt like just contingent, and it ended up just settling one way, but it didn’t have to be that way. I think the book could have had no images or it could have had more. Part of it was that I wanted to actively participate in that thing that I’m questioning and maybe, condemning which is propagating these images that are on the one hand, haunting, on the other hand, disturbing, unsettling, in a gross way. I don’t know if it’s good for those images to be in the book or not, basically. [laughs] Sometimes, I think it’s good because it’s not good. A lot of them there’s something offensive about them.
DN: But then there’s this weird offensiveness also in some of the concepts you raise around the striving for beauty around the bomb. For instance, the suppression of non-mushroom cloud bomb explosions because they wouldn’t have created the same effect to show the images that were more disturbing looking. I think there were images of atomic bombs exploding, they looked more like domes rather than mushroom clouds, something non-organic and made it seem like the bomb was more evil and that something about the mushroom cloud made it seem more powerful and awe-inspiring in some way that we relate to as humans.
EG: I think so. Yeah. I think the mushroom cloud just looks like a really big ass explosion. [laughs] It’s just this proof of like, “We’re going to hammer you with this, 100 times the power of what you think is possible in a bomb.” But yeah, those images of the bomb before it goes into mushroom-cloud territory, it’s like jellyfish membrane. It’s so uncanny and creepy. It makes you think of an alien invasion or something like that. It suddenly feels this is beyond us. This is not something we have control over. It’s no longer our power. I think that’s why they purposely banned those images. They wanted to control the symbol of power.
DN: I want to go, as you touched on briefly, the types of apocalypse that aren’t spectacles and the way that maybe, our brains go haywire around rational behavior. [laughter] One of the epigraphs at the beginning of the book is by Susan Sontag which goes, “With the inflation of apocalyptic rhetoric has come the increasing unreality of the apocalypse. A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms,” which feels in line with a different apocalypse which is the type with no spectacle like climate change, like COVID, like various versions of slow violence that you engage with in the book. I was hoping we could spend a little time with you talking about our brains in relation to this disaster.
EG: I think it’s quite similar to the situation I was mentioning earlier where you stop seeing the room unless something moves. Our brains are hardwired to respond to a sudden change, a sudden threat. Climate change is not like that. [laughs] The two concepts that I found so helpful for me in understanding the way we think about climate change are the hyperobject and slow violence. The hyperobject is the idea of something that’s just so spread out in terms of a scope that can be either in space or time, likely both, that it just becomes unprocessable. This is a concept I got from Timothy Morton. He says something that I think is true which is that, basically, the very, very, very large is harder to conceive of than the infinite. That’s climate change. It’s happening everywhere. It’s happening all the time but it’s not like a meteorite or even a forest fire. The concept itself of what’s going on is bigger than any one of the symptoms. We do tend to respond to the symptoms which are often contained and urgent. But then, there’s a feeling that once you get past that, the contained disaster, whether it’s the forest fires or a tsunami, that somehow you can rest and breathe a little bit because the contained event is over. But of course, that’s only just like one tiny little tentacle on the gigantic millipede or whatever, that is climate change. [laughs] We basically can’t grasp all of it at once. Slow violence, which is related, is just this idea that certain kinds of damage that we’re doing to the environment, to cultures, to other countries that happen slowly over time, out of sight, are much easier for us to ignore. We just feel less bad about it. [laughs] Here, from the comfort of our homes in the US, it’s harder to ignore things that are closer and more sudden like Puerto Rico losing all their power. But it’s very easy for us to ignore famine in Africa. I feel like there used to be a lot of attention on that when I was a kid, nobody talks about it anymore. Things like that. It’s almost like you just get sick of it. [laughs] There’s too much competing urgent disaster to keep track of the really slow things that just keep happening in the background.
DN: This also brings up something that you raise in many different contexts which is this way that our brain is able to make something that in the short term seems freakily abnormal, relatively quickly makes it the new normal. I wondered if the way our brains can make the new normal happen so quickly—on the one hand, I wonder if it’s related to the way we fill in blind spots or edit out our nose that the brain is making a coherent and cohesive seamless experience—but you bring up Svetlana Alexievich’s work in Chernobyl, she’s talking to this old man who’s living in a dead village where no one would live anymore and she asks him, “Aren’t you afraid?” and he answers, “Of what? You can’t be afraid the whole time. A person can’t do that. Some time goes by and ordinary life starts up again.” I suspect there’s some positive survival aspect to being able to do that. But obviously, it seems to me like in his case, he should be getting the hell out of there. [laughter] It’s the invisible radiation regardless of the way he’s made it into the new normal. Similar to the way we’re making all sorts of invisible things normal, or what you say, getting sick of being reminded of traumas elsewhere that we can’t seem to meaningfully engage with and make a difference around, it does feel like the new normal may also be a maladaptation now, something about it now is maladaptive to our survival.
