Anshu Chhetri reviews Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost.

Rebecca Solnit begins her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost while getting drunk on Elizah’s wine. The word ‘wine’ serves as a metaphor here, an opening to pass through from the teachings of her conservative Catholic mother. She then shifts her narrative to a backyard door which is left open at night. An uncommon practice, she records but it also calls for a celebration to allow the unknown to enter.

She chooses her words meticulously just like an artisan as she writes “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” As a reader, one feels like a forager who is ready to set out on an adventure in the wilderness of their minds. Losing oneself requires courage especially in a world which demands structure, control and order.

It leads one to question -What is it like to live life beyond order? How to completely get lost? Solnit talks about ‘extending the boundaries of the self’. She teaches her readers to ‘live always at the ‘edge of mystery’. But at this juncture one pauses to think- What is a structure? Is it life that is pre-planned? Devoid of risks? Plain? Simple? Ordinary?

The first chapter is titled ‘Open Door’. Solnit reckons to the one who is reading her to be more open, free, welcoming, and allowing. The first guest who she invites to support her is John Keats with his profound concept of ‘negative capability’. The idea talks about ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. One cannot help but look at the question of gender in understanding this concept and it makes one think- Can a woman live like that? Can anyone be so certain of an uncertainty?

Solnit then turns her reader’s attention to Walter Benjamin as she quotes him saying “But to lose oneself in a city- as one loses oneself in a forest- that calls for quite a different schooling.” She writes about ‘voluptuous surrender’ which is compared with losing in someone’s arms or losing oneself to the world by immersing in the present so that the surrounding is faded away. Further she writes, “In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography’.

  The next person is Henry David Thoreau, an American naturalist, essayist, poet and philosopher. His sanguine relationship with nature is well recorded in his book Walden. He was a brave man who risked losing the world only to find his soul. Courage is often silent. And as Thoreau observes in his Walden, “It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time.”

There is another kind of loss which is explained in the book through Virginia Woolf’s aphorisms on solitude. For her getting lost was the ‘dissolution of identity’. And this sense of loss was all about getting disconnected with one’s identity that appeared on the surface and getting in touch with the deeper recess of one’s very being. Solnit in her book quotes a passage from Woolf’s famous essay Street Haunting where she writes “As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s room….”

Solnit’s second chapter is titled ‘The Blue of Distance’. Her genius lies in the way she centres her idea of getting lost in the colour Blue. She writes “…the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of 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.”  Hence, she paints the world with Blue. Colourless water, she thinks is blue when it gets purer and deeper. The sky becomes blue, land turns blue even melancholy is blue and so is the whole distance. There is no other colour that can describe the beauty of the world but Blue. To a reader, Solnit’s incantations of the colour Blue stand for the longing of the unknown, undiscovered lands, skies and water that is shrouded with mystery. Losing oneself in these places is like filling up that gap between desire and the objects of desire.

Further on, she beautifully describes what a ‘psychological metamorphosis’ really is. And that it is only possible if one agrees to getting lost. In the book she writes, “Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.” It comes close to Woolf’s concept of ‘dissolution of identity’. The word ‘lost’ here becomes almost synonymous to another word called ‘erased’, an open call to submerge the inherited values so that newer, fresher ones emerge. At the same time, to also defy the practices that may no longer serve in the process of what Solnit describes as ‘psychological metamorphosis’. Change demands movement. And this is why when a caterpillar transforms to a butterfly; it doesn’t remain stuck inside a cocoon.

Next, she discusses about abandoned places where she talks about an abandoned hospital. Taking a close look at the ‘peeling paint’, she says “The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint”. At the same time, she is also attracted to ruins and raises an important question in the book, “What is a ruin, after all?” Further, she provides a quick answer as she writes “It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allures of ruins in the city is that of wilderness; a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.” A reader’s response to this would be, perhaps danger intrigues human. And that life could be lived truly in facing the anomaly than in the safety valve of what sounds to be ‘normal’. Maybe visiting the abandoned places is also similar to finding oneself.

As Solnit further writes, “Ruins become the unconscious of the city”, it successfully narrates the idea that a city that is ruined could have many stories to share. This leads to a discussion especially when a ruined city is compared to the pain of a traumatized person. It is because ruins could lie in the unconsciousness of both.

In a chapter called ‘Two Arrowheads’, Solnit talks about the joy of mountaineering. Losing oneself in the process of climbing a mountain is another way of discovering that there is so much more that meets the eye. However, there are no events described in the book about discovering or finding anything physical in particular. The ‘discovery’ is more like realising a transcendental truth as she writes “Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest, but as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much to wander, how much unknown.” Similarly, a desert too has something to offer than just its sombre silence and the vast outreaches where the world seem to appear like an island of sand. Solitude of the desert is delicious to her as she can taste the flavour of humdrum but with so much delight. She is eager to know about the strange looking rocks, animals that frolic from the unnoticed caverns– “a kind of humming silence…” she writes.

Wilderness must have never sounded so familiar. It is like throwing a picnic at a nearby garden under the shed of the safe hospices of known trees, shrubs and flowers. Losing oneself in the wild is not the same as in the known environs. It is in the wild that one can truly be free unlike spending time in a nearby garden surrounded by picket fences and boundaries.

Further on in the book, a chapter is dedicated to the people who have disappeared into the unknown. Solnit brings them together as she writes “they were all saddled with a desire to appear in the world and desire to go as far as possible that was a will to disappear from it.”  To her, they are ‘a hero who disappeared not only into the sky, the sea, the wilderness, but into a conception of self, into legend, into heights of possibility.” Perhaps, disappearing is hard and getting lost is easy. In her book, the writer claims those disappeared ones as heroes.

Towards the end of the book, the writer talks about dreams and the art of getting lost in them. She however writes that ‘nothing is lost in dream’ even if one may lose in it. Adding further, she writes “Childhood homes, the dead, lost toys all appear with a vividness your waking mind could not achieve. Nothing is lost but you yourself, wanderer in a terrain where even the most familiar places aren’t quite themselves and open onto the impossible.”

Dreams are like montage that is shown to you. All one can do is watch. Images appear unclear but you somehow make meaning out of it. The world appears fluid. Time has no intervals of past, present or future. Everything merges with each other just like the way the writer mentions in her book that how childhood homes, the dead and lost toys all appear at the same time. Solnit’s guide of getting lost sounds more like a lullaby. She puts one in a deep sleep from where one does not want to wake up. It makes one feel like losing themselves more in her world of enchantments where the whole process of getting lost is like a revelation to a world that is an unknown one. She makes sure the reader gets to taste a slice of this uncertainty as she writes “to acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge.”

Title- A Field Guide To Getting Lost

Author – Rebecca Solnit

Publisher- Canongate Books

Year- 2017

Pages- 206

ISBN- 9781786890511

Anshu Chhetri is currently an M.Phil. scholar in English Literature at University of North
Bengal. She is an avid reader and holds deep interest in the writings of Beat Generation. Her
articles are published in LiveWire, Youth Ki Awaz, Asiana Times and Terribly Tiny Tales.
She also works as a translator for a small publishing house called The Blacksheep.

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