SEPTEMBER 13, 2020
JUDITH SCHALANSKY’S An Inventory of Losses, originally published in German in 2018 and now out in English translation, is a paean to 12 tiny wonders of the world. If you drew a map of where these objects are located (which the cartophilic author no doubt did), you’d wind up traversing the globe: the Pacific Ocean, Manhattan, the Euphrates Valley, and the Mediterranean. Like the routes of a small, nationally owned airline, however, Schalansky’s focus converges on a single place: Northeastern Germany. Half of her chapters take place there, though I have a feeling the author would argue that all of them do so because that’s where the book was written. In her 2009 volume, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will (translated into English by Christine Lo), Schalansky describes her East German childhood as being filled with atlases, encyclopedias, and other books. In adulthood, she says she feels sated — even overwhelmed — by everything these objects have to offer. Today’s sheltered-in-place readers will be thrilled to encounter a writer who believes that physical attendance isn’t always necessary for true engagement.
Reading the vignettes in An Inventory of Losses — which feature extinct species, ruined buildings, and lost manuscripts — I was reminded of a recent play staged at the GULAG History Museum in Moscow: Mikhail Plutakhin’s Witnesses (Наблюдатели). In the piece, a troupe of actors in jumpsuits and gloves stood behind a table full of artifacts that had been discovered on expeditions to former Gulag sites: mugs, cutlery, pails, hammers, a teapot, and so on. The lighting was adjusted so that the actors’ bodies — even their hands — were as invisible as possible. The audience was invited to consider the objects’ lives within the camps (and even to imagine them as stand-ins for the prisoners). In the same way, Schalansky treats each of the 12 objects cataloged in her new book with an almost religious awe, like a believer giving herself up to be inhabited by spirits.
Often, Schalansky explores a lost object by assuming the subjectivity of the person who had loved it most. She imagines the manic sexual predator who created an encyclopedia in a grove of chestnut trees and the crazed selenographer who believes that he’s been called to manage an archive on the moon. That sylvan encyclopedia and those lunar topographs are now gone, but Schalansky powerfully evokes the creators who once brought them into being.
At other times, she assumes the tone of an academic-turned-poet: extremely well informed but unable to resist the speculative urge. Schalansky conjures a Caspian tiger (now, of course, extinct), hauled from the Caucasus to fight in a Roman arena. Adopting an eco-critical narrative style, the author darts between her own historical perspective and the tiger’s point of view; both are dismayed. Even after the Caspian tiger has gone extinct, writes Schalansky, “[t]he Circus will be reincarnated. For once a thought comes into the world, it lives on in another.” In a similar chapter, Schalansky narrates a walk along a creek that was formerly the Ryck River. This vignette, which details every bird sighting and sediment pattern, recalls a more traditional style of nature writing. The narrative is dominated by an insistent focus on everything but the human, a stubbornness that betrays the author’s entanglement with anthropocentrism — in essence, by imagining herself as something separate from and external to “nature,” she perpetuates the othering of nature and the centering of the human.
Throughout the book, Schalansky studies and adopts the lexicons of bygone worlds. In her translation, Jackie Smith has made similar forays into diverse English lexicons. Dozens of the words were new to me: silage, moraine, karstic, pollard, weir, among others. Since my English fluency seems to end at the pavement’s edge (almost all of these words describe the natural world), it’s no wonder I found the Ryck River vignette rather tedious. My experience confirms the seriousness of recent concerns about environmental literacy: some have proposed that, as children spend less time outside, they have less occasion to learn the vocabulary of the natural world. Meanwhile, as animal and plant species, and the environments that harbor them, disappear due to climate change, their names follow them into oblivion. Given Schalansky’s interest in extinct species and forgotten landscapes, An Inventory of Losses is sure to be read as a text about the climate crisis — an archive of a vanishing natural world, as well as a primer for imagining all that’s been lost.
Or it might have been read this way had it been published six months earlier. Lately, though, we’ve been thinking about loss more through the lenses of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against police brutality and structural racism than through the climate crisis. In any case, a project like Schalansky’s is broadly useful to a society unable to fully apprehend its losses: the true number of COVID-19 deaths, for example, or the true count of victims of racist violence. Any attempts to list these things, such as the Trump Death Clock project or #saytheirnames Twitter lists, are obviously not exhaustive. In fact, their very incompleteness is key to their pathos.
Schalansky’s book, too, is limited. It is not a full inventory but rather a dozen selections from an imaginary, unabridged list of all the world’s losses. The impulse to catalog, rather than the cataloged items themselves, is at the center of the project. In Schalansky’s words:
This book, like all others, springs from the desire to have something survive, to bring the past into the present, to call to mind the forgotten, to give voice to the silenced and to mourn the lost. Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced.
This position reminds me of the many recent calls for journaling, in order to provide future historians with archival materials. The narcissistic focus on the historical relevance of our own time is normal — it’s called chronocentrism, as Yascha Mounk pointed out in a recent article. Yet, by immersing ourselves in Schalansky’s romanticized approach to the past, we may wind up reinforcing the current obsession with our historical positioning, even perhaps beginning to wonder how the Schalanskys of the future will remember COVID-19 and what objects they will catalog from the current protests.
A preemptive nostalgia for the present — the romantic idea that we live in a significant historical moment, ripe for future study — is by no means benign. The fetishization of historical artifacts, of the project of memory, of “the past” itself, is part of what allows white people to deny our current roles in the prevailing structures of capitalism and white supremacy. In a moment of widespread social reckoning, these fetishes are particularly dangerous. When we engage with the present as though we are remembering it, as a collection of historical objects, we distract ourselves from our real status as subjects of history, as change-makers.
With these catastrophic losses in mind — along with the ongoing potential for even more death — it’s hard to take seriously the loss of a 1919 silent film or the demolition of a building in East Berlin. I’m reminded of the now-notorious Philadelphia Inquirer headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” one of many recent neoliberal cries for the sanctity of private property (especially outrageous given the Philadelphia police department’s disregard for both Black life and Black property in the 1985 MOVE bombing). In this context, Schalansky’s focus on a handful of stray objects doesn’t sit quite right.
And yet, in the final analysis, Schalansky’s core message remains true: in looking for lost things, we necessarily reorient ourselves. Remembering isn’t inherently heroic, but forgetting our own responsibility to the present is tragic. Indeed, our task is to engage in politically motivated, thoughtful memory projects. As Audre Lorde once said, “the necessary ingredient needed to make the past work for the future is our energy in the present, metabolizing one into the other.”