Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rebecca Solnit Explains Things To Me

"A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit, 2006

Rebecca Solnit is an essayist somewhat along the lines of Susan Sontag.  She is famous for her 2014 comic feminist essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which was inspired by a conversation at a party where a male literary lion insisted on interpreting one of her own 16 books to her, without knowing who she was. 

Bryce Canyon - Utah (CGG)
Solnit’s approach, as she describes it: “histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one.”  Or perhaps belong only to the individual writer.  She starts the book with a quote from the sophist Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing that is absolutely unknown to you?”  She is a poetic writer and you will come upon great lines by accident.  Here she is describing the stage in the molting of a butterfly called ‘instar’:  “… change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.”  Here she describes how emotion takes you away:  “Riding all kinds of runaway horses.”  On memory she comments: “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.’ 

Solnit has loosely organized chapters around what her ‘lost’ means.  Lost in the mystery of another person; lost in a hike in the actual woods; wandering around the summer west by car; lost in the past; in family history; lost in the far distant color blue.  Lost captives like Cabeza de Vaca or Cynthia Ann Parker.  ‘Captives’ thrown into new cultures voluntarily or involuntarily.  The dusty lost longing and geography of vintage country music and the blues.  She comments:  “In some ways, the blues took over the world.”  Or travel, a form of intentional lostness.  Yet the more one travels, the more comfortable the whole world becomes.  She is a proponent of a method of life not always controlled by reason every step of the way; open to experience and serendipity; doing things new or unknown; out of routine, just out of sight.  However, she is careful about her discovering, so that the position comes off as a bit of a literary pose.  For example a friend got into heavy drugs and punk music – Solnit did not follow her down that particular rabbit hole. 

Objects get ‘lost’ but most are really misplaced.  They are later to be rediscovered by you or someone else.  People get lost and most find themselves, either literally or figuratively.  Whether they like what they find is another matter.  These are Solnit’s vague maps of the terrain. 

For those of us strapped to the rack of labor every day, this seems like the meanderings of a full-time writer – and indeed they are.  She has something of the post-modernist, mixing cultural images into a self-reverential and indistinct pottage.  For instance, she spends time on Yves Klein, a somewhat ridiculous herald of post-modernist and ‘performance’ art, who actually sold paintings that didn’t exist from an empty white art gallery in the early 1960s.  But there are also valuable insights from this other planet, the leisure planet, where necessity is not always in charge.  After all, politics is only a necessity, not a desire.  Our lives are lived on many levels.  The politically oblivious live in an imaginary world shaped by capitalism, yet they pretend not to know it.  The politically conscious focus on the problem at hand, yet life goes on even so.  That has to be recognized or it leads to sterility.  

Monument Valley - Arizona (CGG)
Solnit is a city woman (San Francisco of course) who romantically escapes into nature when she can.  The desert and its animals are her favorites – she spent three years living in the Mojave with a hermit lover.  The desert is defined by its austere emptiness – a terrain where ‘loss’ is built into the view.  Where what is missing, is what is there. 

Her politics are vague, and meant to be.  She comments on the 6th extinction without calling it that – species disappearing at the rate of 30 a day world-wide.  If you pay attention, you’ll see the woods are becoming empty.  But also on humans’ intentional and sometimes successful efforts to protect species from destruction.  Her own father was involved in Marin County regarding elephant seals.  This destruction started in California with the arrival of the gold miners in 1849, who killed every California grizzly.  It now only exists on the California state flag.  Yet nature is not her whole story.  In reference to punk music and other sub-cultures, she knows that, “…it’s from the underground that culture emerges in this civilization.” 

One day the working-class underground may emerge. But it is not here yet, another Atlantis waiting to surface.

Other books somewhat along the lines of this topic:  Into the Wild,”All is Lost,” “Deep Survival,” “Wild,” “A Traveler’s Tale” and “Empire of the Summer Moon.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought in the excellent feminist section at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 7th, 2015

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