What We Talk About When We Talk About Catastrophe

What We Talk About When We Talk About Catastrophe

What We Talk About When We Talk About Catastrophe

In Elisa Gabbert’s new essay collection, she tries to untangle the fickle and contradictory ways humans deal with disaster.


What in the world are we supposed to care about,” Elisa Gabbert demands near the end of her new book, The Unreality of Memory, “and how much?” In the moment, her question registers as both anticipatory and empathetic, a commiserating acknowledgement of the gnarled, unsolvable dilemmas hovering in her book’s atmosphere. Who could write about the catastrophes addling this world without, just briefly, burying her head in her hands?

Gabbert’s nimble essay collection does not tarry in despair, but neither does it distend into vague optimism. As a philosopher of disaster—imminent, recurring, and far-flung—Gabbert knows there’s no time to waste. Her source material is grim, a compendium of haunting threats that could fuel late-night obsession, but in the best of circumstances will nudge the political reckoning that’s already upon us. Some essays take as their focus protracted, insidious calamities like plagues and climate change (although, as Gabbert notes, the latter is a defanged term; “global warming” is more accurate). Others consider historical horrors like the sinking of the Titanic and 9/11. Still others examine the moral emergency begot by the 2016 presidential election, its fallout infinitely reiterated by the headlines that shriek from our Twitter feeds.

But as the book’s title implies, The Unreality of Memory is less a meditation on catastrophe than it is an inquiry into the variously stymied and misshapen ways humans discern them. Similarly thwarted is our struggle to locate ourselves amid these disasters. Gabbert studies our atomized and vulnerable capacity for perception with whetted eloquence: Her essays, vigorous in their intellectual pursuit, travel across vast and varied territory—the conundrum of self-recognition (“Vanity Project”), the emotion of pain (“Witches and Whiplash”), compassion fatigue (“I’m So Tired”)—but never at the expense of thematic cohesion. Cumulatively, this work lays bare the intractable chasm between what we fear and what we understand. How we look at disasters and how we commit them to memory reveal our fettered perception, and by extension, the fickle, mutable edges of our empathy.

If Gabbert enacts and even, at times, communes with us in vexation—What in the world are we supposed to care about?—she does not absolve us of our ethical responsibilities. On the contrary, by confronting our most self-preserving and insulating inclinations, The Unreality of Memory illuminates what we must work against. Gabbert wonders, even doubts, whether humans can reroute our baffled, wayward course; she knows that we must try, anyway.

Overwhelmed by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention the alienated experience of lockdown, many of us have begun conceiving of these conditions in terms of narrative. This method of coming to terms feels expected, even fair. As Gabbert’s book emphasizes, we are creatures who long for a plot’s sturdy scaffolding, and the helter-skelter extremities of 2020 upset this inclination. Some, seeking comfort in the macabre, imagine our frenetic present as a dystopian novel, crowded with emergencies. On May 9, the author Emily St. John Mandel tweeted, “‘Lots of great tension here, but I wonder if we need the polar vortex that freezes all the marigolds on day 59 of quarantine?”

Jokes like this make for comforting disengagement, and treating this ruinous year as a punch line allows us to take a quick, salvaging breath. But the premise of St. John Mandel’s tweet also gestures to a problem of psychological logistics, one that Gabbert explores: Eventually we reach a saturation point. “Worry, like attention, is a limited resource,” she writes in her essay “Threats”—“we can’t worry about everything at once.” These impasses preoccupy Gabbert. As she insists, our inability to fathom every extant crisis does not render them less urgent. By elevating the proximate concerns that impact our quotidian survival, “like losing our jobs or our healthcare,” we establish a fictional hierarchy, thrusting “nebulous threats” like global warming into a murky and neglected background.

Two months after laughing at St. John Mandel’s tweet, I realized, in the process of writing this essay, that I had entirely forgotten about that polar vortex. I was aware of it in early May, of course, because it was something somatic, tangible. But swiftly enough, the temperature climbed to more predictable heights, and this brief, peculiar episode skimmed off my brain, like foam. Frozen marigolds in May make for a melancholy, quietly poignant image—they beckon, after all, to a global environmental crisis—but unseasonably cold spates do not yield sensational tidings. Pointing to the work of journalist Susan D. Moeller, Gabbert writes that “the media and memory are both highly visual. Spectacular disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods are newsworthy, but climate change is not. You can package the symptoms, but not the disease.” We are inclined, it seems, to devote our skittish attention to problems when they make us feel like protagonists at the center of the story, and when the objective—staying alive—is eminently legible.

After all, we scout out legibility, in our lives and in our mirrors, and we prefer when it takes a pleasant shape. In “Vanity Project,” Gabbert remarks upon the human tendency to look automatically at the left side of the face—for most of us, our “good” side, or rather the one “routinely judged to be more attractive” when “photographs of faces [are] manipulated to be left-symmetrical (so that both sides are the left side).” Perhaps, as research posits, we are so inclined because the left side of the face registers emotion more intensely than the right—or perhaps, Gabbert suggests, it is not merely emotion that we discern but our selfhood. It is eerie how, unbidden, our minds seek and cultivate the most palatable version of consciousness. If Gabbert is tracing her finger along the contours of human failures, she reminds us that our essential limitations may matter just as much as our hubris and folly.