EG: I would attribute that to scale. I would say that it’s actually completely adaptive on the individual level. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m able to normalize horror because otherwise, how could you get through the day?
DN: That reminds me of Natalie Diaz who’s very skeptical of the notion of empathy. She said, “If I actually could feel empathetic, if that really is something that I could feel, I would not be able to function.” [laughter] Given all the things that are really truly going on, not far from her door and far from her door in a given day, if I could actually embody these experiences as I live my life, drink my coffee, and write whatever I’m writing, I wouldn’t be able to function. I don’t know if that’s related.
EG: Yeah. I think normalization is definitely this illusion but you can maintain it a lot of the time. It’s like the cartoon running off the cliff like he can stay running as long as he doesn’t look down. I think it’s good in a way. I think that it’s good that the illusion bursts, that you look down, someone pulls the magic carpet out from under you, and all of a sudden you feel all that horror that you’ve been resisting. But then again, things get normal. So thinking of scale, I basically think it’s adaptive at the individual level, the problem is it’s maladaptive at the level of society, culture, and the world. Because if everybody is acting like everything is normal, then nobody’s doing anything, nobody’s solving the issue. It’s adaptive for me to be able to do my job if somebody else like the pandemic team is taking care of what needs to be done to manage the pandemic. [laughs] But if there’s no pandemic team, all the epidemiologists are getting fired, and there are no resources for the people who know what to do and have been planning for this for years and know how to solve the problem, then that’s when our ground level normalization feels maladaptive, because nothing’s happening a level or two up. Unfortunately, I think there’s all kinds of stuff like that going on, not just around the level of normalization, but just where things that would work fine on the local level, don’t work on the national and global scale. We have not figured out solutions to those national and global problems.
DN: Not only have we not figured out solutions, there are people who are intentionally exploiting the way we respond. You talk about a leaked memo from Lawrence Summers who, more recently, was the president of Harvard, but back in the day was head of the World Bank where he said he thought that Africa was, between you and me, he said, “under-polluted,” that we should move more dirty industries there. He surely knew the effects of a dirty industry or dirty industries being moved to Africa are going to happen over decades, slowly. That the cause isn’t an immediate cause and it’s a far away one. One of the ways you’re talking about how the global South is suffering long dyings by design, but also to point out that this is easy to design and for us to ignore where we are because of this slow violence phenomenon. But I have to admit that I buy that this is a real phenomenon, the human problem of confronting hyperobjects, invisible threats, and slow violence. But at the same time, if we’re talking about doubling, I also feel skeptical that climate change is that hard to grasp or I wonder if it is just particularly convenient for us to not to try that hard, particularly in a capitalist framework, to grasp it. Because there have been societies like the Iroquois Confederacy which measured its actions forward to the seventh generation that have built in an ethos that considers the future, which capitalism, I think by definition, as an extractive system, is not. This is my little pontification that I want to hear what you think of. Because when I look at the pandemic, another invisible phenomenon, most countries around the world have done things that would have seemed unthinkable in January. We’ve shut down the airline industry. Almost all art and culture, and sporting events have stopped. We’ve closed restaurants. There has been an organization of unheard of massive scientific and public health efforts to develop treatments and vaccines—I don’t remember how many thousands of vaccine trials—We’ve restricted people in their homes and in some countries, quite restricted. But the impulse behind these things that seemed unimaginable happening now, this coordinated global effort, to me seems like it’s a regressive impulse rather than a progressive impulse, in the sense that we’re motivated to do this, this thing that seemed impossible to change, because we want to return to life exactly the way it was before. We think if we do all of these things now, we’re going to be able to get back to normal quicker. But we’ve also demonstrated that we can do this, that we have the ability to do this, in any context means we could, in theory, do this for climate change. We could stop things and start things differently, and even agree that when we reopen, I mean talk about a golden opportunity when all these things are stopped, to reconsider reopening differently. But the reason why I think we don’t do that is not because we can’t grasp climate change—I mean some people can’t grasp COVID—but because if we were to close down for climate change, we would have to reopen in a way that’s unrecognizable to us now. We would have to reconsider and reimagine our lives but we don’t. I don’t know that we’re really doing that with the pandemic. We’re doing it in a way to preserve what’s recognizable about our lives, weirdly.
EG: Yeah. I don’t feel like we’re just agreeing with each other.
