Vascular bundle of a fern rhizome (Image from a fascinating website, Urbagram which addresses a set of interlinked concepts, models, speculations, probings, essays and artefacts based on urban systems.)
I first encountered Rebecca Solnit quite by accident. About ten years ago I was making my usual pilgrimage to the lusciously overstuffed and highly iconic City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco when As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art fell off the shelf and into my hands. I knew nothing about Solnit, and her bio was not the academic-centric one so typical for an art critic. But I read Eve on the plane heading back to Boston and fell under its spell. I have been an unwavering fan of everything Solnit has written ever since.
Solnit is a woman of strong opinions and a fiery intelligence—one friend described a dinner party where she was a guest as harrowingly intense—but what makes her a not quite companionable party guest is also what drives her compelling work. Her interests are far ranging, from politics to art to urbanism to disaster to illness. But in every case her approach to a topic is a rich tapestry of interwovenness, full of unexpected turns and an idiosyncratic take on the facts. She is not a writer that will appeal to linear thinkers who like an arboreal structure to thought. David Ulin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That’s classic Solnit, to take what sounds like conventional wisdom and reframe it on her own terms…She is what used to be known as a public intellectual, an essayist defined by her ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas.”
The dot connecting is even more masterful in her most recent book, The Faraway Nearby. This very personal volume begins with the arrival of an oversized box of ripe apricots picked from her mother’s tree. It is from that unexpected starting place that Solnit finds a way to tie those apricots to so many stories and realities, the public as well as the private.
One of the many themes she circles around repeatedly is storytelling itself. “The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with.” The assignment to sort, so common in myths and folktales, elicits these wise insights from Solnit:
Such tasks are always the obstacles to becoming, to being set free, or finding love. Carrying out the tasks undoes the curse. Enchantment in these stories is the state of being disguised, displaced in an animal’s body or another’s identity. Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself…
Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming…Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of the youngest sons, abandoned children…Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one. In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindess.
Solnit’s method of sorting through life’s mysteries and seeing connections everywhere—a style I often refer to as the “e) all of the above” approach—is one that I feel completely at home with. She is a good example of a rhizomatic thinker (as articulated by the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) and her skill just keeps getting better.
Her work brings to mind the towering figure of another brilliant and self-styled thinker/writer, Susan Sontag. Solnit wrote a tribute about Sontag in 2005 just after she passed away, and her words about Sontag could apply to her own work as well:
One of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing…one of the things clear through all her work is that she was not interested merely in writing, but in tending and cultivating a literature-based public sphere in which ideas and principles mattered. It was a romantic idea, but not an unrealistic one—since, after all, she realized it.
Sontag and Solnit are fierce. And we all know that fierceness in a woman is greeted differently in the world than fierceness in a man. Why that is so is an endless discussion and not one I am entering into today. But part of the power of both of these writers is their unswerving devotion to doing it and saying it their own way. And if it were possible to name the primary theme underlying seven years’ worth of posts on Slow Muse, it would be just that.
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