The boat had gotten us to dinner, but after the risotto and the wine we decided to pick our way back through the dark traffic-free streets, and I remember stopping to look at the menu in the window of a plausible-looking restaurant on my left. Twenty minutes later I slowed to read a second menu, this time on my right. The waiters were putting up the chairs, but something seemed familiar, and I looked again: same place. Well, there are no prizes for getting lost in Venice. Walking in circles is what you’re supposed to do–one of the clichés within which any visitor to that city will find himself. So maybe it says something about Rebecca Solnit’s new book that it doesn’t contain such a moment. Or maybe that says something about me–that before reading it I thought, from its title alone, that I already knew where this book would take me.
But A Field Guide to Getting Lost is without clichés: no Venice, no flâneurs and only the slimmest of references to the labyrinth. In her opening chapter Solnit sketches an aesthetic of losing yourself, one that starts with the Passover ritual of leaving a door open for Elijah. Though for her what matters isn’t “that Elijah might show up someday. The important thing is that the doors are left open to the dark.” This is the most familiar part of her book, in which she describes the childhood need to get lost in safety–the kind of getting lost that Venice allows–and links the “art of being at home in the unknown” to Keats’s theory of Negative Capability, his belief that artistic creation depends on the ability to step outside the self, to see beyond the limits of one’s assumptions. Getting physically lost, however, is only a prelude to the more important experience of getting psychically lost, and Solnit writes evocatively of nights on the road, alone in strange motels “that furnish a reprieve from my own biography, when…I have lost myself though I know where I am.” And the next chapters map the contours of a land that lies even beyond that, where the sense of being lost shades into a sense of loss itself.
Most of the ways people lose themselves have little to do with the bodily experience of not finding one’s way. That’s at most a starting point, as it was for the conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1527 “entered the realm of the utter unknown” through the two gates of “honor and greed.” His wanderings took him from years of slavery to Florida to Texas and New Mexico, with the self “pared back to nothing, no language, no clothes, no weapons, no power.” When after a decade he finally encountered some other Spaniards, he could see them only as thieves who, in his words, “bestowed nothing on anyone.” For Solnit he’s someone who “ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” Cabeza de Vaca found a second self; he lost enough to survive.
Solnit’s book provides something like a taxonomy of loss. There is the loss of one’s history, which her immigrant ancestors experienced in the move through Ellis Island. There’s the loss of which country music sings: “not the modern stuff that is mostly sentimental pop with fiddles and a twang, but the older tunes” that dwell on the “aftermath” of heartbreak. There is the loss of home and childhood, which one needs to lose, and there are lost friends, companions one may lose because they have first lost themselves. Or one can lose oneself to others, as Kim Novak’s character does in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a movie that inspires some of Solnit’s best pages and whose real subject, she suggests, is her home city of San Francisco. Nor is that sense of loss limited to the human, for at the end of the book Solnit reflects on the earth’s lost species, the passenger pigeons and Santa Barbara song sparrows and “the blue pike of the Great Lakes gone extinct right about when men first walked on the moon.”