DN: Oh, I didn’t think so either.
EG: I absolutely agree that it’s being trapped within this capitalist superstructure that makes enough action possible. It’s not that some people don’t absolutely grasp climate change but the people who have the time, the energy, and the ability to take action either can’t or won’t. Everybody else who’s giving them power is too distracted by other shit, like the urgent problems or having to do their 50 hour a week jobs to change anything. It just feels like we’re trapped in the system that’s just slowly grinding towards disaster. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?
DN: I agree with you. What’s terrifying to me about the pandemic since we’re here at this moment—I apologize for speaking so much [laughter]—but what terrifies me about the pandemic is less the pandemic, but how little, if at all, we’re talking about causes. When was the last time, if ever you encountered a discussion about why—I mean you have, I’m sure, because of your writing—about why the pandemic happened versus how to get it to go away. I’m thinking of David Quammen who’s in your book. He’s in your book mainly around Ebola. But he’s predicted this pandemic, not specific to COVID necessarily, but a pandemic of this gravity for several decades. He argues now that one of the main risks is coming from ecological disturbance when we search for these precious metals that go into our cell phones and into our laptops. But no one’s talking about that. No one’s talking about how that would be different. The disturbing part about it is, if we switch to renewable energy, if we switch to wind turbines, electric cars, and solar panels, the increase for demand of these metals is going to go up exponentially. You can read scientific papers where they’re like, “There’s a finite resource of these metals, we need to start figuring out how to recycle them.” But in the meantime, the pandemic risk is going to go—like this that we’re living now—the risk of it is going to be so much higher in the future if we transition to renewable energy sources. I’m just wondering about this notion—I guess this is a long way to ask—around our brains because I wonder why we’re not talking about the pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be a country, even one country in the world that’s reimagining itself around climate change in this golden opportunity. I don’t know if it’s Rebecca Solnit who said this, but she embodies it. But someone said, “Hope is a discipline.” I feel that’s true, but I also feel entirely undisciplined. [laughter] I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about this.
EG: My mind is going into two areas. One of them is this feeling that I’ve had for a long time. We’ve reached this zero sum place when it comes to the idea of progress. This is another thing that I think makes real climate action impossible, there’s this just very lulling belief in a progress narrative that we’ll figure it out somehow. We’ll figure it out in the way that we figured things out in the past like through military research [laughs] or just investing in tech companies or whatever. But something that I think about, you mentioned phones, metals. Sometimes, when I try to think of like, “What’s a true pure good, an example of real progress in the past, say 20 years?” [laughs] In the 20th century, there were these clear examples where hygiene got better, less people died in hospitals and stuff like that, that’s clear. But what’s a really clear good that didn’t just make something else bad. I guess iPhones made computer and internet access really accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money because maybe, they couldn’t buy a computer, couldn’t hook up broadband, but if they have an iPhone, they can do a lot of stuff they couldn’t do before. But that only makes life better in the US for people who are able to go buy an iPhone or Android or something for $200. The demand for those, of course, is making life worse for people elsewhere. Again, it’s that thing where it’s out of sight. It’s really easy to just focus on the good part like how that’s making quality of life better in the US and not think about what it means for total quality of life everywhere on the globe. [laughs] We just don’t have that thinking about people in general, and certainly not about people in the future who don’t exist yet who we obviously have some responsibility towards. We just ignore them because they don’t exist yet. But the other place that makes my mind go is, I was recently listening to this philosopher on a podcast, Kate Soper. She wrote a book called Alternative Hedonism. She’s thinking through how we make post-capitalist society sound appealing, [laughs] like not just frame it as “What do we have to get up?” but “What do we get? What would we gain by moving past capitalism? She said, she was very inspired in a weird way by what happened in England after the pandemic or during the pandemic which is that a lot of people were like, “I don’t want to go back to the way things were before.” “I don’t want to go into my office every day, eight hours a day.” “I’m enjoying my time with my kids more.” “I get outside more.” “This is better.” That was really helping her think through how we could just decide as a society like, “Okay nobody wants to go back to the office all the time.” [laughs] We don’t want to work as much. We want to see our kids more. I don’t know. I found that I’m hesitant to think of these or the plus sides of the pandemic. [laughs]
DN: There could be though. That’s what’s scaring me about the pandemic is I actually think it’s a golden opportunity for our species to–
EG: You should look into Kate Soper. This would really resonate with you. She’s looking at the opportunistic side too of how this could help us break out of these capitalist patterns that we’ve been so locked into for so long and this forced us to break them.
