Being In Love Is A Sticky Place: Elvia Wilk’s Death By Landscape

An essay collection by Elvia Wilk draws links between Jenny Hval, Mark Fisher, and Hildegard von Bingen

Elvia Wlik photo credit Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff

In a late May day, the island of Stromboli was set on fire. An enormous chunk of it was burned down: vegetation charred to ashes, animals displaced, ecosystems turned to a barren pitch-black. I couldn’t give you an exact estimate of the damage done. But I also have no reasons to question in any way the severity of the devastation left behind by the pyre. It was surely just as bad as it sounds, if not downright worse. In a period of climate crisis, this could easily pass as nothing but one of the environmental tragedies that are unfolding on an increasingly alarming rate: diseases, extinctions, floods, fires and the rest of the biblical lot. But there’s something more to this disaster. Something I’d call symbolic, for a lack of better words. The source of this fire was not “natural” in any traditional sense of the word: it did not start from any non-human calamity, so to speak. It started from the set of a sitcom. A sitcom about the Civil Protection. At one point, the script reads: “Marina opens her eyes. Horror, she notices the house surrounded by flames. End of the eleventh episode”.

The irony is evident. But it’s one of those jokes that should elicit a grin with teeth nailed shut and a panicked rush to the head. Its main merit is, in fact, to push us to confront a couple of uncomfortable truths about us, the environment engulfing us and its dire state. On one hand, it bears the clear mark of our impotence. A complete meltdown, both tragedy and farce simultaneously. A simulation in real-time of all things (The State, The Law, The Civil Protection…) that should be able to make sense of the brutality of this world and do something about it failing miserably at it. And making it actively worse, if possible. On the other, it lays bare our indissoluble communion with everything there is, not in a “we’re all in this together” way but more as in an inextricable commingling of our lives and deaths and banalities and atrocities. Even the most mediocre soap opera branches out in a dark wilderness, without reassuring separations between nature and nurture. A fact we have never really got over, blinded by the incommensurability of this existence of ours in the midst of it all. This is our life as a species told through a tragic joke: living in the deep web of everything there is, powerless and deluded and devoid of any reason or consolation.

I think that Elvia Wilk’s new book, Death by Landscape, falls somewhere in the middle of this double bind – between the enormity of existing on this planet and our utter, senseless impotence in the face of it all.

Structurally speaking, the book is a concatenation of essays spanning a variety of contemporary cultural products and phenomena: from books and movies all the way to vampire LARPs. The fan-nonfiction tag that has been accompanying this book throughout its promotional roll-out is actually quite felicitous when it comes to describing what the reading experience is like. Rather than relying on a unifying topic or theme, Death by Landscape proceeds through loose associations between disparate things Wilk is fond of, weaving patterns as things get juxtaposed against one another. Holding the book together is not scholarly pedantry, but the burning, almost paranoid, labour of fandom love – making up theories, maniacally scavenging for deeper meanings, obsessing over the minutiae. There certainly are threads that give the book a sense of continuity – and we’ll get to them – but expect to feel a little dizzy at first under the rapid-fire patchworking of heterogenous stuff. When talking about Jenny Hval’s piss-soaked poetics, for example, one gets the distinct feeling of reading a feverish something that could gracefully adorn some hypothetical fan forum dedicated to the author. Well, maybe it would be a little too informed and polished for a forum, but it’s just as vital and fanatical.

Once the reader gets over the hurdle of the structural oddity of the book, it becomes quite evident that this sort of mad compiling of things that got under Wilk’s skin is not an accident. After the first handful of pages, it’s glaring that there are a few themes that circle around all the various passions and obsessions that appear in the book: death, longing, the weirdness of non-human life with an almost morbid fascination for vegetal existence, our current climate catastrophe. And each and every one of these themes is unified by an exploration – sometimes panicked, others ecstatic – of intoxicating love. A love that, just like Stromboli’s sick joke, embodies our ecological situation perfectly: amazed and terrified, always penetrated by the otherness of everything there is and impotent in all our attempts to control what’s around us. The willingness to be led into the language of pure, ravishing passion that Wilk shows in her style is a mirror of the sort of intoxicating relationship we have with the great outdoors of existence, especially in this dire and appalling moment in history. Fan-nonfictioning is a way of practically demonstrating a certain loss of control we experience when stumbling upon that which is enormous, confusing, dazzling in our own lives as earthly creatures. And the extraordinary thing is that it works wonderfully in its explicative endeavour.

The even greater accomplishment this book manages to pull off is to silently put forth a paradoxical ethics to face this jarring enormity. Not a prescriptive one, surely, with cumbersome rules, tasks, oughts. But an ethics nonetheless: an ethics of abandon and ruthless care for this world. Rather than trying to explain away the uneasy qualities of the intoxicating love that stalks the book, Wilk unabashedly upholds the idea of embracing it fully and to experiment with it beyond our better judgement. To get closer to the inhumanity of this world, taking it in and letting it transform us beyond the strictures of our selves and all other control systems. In a world too big and damaged to submit to our will to control, the only real way out, according to Wilk, is to let go of our power trips and to experience, for once, actual proximities and metamorphoses. If all else failed us, love and its impossible demands won’t.

Elvia Wilk’s Death By Landscape is published by Soft Skull PRess

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