In Harper’s,Rebecca Solnit explores space and boundaries: Who has access to what spaces, with what limitations? What does this mean for those who are excluded, and what does this exclusion mean for society as a whole? How do we claim the space to which we have a right without falling victim to the self-importance of entitlement?
Almost twenty years ago, while taking care of a friend’s dog, I took the animal out for a stroll. Along the way, three tall young men came walking directly toward us, a situation in which I always give way, step aside. But I had a pit bull on a short leash. I walked right through those men like Moses parting the Red Sea. I never tried that again, but I never forgot what I learned in that moment: So deeply had I known who owned the sidewalk that I’d always yielded, without even noticing. Since then, I’ve read accounts of trans women who found, after their transition, that they were constantly bumping into people or being bumped into—as women they no longer owned the right of way.
… It’s easy to see how readily this feeling of urgency could become a sense that everyone else is in your way, that your rights and needs matter more—could become, ultimately, the sort of self-absorption that renders others invisible. To believe that my important business is more important than others’ is the path of entitlement, the antithesis of any ideal of equality.
Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.
For Elle, Keziah Weir profiles prolific feminist and activist Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is expert at crystalizing common experiences in such a way that lays bare deeply ingrained patriarchal influences. You can never un-see them again, and suddenly you realize how entrenched they are. Weir herself had this experience reading Solnit.
The title essay of Men Explain Things is based on an encounter Solnit had with an older man at his Aspen house party in 2003; he expounds at great length to her about a recent biography of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering stop-motion photographer famous for his image series of a horse galloping—talking over her friend’s efforts to tell him that Solnit herself had written the book. “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit writes, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of last year’s best-seller Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, likens the essay’s reception to the feminist “click moments” of the 1970s, when “something you knew deep in your bones that nobody had ever quite articulated zapped into focus.”
I can relate. Raised on the girl-power feminism of the ’90s—Spice Girls, The Vagina Monologues, Hermione Granger, Daria—my friends and I didn’t think we needed feminism. We thought the battle for women’s rights had already been won. Besides, feminism carried uncomfortable anti-man connotations, amplified by “empowered” female pop-culture icons from Katy Perry to Madonna, who denounced the term as exclusionary. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” was a popular refrain. But then, in Men Explain Things, I read about Solnit, six or seven or nine books into her career and still having her own thoughts explained back to her by men. In the same collection, I read her trenchant take on FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who issued pre-9/11 warnings about Al Qaeda and was ignored by her mostly male colleagues. I read about how an unnamed American university responded to campus rapes by telling young women to stay inside after dark. I started to wonder: Why do I gravitate toward books by male authors? Why hasn’t it bothered me that my academic mentors were exclusively men? Why do I feel competitive with my female classmates (and, later, colleagues) but not male? Without being conscious of it, I’d put the men in a different, more exalted category; my definition of “winning” essentially meant taking home the silver, or the bronze. The guys would land three out of four of the top jobs, and they’d dominate the conversation—whether on literature or abortion, whether at parties or in the serious matte pages of the New Yorker. Click.
It is difficult to define Rebecca Solnit. Is she an historian, a cultural theorist, a journalist, an activist? She cites reserved intellectuals like John Berger and Lawrence Weschler as influences, and she is also on the front lines of protest: she was an outspoken proponent of Occupy Wall Street; she was in Standing Rock, at the Dakota Access Pipeline, where protestors recently gained an unexpected victory; and she co-founded the Stop Trump project, which ideologically resists the U.S. President-Elect while uncovering the potential malfeasance that led to his election in the first place.
Born in Connecticut and educated at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, the 55-year-old has been an independent writer living in northern California since 1988. She’s authored seventeen books, ranging in topic from art to politics to geography to community to feminism. She won the Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she’s currently a contributing editor at Harper’s, where she writes the bimonthly Easy Chair column.
Her essay “Hope in the Dark,” which she gave away as a free ebook after Trump was elected, was written twelve years ago as an instructive piece on what went wrong with the Iraq War protests. Its relevance resurged after Trump was elected.
I spoke with Solnit about reclaiming the notion that political protest works, understanding the role of hope, the lessons of Hilary Clinton’s defeat, not ceding resistance, and whether Trump was even elected president at all.
It isn’t a fact universally acknowledged that a person who mistakes his opinions for facts may also mistake himself for God. This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads. This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long—and turns compliant women into mirrors reflecting them back twice life size, Virginia Woolf noted. The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.
-At Lithub, Men Explain Things To Me author Rebecca Solnit writes about all the mansplaining she was treated to in response to her November essay, “80 Books No Woman Should Read” on the same site—itself a response to a much re-posted Esquire feature called “80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” which includes 79 men. Most of all, men—”liberal men”—told her she misunderstood Lolita and was wrong for identifying with the young girl who’s been raped and robbed of her agency, “which made me wonder,” she writes, “if there’s a book called ‘Reading Lolita in Patriarchy.'”
The word “journey” used to mean a single day’s travels, and the French word for day, jour, is packed neatly inside it, like a single pair of shoes in a very small case. Maybe all journeys should be imagined as a single day, short as a trip to the corner or long as a life in its ninth decade. This way of thinking about it is a;rmed by the t-shirts made for African-American funerals in New Orleans and other places that describe the birth date and death date of the person being commemorated as sunrise and sunset. One day. Read more…
Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.
Rebecca Solnit, writing in The New Yorker, offers a celebration of the imagination’s best ally: the ability to say “I don’t know.” Solnit looks at subtlety and subjectivity in her own writing, and in that of a hero of the art, Virginia Woolf:
During my years as an art critic I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.
A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.
There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.
This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.