DN: Yeah. Long time listeners of the show know that I go on these periodic jags of engaging with writers, one after the other, about storytelling and climate change with this open question about whether if we were to change our stories, we could change our behavior or our consciousness, if not to avert climate apocalypse any longer since I think we’ve crossed a line there, but to learn to live within it, potentially, over a longer period of time, repair. But if we could decenter the human point of view, bring in other non-human creatures into the story, play with non-human time frames or story shapes that perhaps, this is the beginning of recreating a culture or an ethos that could change behavior. I don’t think that was necessarily your attention in this book, but there were things in the book that made me relate them to deep ecology and some of the philosophies that orbit around it. When you say in the book, “What we experience as direct access to the actual physical world through our actual physical body is really just an extremely immersive user interface.” I immediately was thinking, “Yeah, but squirrels have their user interface and fungi and plants have their own user interface,” then discover that you actually engaged with which we’ve already talked about, the Umwelt. But if I were to get geeky about philosophy around it for a moment, if everything experiences life through the unreality of their own constructed user interface, if everything experiences life as an unreality, wouldn’t that perhaps be the same as, for practical purposes, experiencing it as it is? In other words, could ‘as it is’, be the constructed world instead of the world behind it? I mean if everybody’s doing it, [laughter] it gets back to, I don’t know if you know the Philosopher Berkeley, where he questioned whether reality existed beyond perception. The way he cheated at the end—which wasn’t that uncommon in the history of philosophy—is he just said, “Okay, the way things still exist when we’re not looking at them or something’s not looking at them, God is looking at them.” [laughter] But it does beg this notion of this ‘as it is’. But I feel like this impulse to look beyond our own user interface, as a writer, feels like a gesture that is meaningful to me around ways we could enact and evoke new types of stories. Because when you talk about how we’re going to fix it in progress—we love movies like that Matt Damon movie on Mars where everything goes wrong and we can just watch him MacGyver everything—but so many of the solutions, we wouldn’t be very involved in them. They would be involving other creatures being able to live more on their own terms which is something so unglamorous to us to push ourselves out of the frame. [laughs] But do you feel like there’s anything deep-ecology like in what you’re exploring?
EG: Thinking through centering ourselves, I do think that even the most activist people I know, there are things they’re not willing to give up. Maybe, it’s a question of “Why should I give it up instead of Donald Trump?” I think scale is a real problem. I think it’s not obvious to me that we shouldn’t be speaking very seriously about things like limiting how many children we have, but we still think of that as just a matter of pure personal choice. We, on the left, tend to say, “Obviously, vaccines are not a matter of personal choice.” That’s a clear social good. You should just have to do it. I think you should. I think you’d have to get a flu shot. I don’t think that should be up to the individual. But I think there’s a lot of other things that we seem to just accept. It’s fine of their personal choice, that probably shouldn’t be like we should be making group level decisions and like, “I don’t care what you want, you just have to do it.” [laughs]
DN: Yeah. When we’re talking about scale, say we’re talking about population, really the people, we want to have less children should be Europe and the United States, the ones that are doing the most resource extraction as people, as adults. Those societies on that scale often have pro-birth policies. You get incentives to have children, whether, it’s a tax break. We’re not even neutral on that level. So when you say it’s a personal choice, it’s a personal choice where the society’s nudging you that way. But if we were talking about group-level thinking and these countries are worried about the demographic shift around aging, having more open-border policies where the global south could move to inhabitable countries from countries that have become uninhabitable because of our own extractive policies—I know this is utopian [laughter]—but there solutions, at least, conceptual solutions that we don’t seem to, on that scale, be willing to think of.
EG: Yeah. If we were really trying to optimize for everything that is this kind of utopian sci-fi vision of if there was some board that made decisions for the whole planet, [laughs] it seems there are things we would clearly be doing differently, but we don’t operate that way. Even the US feels too big to govern as one country, because there’s so much disagreement among regions about how things should be operated and allocated. I think scale is a really big problem. [laughs] But I wanted to get back to something you said about reality like, “Is there any there?” I think, to some extent, that’s a question of what level of resolution you’re looking at the world at and depending on what kind of thinking or decision making you’re doing, you don’t necessarily need to look at all of them. But I guess I would say, in this book, I think the relevance is mostly that everybody’s constructed reality is a little bit different. It’s very hard to reach agreement on—putting aside what the real ‘real’ is[laughs]—just finding agreement on what we think is happening, that becomes impossible, because people are using their own little curated sources, bringing their own bias to the sources, and looking for information that reinforces their priors. We just can’t seem to agree on the reality of what’s happening, even right now, much less, last week or in 2016 or in 1900. I find that troubling. [laughter]
DN: Yeah, me too. I’m going to make a really weird pivot of scale and also of content. So if we’re going to pivot from the way we’re unable to grapple with the scale of the problem on a global or even national level down back to each creature having its own Umwelt, then pivot from there to your husband, John, who is a character across your books and one we encounter whose Umwelt is changing due to the changing in his hearing. That changing raises some really interesting questions about self and identity for both of you as it affects perception. Could you talk a little bit about your husband as a character, how it’s influenced your own writing around perception, then also serves as an example of some of the things that you’re looking at around, not just a constructed present moment, but a constructed self, ultimately?
