In the midst of turmoil and disruption, it is easy to forget the good in the world, to forget to make time for gratitude.
That would be a mistake.
A recent interview with Rebecca Solnit — a writer, historian, and activist who has long been a personal favorite — focused on the need to take time for pleasure. That interview is featured in this edition of the Weekly Reader.
Solnit sat down with Salon’s senior politics reporter Amanda Marcotte. Their topic was why George Orwell, the great prophet of totalitarianism and someone renowned for facing unpleasant facts, took time out to plant roses. The occasion was the publication of Orwell’s Roses, Solnit’s “unconventional new biography of the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. Solnit uses Orwell’s lifelong love of gardening to ask deeper questions.” Questions about the value of pleasure in our politics and the human relationship to the natural world.
Orwell has had something of a renaissance. As Marcotte writes, “He, more than anyone, nailed what it looks like to live in a world of national gaslighting, of propaganda, of how much authoritarianism is not just authoritarianism over the economy, the law, human rights, but over consciousness, culture, language, representation.” With the 2016 election, Orwell became very relevant.
Solnit came to this topic from a life-long fascination with the author. Knowing of the times he lived in, when totalitarianism and fascism were on the rise, she thought, “What the hell was he doing planting roses?”
That question allowed her to think about a lot of things beyond Orwell himself. Solnit thought about pleasure, meaning, and joy, as they relate to politics, and aesthetics versus ethics. Those things, she noted, “we need to do that may look trivial, or bourgeois, luxurious that might be essential to doing the really important work we’re here to do.”
One of the things that struck Solnit is “that the world of sensory perception is a kind of immediate, empirical reality that can counter the reality of propaganda and lies.” Finding things that give one pleasure, finding those times of delight, helps us counter the evil around us and do the work we are put here to do.
“I think everyone has this impression of Orwell as this very grim, stern, pessimistic, austere guy,” says Solnit, “and to just find out how much he enjoyed himself, how passionately he gardened, how much pleasure he took in his chickens and goats and roses and crops, and grazing those goats on the public common, really gave me a different Orwell than the one I always been told was who he was. And that led me to look at his writing again. The writing had shown that all along, but we hadn’t seen it.“
We all have work to do. We also all need to stop and smell the roses. “It’s okay if we bake a cake, or go on a nice run, or plant a garden,” Solnit says. Orwell did all that and it was not just compatible, but very necessary.
Whatever your life’s work, take the time to revel in what’s around you. Take the time to smell the roses.
Have a great Thanksgiving.
More to come…