Moreover, by casting perception as a sort of vanity project, she signals the centrality of aesthetics to our attentional and emotional investment. “Our cultural calculus on what constitutes the ‘worst’ disasters must include how much publicity they get,” she writes—and what is publicity, if not a compelling appeal to our senses? In Gabbert’s estimation, no accident claims as much capital in Western cultural memory as the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl: So vivid are its reverberations that it recently inspired an HBO miniseries. Maybe our fascination with it and with other famous calamities indicates a template for what our eyes require in order to maintain their grip. Per Gabbert, Moeller and the scholar Rob Nixon believe that our ability to “react to or prepare for less visible disasters” is contingent upon the stories we are told about them, and that often we aren’t being sufficiently captivated. We require, then, “a shift in aesthetics.”

Gabbert revisits this term in her essay “I’m So Tired,” as she parses how media coverage both anticipates and nurtures this fickle ebb and flow of an audience’s compassion. She explains, “When a story’s not hot anymore…the media drops [it]…. In other words, crises often get boring before they get better.” The essay coaxes readers toward a notion both queasy and potent, particularly when it pertains to another’s ill fortune: Our horror and our empathy are tangled inextricably with our sense of entertainment. Gabbert does not treat this as a moral failing, but in relying on shock and pleasure to motivate our good works, she wonders what we’ve ignored or impulsively overlooked.

The brunt of “I’m So Tired” draws on the concept of “compassion fatigue,” a form of emotional burnout that develops in response to prolonged and devoted care work. (As you might imagine, health care professionals are especially susceptible.) In her study of empathy and its impediments, Gabbert draws on Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and its invocation of the same term. “Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation,” Sontag writes, “we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb. So runs the familiar diagnosis.”

A familiar diagnosis and an agitating one: It is morally disturbing to confront apathy as an automatic emotional safeguard. Gabbert, however, pokes at the underlying assumption—that empathy is an end unto itself. “What good is compassion if it doesn’t translate into concrete, external action?” she asks. “It’s rational to cut off the supply of emotion if it amounts to wasted energy.” I understand Gabbert’s provocation, and yet—here—I resist it. We cannot presuppose every opportunity for material action, nor can we know precisely the lengths that our efforts will travel. When we prophesize our inefficacy we are more likely to beget it, as we yield to self-preservation. There is no potential without the preexisting energy of care, and so care we must—rigorously, recklessly.

My initial reaction, upon reading The Unreality of Memory, was to marvel at its prescience. From where I sat—isolated in lockdown, panicking over alarming headlines—a book studying the overlap of disaster and human frailty seemed singularly topical. (Gabbert even quotes Anthony Fauci.) But this response betrays the circumscribed contours of my attention: Perhaps I would not be so astonished if I were not engrossed in my own skimpy, generally pleasant experience of the world. And yet Gabbert suggests that surprise in the wake of disaster might be inevitable, for “disasters always feel like a thing of the past.”

This impulse to convince ourselves that we’ve moved beyond each atrocity is certainly soothing. For, in an evolutionary paradigm, tragedies become instructive sacrifices ultimately bracing the architecture of our salvation. We can’t lean on this kind of thinking, but we also cannot expect the “unknown unknown.” “We do learn from the past,” Gabbert explains, “but we can’t learn from disasters we can’t even conceive of.” The work resides in extending ourselves to determine what, exactly, is conceivable and what we choose not to prevent.

In the thick of a pandemic and an uprising against police and state violence—two forces, enmeshed—we can’t know how this swath of time will look in hindsight. At the start of lockdown, many of us compulsively dubbed our circumstances “unprecedented,” and for those of us who have always enjoyed the comforts of health and safety, they probably are. Then, when “unprecedented” became a rhetorical tic, we took gasps of refuge in ironic detachment. “In These Uncertain Times” began to surface across social media platforms as a tart refrain, mocking the perfunctory, hollow gestures of corporations with the faux-pomp bestowed by caps lock.

The trend seems to motion, elliptically, to one’s recognition of privilege: I cannot take my anxieties seriously because I am not in actual distress. It also feels adjacent to what Gabbert calls “the performative death wish,” in which we treat an “extinction-level event” as welcome annihilation. These are uniquely funereal hyperboles, and as Gabbert remarks, they might communicate a desire to suffer—“liberal guilt run amok, transformed into a longing for punishment.” Of course, morbid cynicism probably makes our worries more bearable, especially when the source of those worries eludes full human comprehension. But taken together, these tendencies indicate an existential tussle: Acknowledging suffering’s unfamiliarity throws into relief how accustomed we are to ease and comfort. Perhaps, as Gabbert proposes, we overcompensate, either by diminishing our pain or by telling ourselves we deserve it.

And yet lately I don’t see acidic evocations of “Uncertain Times” or flamboyant pleas to end it all. We’ve realized, perhaps, that there’s no time for lingering in ennui. Instead, my social media networks heave with infographics for scheduled anti-racist protests, mutual aid efforts, and best safety practices. Sometimes this feels like a frenzied surfeit of information, but I think it should—we should not be at ease right now. Above all, this proliferation indicates a heartening, rousing turn to civic engagement. We are, in real time, grappling with Gabbert’s question: What in the world are we supposed to care about? Earnest intentions, care, and empathy alone cannot save us, but we will surely founder without them.

If compassion “is a matter of aesthetics,” as Gabbert suggests, so too, then, is our ability to maintain it. In “I’m So Tired,” she recounts an agitating scene in Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, in which the director’s clever editing creates the impression of a man lacerating a woman’s eye with a razor. “I cringe and look away because on some automatic level I imagine it happening to me,” she writes. “In some sense, having empathy is a way of feeling compassion for myself.” It’s a natural response, and it’s a symptom of our fundamental, feral, and seemingly implacable priority: our own bodies, our own assured survival. We turn our heads again and again to what we recognize, to what we prefer to see. Of course, as The Unreality of Memory forewarns, there is no assured survival. But perhaps it would be graspable—less mystified—if only we cared about ourselves a little less.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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