EG: My husband has a rare ear condition which started showing symptoms maybe, 10 or so years ago. They were mild at first and just got steadily, then rapidly worse. For a while, it was disruptive in a lot of ways, but some of the symptoms have calmed down. He doesn’t have very frequent dizziness or vertigo anymore. Sometimes he has a bad reaction to a medication or something like that, but that part of it is stabilized to some extent. Basically, his hearing just became very unstable. It’s in both his ears. A lot of people only have Meniere’s disease in one ear, so even if that ear goes completely dead, it’s not really devastating. But he has them both his ears and they’re constantly fluctuating in terms of how much he can hear, and the quality of his hearing. It completely changed our lives. For a little while, all of our energy was dedicated to trying to figure out what it is and if there was something we could do to stop it or cure it. We eventually figured out and no, there isn’t. The ear just isn’t very well understood. We pretty much went through all the potential diseases that have clear treatments or cures that would have solved the problem as it were. Some people just have this thing and it just is what it is. We’ve learned to live with it.
DN: But what was interesting to me in your writings about it and talking about it is, for instance, the way he might perceive your voice differently. He’ll interpret a tone now that presumably was possibly a tone he would have perceived as neutral in the past as having some emotional valence to it that he didn’t before, then the way his voice has changed through his change in hearing to you, which then makes both of yourselves unstable, essentially.
EG: Yeah. I do think there are all these kinds of little follow-on effects from it where it has changed certain things about just his identity, because he was an actor and a lecturer. He’s known for having this beautiful deep voice. He loved talking on the phone [laughs] and it’s hard for him to talk on the phone now. It’s harder for him to teach in a big lecture hall for example, people can still hear him, but if they ask a question, he can’t necessarily hear them. He hasn’t lost all his hearing. He’s compromised and he has to wear hearing aids. They do weird things to sound. So depending on how bad his hearing is on any given day, it could be very affected or not very affected at all. I just want to say, my version of this is highly impoverished compared to his own version of all these events. [laughs] He writes really beautifully about all this stuff. I try not to appropriate his story too much, because I think better coming from him. [laughs] He has a memoir coming out actually.
DN: Oh, he does. Okay, great.
EG: Yeah. You’ll love it. It’s beautiful. But it was impossible for me not to write about it at all just because it was such a big part of my life. It did serve as this useful, very close reminder, a very concrete reminder of these things that I was thinking about in terms of the instability of self and identity, how quickly a change like that can change everything. Just very fundamentally, really interesting things in terms of how he listens to music because he can’t always hear what a song is unless you tell him what song it is, then suddenly he can hear it. It’s like his mind is able to then fill in the missing parts and he can “hear” the whole song whereas before he didn’t recognize at all. That’s an interesting thing. He much prefers to listen to music that he knew well before he started losing his hearing. It’s much harder for him to listen to new music, because there’s too much detail that he’s missing.
DN: Another way that you foreground the way information is shaped and mediated is not only what’s going on in the brain, but the way you source your essays, then foreground your sources. For instance, the book opens with you discovering on Twitter a link to a Youtube video of a computer animation of the sinking of the Titanic. We get these three levels of mediation past the actual event of the Titanic. You do this often. You have an early poem called Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin that opens, “Every time you reproduce a piece of art you remove some of its aura & that’s why your mix-tape didn’t impress me much, it was so fucking aura-less.” [laughter] But your work has a mix-tape quality to it in this sense. In that spirit, one person tweeted about it. “One of the many things I love about Elisa Gabbert’s new book is how transgressive it feels every time she introduces an idea by mentioning a link she clicked on Twitter or Google image searching. It feels like she has successfully moved internet verbs into the lexicon of the timeless.” [laughter] That’s great, right? Talk to us more about this move.
