Letting Experience Be Larger Than Knowledge

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I just completed reading a thoughtful collection of essays by the writer Rebecca Solnit.  Titled after the first in the collection and her best-known essay – Men Explain Things to Me – these nine pieces written between 2008 and 2014 explore multiple topics including the gender wars and male privilege, the use of violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more.  Through them all, Solnit pushes the reader to consider perspectives that are likely to be outside their  comfort zone.

A colleague forwarded the link to the Men Explain Things to Me essay several weeks ago after I referenced Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. (Also highly recommended.) The essay begins with the comic scene of a man explaining Solnit’s most recent book to her – even though he never read anything more than the New York Times book review of her work.

But as noted on Solnit’s website, she ends this essay “on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, ‘He’s trying to kill me!'”

Each essay in this collection has something important to say and I strongly recommend them all.  Solnit is a clear thinker and talented writer.  For this post, I want to focus on two specific essays.

In Praise of the Threat:  What Marriage Equality Really Means quickly had me thinking, “Of course, she’s right.”

“For a long time, the advocates of same-sex marriage have been saying that such unions pose no threat, contradicting the conservatives who say such unions are a threat to traditional marriage.  Maybe the conservatives are right, and maybe we should celebrate that threat rather than denying it.  The marriage of two men or two women doesn’t impact any man-and-woman marriage directly.  But metaphysically it could.”

Solnit proceeds to examine traditional marriage. For much of its history the laws defining marriage – and the actual practice in much of the world – made the husband “essentially an owner and the wife a possession. Or the man a boss and the woman a servant or slave.”

Solnit ends this piece by writing,

“It’s time to slam the door shut on that era.  And to open another door, through which we can welcome equality: between genders, among marital partners, for everyone in every circumstance.  Marriage equality is a threat: to inequality.  It’s a boon to everyone who values and benefits from equality. It’s for all of us.”

Solnit takes a look at the inexplicable in Woolf’s Darkness. I used this essay when asked to speak to our Professional Development Program participants at work last week. I wanted to make the point that while I am a planner by training (and disposition), some of my most successful experiences (professional and otherwise) came when I left the carefully planned path and identified opportunities outside my comfort zone where I could both contribute and grow.

In this essay, Solnit quotes a line from Virginia Woolf – “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” – as a starting point for a celebration of the unknown.

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: ‘The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.’ His point is that when the two seem incompatible, we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble.  Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

A few pages later, Solnit expands on this point:

“I once heard about a botanist in Hawaii with a knack for finding new species by getting lost in the jungle, by going beyond what he knew and how he knew, by letting experience be larger than his knowledge, by choosing reality rather than the plan.” (emphasis mine)

In the final essay in this collection, Solnit writes,

“When the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, thirty-two of the one hundred signatories to its Declaration of Independence-echoing manifesto were men.  Still, it was seen as a women’s problem.  Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone.  The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.”

Amen.

I’ve made a resolution to return to read Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.

More to come…

DJB

One Response

  1. […] second book in the trilogy, Men Explain Things to Me, came out in 2015. I wrote about this collection of essays earlier this year when I focused on the essays around gender wars and male privilege, the use of […]

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