Over the past 15 years, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit has written three collections of essays that have recently been published (or republished) by Haymarket Books as a trilogy for our times.
This inexplicable week we’ve just experienced seems as good a time as any to consider Solnit’s thoughts on hope in the face of despair, and to take the long view which she favors.
In the first of the series, Hope in the Dark (originally published in 2004), Solnit talks about the demands of hope and then notes that joy is a way to support the work which hope demands.
“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”
Though initially written during the Iraq war of 2004, I thought of how much more our politics in 2017 aspire to make us fearful, alienated, and isolated — seen most recently with Donald Trump’s Long Island speech about cities as “bloodstained killing fields.” Hope and joy are definitely needed in response.
Solnit begins the foreword to the third edition of this collection with the following observation:
“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t just enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.”
Hope, as Solnit makes clear, is not naive optimism. Instead, it “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act….Hope is an embrace of the unknown.” In twenty-one wonderful essays, she touches on topics as wide-ranging as “False Hope and Easy Despair,” the “Indirectness of Direct Action,” and “Getting the Hell out of Paradise.” This last one is a call to let go of perfection and to look instead to the possible. And it contains the wonderful quote from Eduardo Galeano,
“Utopia is on the horizon. When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking.”
The 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 violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more. It is an impressive and thoughtful collection of writings that extend beyond the well-known title essay.
Finally, Solnit’s most recent collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions, provides commentary around feminism and silence that is as fresh as today’s headlines and yet built upon our full history as a nation (if not all of human history). The introductory essay touches on the question that all women face about families, babies, and motherhood. It is a question that assumes that there is only one proper way for a woman to live, which is – of course – absurd. But it is often asked (or affirmed, in other instances, such as online comment boards) because it is based on logic “that refuses to recognize the limits to men’s rights or the existence of women’s.”
These are questions to which the questioner only sees one possible answer, and whose aim is “enforcement or punishment.” In this and other essays in the book, Solnit notes that perhaps “part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong thing of ourselves.” This is not truly a commentary on motherhood but, instead, on happiness.
“Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is Are you happy?…Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is often described as the result of having a great many ducks lined up in a row—spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences—even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.”
The longest essay in the collection is on silence, a topic Solnit has addressed in earlier works. As with the two earlier works, it is chock-full of wisdom and perspective that needs a wider audience.
I love her ending to the first essay, because it touches on so much of what Solnit’s writing has brought to my thinking (and hopefully, my actions). The story is told about a time when she was speaking as part of a tour around her book Wanderlust.
“I did finally have my rabbinical moment in Britain. After the jet lag was over, I was interviewed onstage by a woman with a plummy, fluting accent. ‘So,’ she trilled, ‘you’ve been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge.’ The implication was clear: I was an exceptionally sorry specimen on display, an outlier in the herd. I turned to the audience and asked, ‘Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?’ They laughed with me; in that moment, we knew that we were all weird, all in this together, and that addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others is part of the work we’re all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things. There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer.” (Emphasis mine)
This is a perspective we all need to grasp to live together successfully. At a time when so many in our political world are trying to push us apart, this trilogy of almost two decades of writing is worth our time.
More to come…