I’m lying on a sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. Everything is wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi, no one around, just me and my damaged copy of A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what she means.
This is a diary entry from the first time I read Rebecca Solnit, almost a decade ago, when I was an idealist and a backpacker. I picked up the book on a whim, drawn in by the title, not knowing who Solnit was. A Field Guide (2005) is an ode to longing, the colour blue and the relationship between spaces and art. Her hybrid style — part travel chronicle, art criticism and literary essay— was unlike anything I had read before. It left a profound mark in the way I approached literature and criticism thereafter, not only because most things that fascinated me at the time were in the book (traveling, literary history, spatial politics), but because of the way in which she wrote about them.
My fascination with Solnit began then and A Field Guide gave me two ideas about her writing that I continued to discover later: one, she is a philosopher of the ordinary and two, she is a literary “counter critic”. Her books touch on art, feminism, urban history, activism and insurrection, climate change, the history of cultural practices and and how both the mundane and the artistic can be, and have usually been, subversive.
Rebecca Solnit was born in Connecticut and grew up in California. Much like Joan Didion, the culture and expansive landscapes of the Golden State play a major role in her work, both as a writer and as a historian. As Didion was writing in Vogue, interviewing celebrities and being in the it-scene of LA, Solnit was a rugged intellectual, a high school dropout, a hiker and a troublemaker, spending her weekends in protests is San Francisco, reasons why I admired her in my university days, because I too was interested in the politics of the ordinary, social change and had an inkling for travel and travel writing.
In Wanderlust (2005) Solnit recalls how she set off to Paris at 17. Like thepoètes mauditsand the American expats in the 20s, she found in Paris a place to roam, its boulevards and alleys the perfect place to map out her ideas. Mapping things out, spreading ideas on paper and bringing the mental process to the physical world is at the crux of her writing, which is full of metaphors and stories. Her footnotes, for example, are usually written as a single line without breaks that continues throughout the book and becomes a separate text, one that forces her readers to acknowledge the book as a physical object that disrupts a stream of ideas.
Solnit’s background as a historian and an activist is deeply intertwined with her writing. Her books are packed with data, extensive bibliographies and footnotes, but the way in which she dissects the seemingly ordinary to get at its roots and have it tell us something about ourselves as a society, is reminiscent of Barthes, Shklovsky and Sontag. Even in her more personal works, like The Faraway Nearby (2013), which deals with her mother’s experience with Alzheimer, she manages to draw an intricate map where the personal, the artistic and the political all come together in the mundane, like picking apricots in her garden. For Solnit, ordinary actions give away necessary information to understand politics, culture and history. She is a quixotic observer of the mundane, a prose poet, a troubled philosopher, too conscious of the futility of pursuing any kind of authority, an attitude which also sets her apart as a critic, or as she prefers to call herself, a “counter critic”, an idea she has developed in later works and interviews.
In her most famous books, Men Explain Things to Me (2014), she writes: “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”. Not only does she write about it, though. Her writing is more inviting than explanatory, opening doors to bring the unfamiliar into the commonplace, and by doing so, exposing the tensions and connections between things, and revealing how nothing, ever, is not political.
Even in her most earnest writing, she is never admonishing, but inviting and enticing; her observations open up a thousand uncomfortable questions, but are never definite answers. Like her influences— Woolf, Thoreau and Galeano, to mention a few—, Solnit is aware of the futility of seeking Truth, and even admits to the inadequacy of language when dealing with experience. In one of her most recent books, inspired by George Orwell’s love for gardening, Orwell’s Roses (2021), she explores how the mundane and the “highest” forms of art are mediated by personal politics. Orwell’s Roses reflects much of her work as an activist and her refusal of the l’art pour l’art approach: “The contemporary world is full of things that look beautiful and are produced through hideous means”.
Solnit’s criticism and activism go hand in hand. Her criticism voices necessary and uncomfortable conversations about art, it awakens the need to go further, to look harder and dig deeper into the ordinary. For Solnit, life comes first, writing comes second. What I admired the most about her when I was a university student is still the same today: she lives by her words. She is still an activist, a member of the Oil Change International board and founder of the climate action project Not Too Late. In her writing, she remains independent and non-affiliated, much in the style of Galeano, and anti-journalistic in the sense that, for her, intervening is more important than writing. Solnit’s commitment to the idea that words can not only help us understand the world, but change it, even in today’s climate of cynicism, is one the last respites of hope in today’s art scene, which seems far more concerned with the aesthetics of comfort. When I first read Solnit, I found her to mirror my idealistic enthusiasm about words and the world. Today, reading her reminds me of the rebellious feeling that first drew me to literature and art, a call to act, to write, to travel, to engage with the world, for which I will remain grateful.
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