Joy is a Fine Initial Act of Insurrection

Hope in the Dark

“Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit

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.”

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

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 Mother of All Questions

“The Mother of All Questions” by Rebecca Solnit

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.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

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