“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”
In my binge-like preparation for my month of reading my local library, I greedily requested two Rebecca Solnit books: “Men Explain Things to Me” and “Hope in the Dark”. Both arrived in my queue begging for equal consideration, and since, sadly, both feel equally relevant to my anxieties and to the historical moment in which we seem to find ourselves, I was happy (or at least eager) to oblige.
Approaching these two essay collections chronologically, I read “Hope in the Dark” first – a deceptively weighty little book first published in 2004. Written in response to Bush Jr’s second term, Solnit was tapping into the dejection of the moment, the sense of hopelessness that came with the reality of four more years of Bush’s war-waging and conservative back-lash. Read now in the ever-widening wake of despair brought on by the 2016 election, Solnit’s concerns and reassurances are almost quaint, but in truth are no less relevant and are deeply perceptive.
“Hope in the Dark” is not an indictment, though many of its carefully laid arguments are, indeed, damning. Focusing particularly on the political, Solnit explores critical moments in history in which it was temptingly easy to lose hope and through which those who maintained hope were able to achieve gradual, eventual victories.
“This is Earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this book, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, people will be raped, killed, dispossessed die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundations: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”
“Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
In her more recent collection, “Men Explain Things to Me” (2014), Solnit turns her attention exclusively to feminism and misogyny. These essays often filled me with rage, not at Solnit but at the truths she lays bare. She cites, for instance, the fact that “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined”. Solnit pulls no punches when she dives deeply into the issues of violence against women and violence by men.
“It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.”
Just as in “Hope in the Dark”, Solnit councils hope and persistence.
“Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”
All told, I found Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections to be exceptionally well-researched, well-argued, and well-crafted, but in the end I was still left surprisingly flat by her writing. Her writing vacillated between being impassioned and pedantic, so that beautiful phrases full of import were sometimes bogged down in a sea of rather dry argument. What should have been fiery polemic that held my attention often lost my interest. Despite a significant, Venn-diagramesque overlap in our interests and philosophies, I found her writing clinical when I needed passion, remote when I craved engagement. Solnit is a well-respected and worthy writer whose tireless efforts I greatly appreciate, but whose writing I am unlikely to elevate to the top of my toppling TBR in the future.
“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”