EG: Yeah. I’m glad you used the word move because it does feel like one of those things that I’m so conscious of now, that I worry about it being a little too codified and systematized in my process and just becoming too much of an obvious move so I have to watch out for it. It started just as this completely intuitive natural thing. Part of my writing process is research and immersion in material. I like calling it research even when it’s just the most indulgent, lazy internet rabbit holing, just getting lost on Wikipedia or watching amateur YouTube “documentaries.” But I still feel that’s research. [laughs] It’s just a very natural way for me to get into an essay to invite the reader in by saying, “This is how I got interested in this and here’s where I went from there.” But maybe, that’s partly just feeling like it’s revealing that I’m not an expert, because I don’t know, maybe—I hate the phrase imposter syndrome—but maybe there’s some shade of feeling like someone’s going to accuse me of being an over head. I don’t know how you would characterize this book exactly. It’s not personal essays. They’re historical, philosophical, whatever, but I’m in them. I feel like if I just keep reminding people, “This is just my subjectivity, I’m not the authority on anything, I’m just telling you how I processed and organized and thought through this material,” then I’m not going to get accused of being a charlatan. [laughs] I guess that’s just my way of telling people I’m not an expert first before they can accuse me of not being an expert.
DN: I love that. I want to make sure we take some of these concepts and bring them into your choices around writing like this choice—even though that it doesn’t sound like you made this choice around foregrounding YouTube from Twitter to computer animation to Titanic disaster—even though the choice wasn’t necessarily to echo the way a lot of our self is mediated and constructed, it does echo that. Then I was also thinking about the notion of the Umwelt, the immersive user interface, and the way our brain is making things. You also bring up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how the structures of language actually change the way we are capable of perceiving based on whatever language we’re speaking through. But all of this makes me think of something else you talk about in a variety of unrelated contexts, and that’s the benefits of limiting your choices as a writing strategy. When people ask how you ordered the essays in the book, you said that by having three sections, it limited your options in each section so that the ordering was rather easy and obvious. With poetry you’ve said that you sometimes choose the form and the style prior to starting the writing of the poem at all, just so you have less to consider before you begin. In your New York Times magazine article about the Denver Public Library, you say that your favorite section of the library is a section called “Recently Returned” which is just 40 or 50 books with nothing that unites them other than they were recently returned. [laughter] One of the reasons why you find this attractive is the limitation of choice. The other appeal was its randomness and its wide cross-section of the library. But talk to us about creating through constraint. Because as much as that’s not what you’re writing about, you are writing about the self, the way we create a self, and the way we construct to create a sense of seamlessness when you’re making this book, which might seem—I don’t know if seamless is the right word—but it seems like a cohesive whole, you’re making choices behind the scene involving constraint to make that possible.
EG: Yeah. I think of that library shelf—which I missed because I haven’t gone to the library in so long—I think of that as anti-curation. It’s serving the function of curation and that it’s limiting your options but it’s not subject to one person’s oppressive opinions or taste about what is the best. [laughs] Similarly, I really like browsing the sale section of anything, because it’s such a small subset of the store’s whole merchandise, but it’s random. [laughs] It’s just random things they’re trying to get rid of from every category. That’s always really pleasurable to me. It reminds me when you’re a kid, you would look through a catalog and be like, “Oh, if I could have one thing on this whole page, what would it be?” So limiting options, limiting choice, it just helps me focus in terms of knowing I have less energy and time for writing. I don’t think I needed constraints when I was 20 and had all the time in the world. But the older I get and the more difficult my life gets, the more I feel I need those constraints to simplify things and make decisions easier. With a poem—I’m actually going to read some for the audio archive later—but I’ve been writing these poems starting this summer and to this fall that are all fifteen lines in five three-line stanzas. Each stanza is completely contained within itself and the lines are all about the same length. I just stumbled into it one day, but I was just like, “Oh my God, now that I have this form, I know that I could write one of these once a week or once every two weeks.” If I just sit down and I have one line to start with or one image to start with, I know I can fill out the rest of the poem.
DN: Does each poem have 40 em-dashes too? [laughter]
EG: No, one or two tops. I try not to use too many em-dashes in poems I think, I’m not Emily Dickinson. But yeah, there’s something about having this very clear path/process laid out in front of me. I know that all I really have to do is get to the next line and the end of the poem is in sight. It’s just like a little mind hack for me. I don’t know if that would help everybody, but it helps me a lot to have the sense of like, “Oh well, I’ve written a poem exactly like this 10 times before. I know I can do another one.” I know it’s going to have a really similar feel, but the goal is to make it completely different but just as good.
DN: I wonder if it might have a role when you have an infinite amount of research, say, for The Unreality of Memory, you must have to go through the quandary of how to cull research that’s super fascinating but it’s just too much because you could go endlessly in any of these, you could have made the disaster section, obviously, an infinitely long section if you’d wanted to.
