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Sunday 8 February 2015

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

I’ve had two books by Rebecca Solnit hanging around my library for some considerable time now: this one and Wanderlust, a history of walking. I’ve tried reading Wanderlust once or twice and it’s an interesting read, but a little dense and difficult to read alongside the kind of fiction I’ve been reading recently. That being said, I’ve been interested in reading Solnit for a while, perhaps on account of her excellent journalistic pieces, so it seemed like the right time to turn my mind to this book. Perhaps, like A Book of Silence the year before, January is the right time for reading this kind of intelligence.

Each essay deals with a slightly different subject, with every other essay being on the subject of ‘The Blue of Distance’, with blue forming a repeating theme of much of the book (including the cover). As Solnit explains:

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses amongst the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless, shallow water appears to be the colour of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue of the horizon, the blue of the land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is the colour blue.”

Throughout the book Solnit explores both the idea of physical loss – being lost in a wilderness, in an abandoned city or an abandoned place, being physically withdrawn from your environment by an act of violence (e.g. kidnap) or choice, loss of environment and species – as well as the idea of figurative loss which is, in my opinion, the more interesting concept of the two (though both are interesting). In the figurative sense, Solnit explores ideas like loss of love, absence of personal or familiar history, loss of memory or a change in memory, loss of language, absence (or presence) of faith, loss in art. Onto this broad canvas Solnit brings her personal story, so that the book never feels entirely abstract, however abstract its subject matter. Lost, Solnit explains, has two disparate meanings: “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.”

In every chapter, Solnit asks us to consider loss, being lost, losing things not as a terrible event (though it can be) but as an opportunity and perhaps an opportunity we should be actively seeking. As she explains here:

“The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

She asks us to consider the transformative power in seeking out the unknown, the gaps in things: knowledge, maps, ideas, structures.  In Solnit’s world a lack of knowledge is not a terrible event, it is not a failure but an opening. She also demonstrates how artists the world over – artist like Woolf, Thoreau, Yves Klein – have used the idea of loss and being lost as a crux for their art, for discovering their art and themselves. She asks us to consider “Leave[ing] the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a book stacked to the brim with wisdom. There are so many little notation marks in my book, too many to discuss here. I loved the story of Yves Klein, the artist who embodied the idea of ‘lost’, and how he sold artwork that offered the buyer access to the ‘Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility’ which required the artist to throw away half of the money which he had been paid and the owner to destroy even the receipt so they had, in the end, exactly nothing. A fabulous idea that could, perhaps, only exist in the art world (though some entrepreneurs may prove otherwise). I loved her exploration of abandoned places, the story of her Aunt and the pictures she saw but then went missing. It is a book which blends the personal with the abstract, the sublime with the material. In her chapter about the Turtle Man, which is also about Buddhism and dreams and Death Valley and tortoises, amongst other things, I read this following passage which struck me as a profound message I ought to integrate into my own life:

“It’s okay to realise that life has a mysterious quality to it, it has an element of uncertainty, it’s okay to realise that we do need help, that calling out for help is a very generous act because it allows other to help us and it allows us to be helped. Sometimes we’re offering help, and then this hostile world becomes a very different place.”

I think I’m pretty okay with the unknown, but recently, perhaps, I feel myself becoming more set in my views. Or perhaps I am simply translating the unknown into a different kind of ‘known’ to make it more palatable. I’m also not great at asking for help, but trying to see it as a generous act makes it easier, I think, to swallow. What Solnit has reminded me is how growth resides in embracing the unknown, in seeking and finding alternative views and exploring them open-mindedly. It was a timely reminder, delivered with beauty and vision.

Yes, there is wisdom in this book. There is wisdom and knowledge and there is also the absence of knowledge, an invitation to allow the unknown to enter into your life. “How will you go about finding things the nature of which is unknown to you?” Solnit asks right at the beginning, channelling (or mis-channelling, as it turns out) a quote from Meno. Reading this excellent book would be a fine place to start.

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