I say I’ve lost so much and you imagine something awful, but I just mean the boring things, the standard things. The first that comes to mind: shortly after we moved to Berlin my love bought me a pair of hand-knit gloves at a market. On the ride home I fell off my bike and wore a hole straight through the gray and purple-striped palm; I mended them, but they soon fell out of my pocket. A friend in the know mailed a replacement pair, but these I left in the U-Bahn. I didn’t lose the precious incense holder, almost paper thin and perfectly celadon, that I had bought as a student in Strasbourg, but my cat broke it. When I moved abroad the cat moved in with a friend who fell out of touch.
The earrings. The notebooks. The little thing I looked away from until it was gone, that fell into river or gutter, that stayed behind in a hotel room in a town I’ll never see again. I’m trying to differentiate losing from losing, to cull the tangible disappeareds from the more abstract ones. But, as Elizabeth Bishop implies, this is a useless distinction. The mind, tasked with thinking losing thoughts, will skate from losing finery to losing faith and back again before you can realize you’ve misplaced your coffee. In “One Art,” Bishop’s famous poem on losing, lost love is the trump. But between lost time and lost watches it’s a free-for-all, a progression of gone-ness without hierarchy. “Losing farther, losing faster”—to think of loss at any level is just the shoving off point to more of the same.
And it appears that feats of losing accumulate just like the thoughts of what’s gone missing. In other words, because I lost my socks I’m more apt to lose my train of thought and to lose the latest gifted trinket in the process of so much failed and flustered searching. Probably this tendency reveals something more than disorganization, but if losing track of things is a kind of behavioral synecdoche, a fractal moment in the personality, well, what whole it stands in for isn’t clear at all.
Here’s a sentence that could do some pointing. Or, first, imagine a sister gesturing at a pair of pants: “They’re only pants, but pants must be kept in as good a condition as souls; otherwise it demonstrates negligence, wearing these ripped and ratty pants, a negligence that comes from the soul.” Take this wisdom a step further: if you can’t even find your pants, your favorite pants, then you’ve indulged some kind of damage that extends beyond negligence. You’re oblivious, and you’ve shoved away your soul in the form of trousers. Time to sit around in your underwear and assess what else might have gone missing. And really, if I could enter the dark wood of What’s Gone Forever to follow the path of my losses where would I go?
The too-short scarf, the tea straw. The last thing that I lost was the book that the sentence cited above comes from, a novel with a bright yellow cover written by Robert Walser. Walser trafficked in smallness. At a very literal level, his 526-page Bleistiftgebiet, the “Pencil Zone” manuscripts that he wrote by hand in tiny fonts, converts to almost six-thousand printed pages. Subject-wise, too, he favored little rascally people (“My name is Helbling and I am telling my own story because it would probably not be written down by anybody else.”) and ironically, but really, delights in the mundane (“I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation upon them”). Creating an atmosphere that accommodates enjoyment and indignation at once—such delicate scorn! such effortless sentences winking from those pages!—Walser’s writing can be hard to pin down. As W.G. Sebald commented on his style: “Everything in these books has the tendency to vanish or to disappear.”
If only Sebald had written that everything in these books has the tendency to vanish or disappear, and then the books themselves go missing. Then I wouldn’t be responsible for the bright flash left beneath a bed somewhere, or on a folding table. But what a strange compliment it is—as a kind of glowing reference to style, technique, mastery—to write that everything in a thing goes away. This remark gets to the heart of a nostalgia that can accompany the experience of reading a book or poem, that basic fact of entering a world where we can’t stay, at the same time that it points to a divide between the freedom we permit books, where the ephemeral nature of language is a given, and the consistency that we expect from life, where we’re much more inclined to resist every disappearance. Let’s try a few substitutions: Everything in her character has the tendency to vanish or to disappear. Everything he wears has the tendency to vanish or to disappear. Everything I own has the tendency to vanish or disappear. It’s a silly game, but, no, these substitutions don’t work as compliments at all.
Still, if setting people up to experience the feeling of losing a thing is potentially a professional achievement then losing things semi-professionally just can’t be such a problem. Maybe the problem is more that there’s so much to lose and not enough time to decide what’s worth losing. In that case, we could teach high schoolers, who anyway spend thirty-five hours a week in ugly buildings often not doing much of anything, to start making that assessment. Lose an hour looking at cat pictures, but don’t lose two, the teacher would say. When you’re older, forgive yourself the forgotten coffee mug, but try to keep in touch with your friends. And remember, literature that seems to vanish or disappear is fun, but if someone wants a text to go unmade or get lost, you should probably pay attention.
But there I go, prioritizing what’s better or worse to lose when I’ve already claimed that loss is this great equalizer and that all lost things go to lost things heaven. And the imaginary teenagers aren’t having any of it: What if I’m researching internet-related behaviors and particularly addiction to Tumblr? one asks. But what if my mug is more important than my friend, says another, and why are you bringing current events into a discussion of Walser? Good work, youthful figments. Now let’s all go forth and reckon our losses for ourselves!
* Top photo from Lettuce1 at Flickr’s Creative Commons
* Second photo, W. Eugene Smith’s “A Walk to the Paradise Garden”, 1946