Reckoning with Not-Knowing

By Joanna Eleftheriou

December 2, 2020

Reckoning with Not-Knowing

Dispatches from the End of Ice by Beth Peterson

The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky

Two wonderfully readable recent books probe the authors’ past losses in order to reimagine their and our futures. Dispatches from the End of Ice by Beth Peterson and The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky look towards Norway, France, and the influence Northern Europe has long had on American thought. Both are replete with fascinating microhistories, engaging in what Kadetsky terms, early on, her mother’s “quest for the past.”

The Memory Eaters won the Juniper Prize for Creative Nonfiction, and adds to a growing list of books that meld several nonfiction genres—essay, biography, chronicle, and memoir. Kadetsky brings us deep into her family’s collective memory, about early ancestors as well as an aunt who dies young and whose mother is an alcoholic. The book returns to a present time in which Kadetsky wrestles with the ethical and financial burden of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s and a sister suffering from substance abuse. She memorializes her mother’s modeling career as Boston’s top fashion model in the 1960s, who is depicted sometimes harshly, but also with tenderness. She doesn’t recall her daughter’s name but quips, “Don’t worry, I don’t know my name either.”

On the other hand, Peterson’s essay collection employs first-person narratives as its backbone but focuses chiefly on Norway and Switzerland and such topics as nature, collecting, ecology, and loss. This author remarks little on her own family and is laconic about her personal story. Dispatches is made up of lyric essays. In Peterson’s skilled hands, the lyric essays confront difficult truths about the world and retain the fullness of their complexity because they are not over-explicated.

Dispatches from the End of Ice is very much a book about the outdoors, glacial hikes, Nordic boat rides, and Wyoming storms. Her adventures on glaciers often become what movie reviewers call “nail-biting.” In addition, she drives perilously along a Wyoming-Colorado highway in a blizzard, hikes up a glacier and falls into a deep crevasse, and shows up at Norway’s Bremuseum only a day after it has burned to the ground.  

The Memory Eaters, on the other hand, brings us inside New York City’s apartment buildings and hospitals, yoga studios and well-pruned urban parks. Kadetsky reads, drives, meditates, climbs staircases, and walks in an attempt to better grasp human existence through the microcosm of her own family. She struggles to keep her sister and mother financially afloat as twenty-first century America provides insufficient Medicaid and Medicare, even for people privileged by education and whiteness. This sociopolitical element subtly and masterfully blends with the philosophical threads in The Memory Eaters and makes it an illuminating joy to read.

One key preoccupation links the two books, making them necessary and timely: How can we ever be certain on a philosophic level that what we know about our world and ourselves is true?

The authors bring their readers through Nordic and New York landscapes to help us think about what we know—its nature, its preservation, its power, and its limits. Asking what makes memory and knowledge possible, Peterson and Kadetsky demonstrate how we might reconcile ourselves to the utter impossibility of knowing anything for sure. This has always been a principal impulse of the essayist. In the twenty-first century, essayists like Peterson and Kadetsky help us reckon with the way not-knowing persists in spite of how we are also, at the same time, drowning in facts.

Significantly, these two books about the viability of knowledge are also filled with disappearing. In Dispatches, disappearance becomes almost habitual: people disappear one after the other just as buildings and glaciers do. Kadetsky opens with an epigraph from The Odyssey that has Lotos-eating men allowing memories to fade. Then, the first chapter begins: “Perhaps because so many things disappeared in our family . . . my mother undertook many quests for the past.” Soon, the author’s mother disappears from her home. In the penultimate chapter, a therapist offers to help erase her most traumatic memories. Their haunting could, she proposes, be gone for good. “I didn’t want to make it gone,” Kadetsky contends. Despite all the past’s pain and trauma, devastation and drama, “it was still my story, one I wasn’t ready to give up. I couldn’t willingly lose more seconds than I’d lost already.”

For Kadetsky, her quests extend beyond memoir’s typical search for a lost self as she pursues “genealogical doppelgangers” and “imagined pasts,” engaging with what it means to discover—through writing—our own history. Kadetsky ties her mother’s interest in the Uranian society, astrology, and magic and mixes them with surgical innovation and alchemy attributed to an early ancestor, Ambroise Paré. She shows that science involves doubt, scrutiny, and a renegotiation with conventional thought. She writes of a land “thick with fairies and angels and prophecies” and of the science that we might think of as antithetical to those things.

Different scientific disciplines matter to The Memory Eaters at different times. Social sciences examine culture, psychological sciences explain trauma and love, and biological sciences explain a mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Positioned between psychology and biology is addiction’s tyranny: Kadetsky’s sister checks into Bellevue hospital for help with her addiction while the author struggles with how biochemistry and desire conspire to make human beings hurt themselves and those they love.

