Life

Rebecca Solnit: How to get lost

Whether in mystery, geography or art, losing ourselves is an essential, primal human action. Historian, writer and wanderer Rebecca Solnit shows the way

Woman in forest

Leave 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. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since.

The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious.

The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know what is on the other side of that transformation

Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown”. But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.

Edgar Allan Poe declared: “All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.” Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word “calculate”, which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with “the unforeseen”, that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated. How do you calculate upon the unforeseen?

It seems to be an art of recognising the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognising that there are some essential mysteries in the world, and thereby a limit to plan and control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

On a celebrated midwinter’s night in 1817 the poet John Keats walked home talking with some friends “and several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature… I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” One way or another this notion occurs over and over again, like the spots labelled “terra incognita” on old maps.

“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says the 20th-century philosopher-essayist Walter Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.

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.

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, incessant busyness and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.

A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places.

Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.

Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names.

This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realisation, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a moulting snake.

Of course, to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.

Extracted from A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Canongate, £9.99) by Rebecca Solnit

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