Going Off the Map

A historian's travels can contribute more to her work than archival sources. Scott McLemee reads Dispatches From Dystopia.

April 29, 2015

In coining the word utopia, Thomas More was making a pun. The villain of Wolf Hall was, in real life, a learned man who wrote for people who could recognize a joke in Greek when he made one. The island republic of social perfection depicted in his most famous book was a good place (eu-topia), obviously. But it existed only in the imagination: it was also, literally, no place (ou-topia).

Alternating currents of optimism and skepticism crackle in the space between syllables. The ambivalence vanishes with “dystopia,” which, like dysentery (“bad bowels”), has nothing to recommend it. But there is more to dystopia than has been encoded in its etymology. The word usually implies utopia’s evil twin: a social order of perfect oppression, designed to bring the greatest misery to the greatest number.

The places Kate Brown writes about in Dispatches From Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press) are not all examples of hell on earth, by any means, but each bears the scars of some catastrophe that the visitor is bound to know about before arriving: the ghost town of Chernobyl, for example, or the basement of a hotel in Seattle full of the belongings of Japanese-American residents relocated to internment camps during World War II. The author introduces herself as “a professional disaster tourist,” though her day job is as a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her two previous books grew out of research on Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet era. Dispatches From Dystopia pursues many of the same interests while also working reflexively to consider the genres available for writing about place and memory: professional historiography, of course, but also personal narrative and travel writing.

“Many writers presume that the site of action is a given,” she notes, “as if places were neutral containers of human interaction rather than dynamic places in their own right.” At the same time, scholarly prose is often written from the vantage point of the proverbial “man from nowhere.” Make that “person from nowhere,” rather -- anyway, a voice that, while not omniscient, remains as rigorous and impersonal as possible.

“In their quest to explore the human condition,” Brown writes, “historians can hide behind their subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project their own sentiments and feelings. Let me put that another way: in my quest to explore the human condition, I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project my own sentiments and feelings. The third-person voice is a very comfortable one in which to reside. Permanently. The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between the author and the subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession that is situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”

Such intimacy brings the potential for extreme embarrassment. Brown prefaces the lines just quoted by saying that her hands are sweating as writes them. Her early ventures into first-person scholarship met with resistance, expressed in well-meant warnings such as, “You won't get a job with that dissertation” and “Other scholars will assign you, but not cite you.” Which is understandable, because other risks besides personal and professional awkwardness can follow from experimentation of the kind Brown undertakes. The existence of “borders between the author and the subject” at least reduce the dangers of twee memoir -- and also of prolonged metaepistemic inquiry (how can the knower know the knower, much less the known?) that scorches the earth with tedium.

So for the first several pages of Dispatches From Dystopia I braced myself, only to find that Brown is the rare case of someone who can incorporate a number of registers of narrative and reflection within the same piece of writing, shifting among them with grace and quiet confidence. Her essays might be called position papers: topographical surveys of historical sites, with the mapmaker’s own itinerary sketched in.

The trips to erstwhile Soviet republics are not, she makes clear, a search for roots. A product of “the industrial heartland of the United States at a time when it was the world’s most prosperous and powerful country,” she is unaware of any German, Jewish or Slavic branches to her family tree: “I could hardly have been born farther from rural, famished, collectivized, heavily politicized, bombed and terrorized Right Bank Ukraine” -- the subject of her first book -- “a place that stands in my mind as the epicenter of 20th-century misery.”

But another essay suggests the advantages of this presumed naïveté. People she met granted the author a place in post-Soviet society “as an honorary child…. If I accepted this role passively, relinquishing my status as an autonomous adult and the critical rationality of a researcher, they often let me in, if fleetingly, for a closer look. By becoming childlike -- susceptible, disabled and dependent -- I became a temporary member of their community, which in the Soviet Union was defined by an understanding of biological vulnerability, mutual interdependence and obligation.”

Other expeditions require different personae. Her trip to what’s left of the city of Chernobyl elicits another kind of identification with people who have been there. Expecting a scene from opening days of the Gorbachev era -- irradiated but frozen in time -- she finds that everything that can be sold has been hauled off to market: “Even the knobs on the kitchen cabinets were gone. Even the time capsule schoolchildren buried in the 1970s had been looted. (I know because I was hoping to dig it up and loot it myself.)”

Brown’s first-person reflections are embedded in narratives and place descriptions that are more intricate and varied than a reviewer can even begin to suggest, and certain issues and motifs link the essays in ways that would probably reward a second reading. Each piece, like the volume as a whole, is an example of nonfiction that uses the first person, rather than just indulges it. The learned essay and the personal essay are different creatures and attempts to create a hybrid are often problematic at best. But Dispatches From Dystopia proves it can be done.


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