Similarly, Peterson’s most exquisite essay, “The Speed of Falling,” links Galileo’s experiments with what European and U.S. news sources call “a tragic accident.” During a hike, a young mathematician runs off trail to view the landscape from further up—and disappears. Peterson describes the science of rescue, with numerical precision: this many square feet search, this many feet most likely fallen, this many seconds to hit the ground, this many minutes to bleed out and die.

To produce his text On Motion, Galileo observed hailstorms and dropped equally sized iron and wooden balls off the side of the leaning tower of Pisa. He found that heavier (denser) objects fall faster than lighter (less dense) ones. In this way, the materiality of the body—and its mathematics—stands in for the unspeakable emotion of loss. By juxtaposing the calculations of rescue with the calculations of falling, Peterson discovers the bizarre shared space between logic and grief. Logic can compute the damage, but it cannot approach the human cost of a life or our wonder at its meaning.

Instead of demanding blind faith in science, The Memory Eaters and Dispatches from the End of Ice counterpoint mysticism and observation. In excavating the lineage of scientific proofs, these books demystify the scientific process and illustrate why scientific knowledge, like the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, for example, should be trusted.

Peterson and Kadetsky further interrogate knowledge production via the taxonomies we impose upon it. They each demonstrate how taxonomies allow us not only to organize knowledge, but also to exercise power. Kadetsky’s first chapter is “A Taxonomy of the Unknown” in which she lists years of her acquisitions. Credit cards, envelopes, handwritten tables tracking electrical use, photos, letters, travel visas, and childhood report cards have all been stored by a mother who is rapidly losing her memory.

Later in a chapter called “Memory Pavilion,” she quotes Didion on grief: “Information was comfort.” Like her essayistic foremother, Kadetsky too finds that “order gives us respite from worry.” She expresses suspicions about genealogy even as she conducts it, worrying that all she produces is myth.

Norse myths dominate the early part of Dispatches from the End of Ice. Next, we learn that as the age of European exploration began, seventeenth-century mapmakers tried to match observation to lore. We learn of an early twentieth-century “Theory of World Ice” that gained considerable traction as a rival to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In her powerful essay on museums, “About the Collection,” Peterson, citing thinkers from Plato to contemporary museologists, she complicates the pleasures provided by museums by linking climate change to the days of exploration—which were also days of collecting—and she traces contemporary disasters back to humanity’s lust for the kinds of knowledge they could control.

Together, these two exceptional works of nonfiction help us deepen our grasp on one of the hardest human truths to learn: we must absorb as much knowledge as we can, but no matter how hard we seek, we know very little for sure. Peterson ends by probing the “cautionary” tale of Atlantis and its moral—that a place which grows too powerful and self-confident may well founder. It is wiser to concede powerlessness, vulnerability, and not-knowing. Kadetsky could be talking about the human family when she says “like so much about our family, the answer is ineffable, weightless.” Later, she asks, “Is there a cure for existential grief?”

Kadetsky’s graceful, understated language drives home the special magnitude of grief. A loved one slips away even as she persists, before us, in apparent physical health. A planet retains its splendor even though, at the hands of human industry, it incurs irrevocable harm. Toward the end of the book, Kadetsky realizes, “a desire for not only the place of one’s past, but for its memories in real time, for their return.” She essentializes the rub: “Nostalgia is a paradox of irrecoverability.”

Just as Peterson has brought together myriad other thinkers, Kadetsky cites the great analyst of nostalgia Svetlana Boym, the legendary journalist Janet Malcolm, and André Aciman, the renowned essayist of exile. Peterson includes Emerson, Shelley, and Wittgenstein, as well as works with less famous authors whose titles are fascinating: The Morning of Magicians; Why People Get Lost; Lost Person Behavior; Disney’s World: A Biography; and The Lemming Condition.

These books invite participatory reading, bringing us into a conversation with the past, just as cairns invite hikers and mourners to reckon with loss together and to participate in a collective conversation with the land lying beneath. Indeed, Peterson’s essay “Cairns” turns rock piles into a metaphor for the process of making ideas and of making art. Both authors prove that which creative nonfiction so deliciously permits: gathering a chorus of different writers’ voices, in concert with the minds of readers, to produce something close to the truth.

 

Dispatches from the End of Ice by Beth Peterson

Trinity University Press
 $27.95 Hard Cover | Buy Now

The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky

University of Massachusetts Press
 $19.95 Paperback | Buy Now

 

Joanna Eleftheriou

Joanna Eleftheriou is author of the essay collection This Way Back and has published essays, poems, and translations in such journals such as Bellingham Review, Arts and Letters, and The Common. A contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Joanna holds a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and teaches at Christopher Newport University and the Writing Workshops in Greece.

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