EG: Yeah. Thinking back again to just all the many decisions that go into making a book, I feel like so many of them are arbitrary. For me, it’s just a question of, I either ran out of time [laughs] or I ran out of interest in that topic or you just made a cut off in the bibliography I decided not to include every movie, magazine,article, and etc., because that could have been as long as the book so I only included the books. The essay that was the most overwhelming in terms of the research—and I think it was because I mashed up a couple of different essay ideas and decided to make it one long essay—was the one about witches and hysteria. I couldn’t approach it the way that I approached the other essays in the book because I had at least twice as much material. I just felt like this doesn’t fit into the container. I got into this systematized way of approaching an essay where I felt like, “Okay, I know that if I do research for X amount of time, then I just sit down, I can write it in three or four movements or long sections and do what I want to do. But for this essay, I can’t do that. I have to come up with something totally new.” I ended up just stealing the structure of Crowds and Power because that’s one of the books that I was reading when I was researching that essay. In all these short, almost mini essays or chapter sections, they each have their own little titles, and the little titles are all really great, so I decided, “Oh, I’m going to try to, at least, as a first step, just organize this material into thematic sections with titles just to help me.” I wasn’t sure if I was going to leave it that way in the end or pull that scaffolding away. But I ended up leaving it because I liked it and I wanted to be able to talk about Crowds and Power. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. I want to make sure we touch on the last section which raises large ethical and moral questions. Ethic touches very much more deeply on this question of scale particularly around morality and us being exposed to infinite information if we go back to your question of whether obviously, sanitation and figuring out how to lower the infant mortality rate are goods, are true medical advances that happen in the 20th century, is the cell phone in advanced and is all this extra infinite exposure to information in advanced? Because if we take this notion of limiting information not as a writing technique and not as an aspect of our brain and perception but as a moral quandary, you bring us to a really intriguing, but very uncomfortable place. Because obviously, willful ignorance, the willful avoidance of information has moral implications. But you also engage with some thinking about how possible or impossible it is to be moral or happy when we are confronted with a bottomless amount of information all the time, information about people suffering everywhere at every moment. Information about the damaging effects of every single aspect of our lives or every possible choice that we might make. You engage with, I’m thinking of Daniel Dennett who wonders whether it was easier to live a more virtuous life, living in a slower and more closed system in the past than we had now. At one point in that section, you bring up the first American newspaper that strives to produce regular news items on a regular basis and that meant once a month which is just mind-blowing now. [laughter] But what’s interesting about that notion, if we imagine the really instant news of the time was once a month, instead of what you say now where you say the media once needed news, but now manufactures news, this leads to all sorts of interesting things because back then—at least in Daniel Dennett’s view—we wouldn’t have to be willfully ignorant. I don’t think ignorance is the right word, but some of that ignorance would be built into just us living our lives. The scale of what we would know of what was going on would be so much more of a bioregional scale and that we would be able to pursue a life of not being miserable and also one of striving towards an ethos at that scale, but that there’s some quandary now around this choice around willful ignorance versus endless anxiety and misery. [laughter] I don’t know if that’s even the right way to say it. That’s not how you say it, [laughter] but I guess I want you to bring us home with these thorny issues a little bit.
EG: I do think it was possible in pre-industrial eras to live a happy life and an ethical life. Because as you say, the impact of your decisions was more local both geographically and in terms of time. It was less likely that really anything you could do was going to have this long future extending impact on future generations. Not only were they necessarily ignorant of what was happening elsewhere in the world, because they just didn’t have access to that information, it made their lives happier and better. [laughs] All they really had to worry about was their own problems. They didn’t have to worry about, “Should we be solving problems that are happening around the globe?” Depending on how far back we go—maybe they didn’t even know that the world is a globe or that there’s other people on the other side of it—of course, I don’t know that they were happy because maybe, they were just so afraid of being eaten by a bear like they never had a moment’s peace. [laughs] I don’t know, but certainly, they didn’t have just even the question of, “Do we deserve to be happy?” I can’t imagine a peasant farming potatoes, questioning whether they deserve to be happy. Maybe, they did though. I don’t know. Whenever I say, “Oh, I can’t imagine x happening,” then I immediately double back on it and think whatever, all humans are the same. But I do think that has become something that we literally think about daily that feels an absolutely unnatural question. Not just like, “Can we be happy? Can we achieve happiness?” But like, “If we are happy, do we deserve it?”
DN: Because of everything else we know that’s going on while we’re happy.
EG: Yeah. We know that other people aren’t happy, [laughs] or even if they are happy, their material circumstances are way shittier than ours. That’s crippling and paralyzing, if you’re a moral person. I know there are people who know this and don’t care.
DN: Could you read the first full paragraph on page 234 for us, as a set up to a final question?
[Elisa Gabbert reads an excerpt from The Unreality of Memory]
DN: In your writing on Timothy Morton who coined the term hyperobject, you talk about how he says, “The end of the world has already happened and often needs to happen twice to happen,” that it ended with the invention of the steam engine, and then with the invention of the atomic bomb; two moments that are pointed to as possible beginnings of the anthropocene. Then you bring up the buddhist broken glass practice basically that we should not be upset if we break a teacup, because it was always eventually going to break, therefore, it was already broken. Then you wonder if the world is already broken. Given that you’ve taken us down into the dark hole of the future that is also our lived present moment—and somehow unwittingly comforted us and calmed us there—I’m curious what artistic desire or need finishing this book produced in you, what your next book length project is like—whether it’s a counter or an extension—Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve decided to do having finished The Unreality of Memory?
EG: Yeah. I have been writing a book of poetry. It’s funny because my interests tend to extend [laughs] like there are throughlines in my work. I think it’s dealing with a lot of the same material or processing the same reality I was processing while I was writing this. There’s stuff about what it feels like to be a self in this world right now, thinking through ideas of happiness and morality. But in poetry, the expectations are entirely different. There was all this responsibility I felt to achieve accuracy, not to be manipulative in the service of an argument, had to be fact checks. [laughter] I think I didn’t make too many directive arguments or come down too hard on, “Here’s what I think people should do.” It’s not that kind of book. But I do think people come to it potentially with that expectation of like I’m going to present solutions to these problems where it’s more like I introduce a problem, then make it even more of a problem. Writing poetry is a different way for me to think through the same stuff and not have those obligations when somebody expects me to solve a problem, [laughs] or that I have to be beholden to any version of reality. I can just be completely free. I can change my mind as often as I want and contradict myself. Fewer people read poetry. [laughs] Fewer people feel qualified to analyze it or say what it means and that is very freeing. It’s just a break for myself. Then I guess, I’m also slowly working on another book of essays, but they’re much more along the personal critical line than this.
DN: When you talk about people reading or not reading poetry, it reminded me that you have this ritual where you catalog and publish a list of the books that you read in a given year, your mini essay about each book. I know that around the 2016 Election, you are reading a holocaust memoir, I think. What are you reading in this analogous time four years later? [laughter] Give us an insight to some of the books you’ve been reading or a shout out for books that you’ve read recently that you would like people to read.
EG: Yeah. I do think that this year, in particular, I’ve been a little bit more selective about the books I’m reading. It has nothing to do with Trump so much as the pandemic. Maybe this feeling like my life is shorter. [laughs] But I’ve just been very much like, I want to be loving the books I’m reading. I want them to bring me joy on some level, but usually that joy is because I just think that the writing is so interesting and wonderful, it’s not escapist, exactly. I don’t want to read a book just like a mediocre book because other people I know are reading it, just for the wrong reasons. I want to finish books that I love and have something to say about. I don’t know that I’ve 100% succeeded in that, but I am still keeping track of all the books that I read. The most memorable reading experiences I’ve had this year were reading a lot of Rilke. I was especially doing that when I couldn’t sleep. If I woke up really early, I would get up and read a book in the dark. I read Matthew Salesses’ novel, a few months ago. I really like that. That’s new. I feel bad for books that have come out this year–
DN: Me too.
EG: I don’t know that got as much attention as it could have. It’s called Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. It’s really interesting. It pairs really well with my book I think, [laughter] in the way that it engages with different levels of reality and what is real.
DN: And doubling.
EG: I love books that feel they could be psychological, philosophical horror about somebody going through some mental breakdown or they could be about an alternative reality where life is really like this, where they just are right on that line. That was a really good one. Right now, I’m reading The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. Her first novel, I’ve never read it before. I’m planning to write about that. Oh, I just read Darkness Visible for the first time. I’ve been trying to read a lot of books about despair because I’m just interested in despair right now. [laughs]
DN: It was a joy having you on the show today, Elisa.
EG: It was a joy for me. Thank you so much.
DN: We were talking today to Elisa Gabbert about a book called The Unreliability of Memory—if I’m remembering it correctly—or is it The Unreality of Memory? [laughter]
EG: We should have done two covers. [laughter] Was it Percival Everett who had a book come out with three different endings recently? [laughter]
DN: Yes. It was, actually. We’ve been listening to Elisa Gabbert, the author of The Unreality of Memory. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.