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Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca Solnit’

11 NOVEMBER, 2014

Showroom vs. Sanctuary: Rebecca Solnit on What Our Dream Homes Reveal about Our Inner Lives

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“The dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living.”

Despite being a longtime believer in and reaper of the benefits of meditation, I only recently attended my first meditation retreat — and found myself confronting a strange disconnect. The workshops and dharma talks were imbued with tremendous production value, from the “set design” of the lecture podium to the cameras recording and projecting the talks onto a giant screen. The accommodation exuded equally conflicting aspirations — the rooms were small and otherwise spartan, but each featured an imitation Eames plastic chair. In the midst of this spiritual haven, there was a full-fledged gym. (To dispel any holier-than-thou impressions: I used it.) A sprawling gift shop offered everything from books to cosmetics to handmade Tibetan jewelry. The Buddha was on sale. (I debated buying one.)

True as it may be that “everything exists at once with its opposite” and that polarities only imprison us, there was something decidedly discomfiting about the situation, yet strangely comforting at the same time: To be human is to be embodied, which implies an inevitable relationship with materiality — and perhaps, if even the enlightened embrace it, that’s okay.

By one of those improbable yet frequent happenstances of the great cosmic accident that is life, the only book I took to the retreat was The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library | IndieBound) — a sublime collection of essays by the wise and wonderfully talented Rebecca Solnit exploring place as “the intersection of many changing forces passing through, whirling around, mixing, dissolving, and exploding in a fixed location,” forces like culture, justice, ecology, democracy, art, and storytelling, which reveal things like “what environmentalists got wrong about country music and nearly everyone got wrong about Henry David Thoreau’s laundry.” (The getting wrong of Thoreau seems to be a recurring theme.)

One of the essays from the book, titled “Inside Out, or Interior Space,” examines with piercing precision of insight “the rising obsession with home ownership and home improvement” and the interplay between our interior lives and our interior decoration, which had manifested with such dissonance at the meditation retreat. As if she too had seen and pondered the car in the retreat parking lot bearing the bumper sticker “If you lived in your heart, you’d be home right now,” Solnit writes:

There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.

There is something deep, almost primal in how we project our metaphysical aspirations onto our material abodes. It is hardly coincidental that, in one of the most elegant metaphors for consciousness ever woven, John Keats compared the human mind to “a large Mansion of Many Apartments.” But Solnit suggests that the allure of houses as dream-vehicles for the self extends beyond the mind and into the very soul of who we are, which invariably includes who we would like to be:

Admiring houses from the outside is often about imagining entering them, living in them, having a calmer, more harmonious, deeper life. Buildings become theaters and fortresses for private life and inward thought, and buying and decorating is so much easier than living or thinking according to those ideals. Thus the dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living. Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color of the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide the serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though it all lay in the colors and the getting.

Illustration by Jean-François Martin from 'The Memory Elephant' by Sophie Strady, a children's book for lovers of mid-century modern design. Click image for details.

These negotiations are constant and everywhere. Solnit recounts visiting the home of “a prodigal leftist” — the kind, it seems, who might have shared in Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary ideals of “transforming the world into a class-less one” — and being struck by his “infinitely intricate old Victorian sofa reupholstered in Indonesian ikat fabric.” What Solnit ponders about the sofa — “I didn’t know that revolutionaries were allowed to have such things.” — applies equally to the former revolutionary’s cat, an elegant purebred Abyssinian.

With a pause-giving twinge of meta, Solnit points out that this duality exists even in the reader’s relationship with the book itself, at once “a bundle of ideas and another twig to lay on the future fire of your home.” But there is duality even in the notion of materiality itself:

Maybe it’s important to make a distinction between what gets called material and what real materialism might be. By materialistic we usually mean one who engages in craving, hoarding, collecting, accumulating with an eye on stockpiling wealth or status. There might be another kind of materialism that is simply a deep pleasure in materials, in the gleam of water as well as silver, the sparkle of dew as well as diamonds, an enthusiasm for the peonies that will crumple in a week as well as the painting of peonies that will last. This passion for the tangible might not be so possessive, since the pleasure is so widely available; much of it is ephemeral, and some of it is cheap or free as clouds. Then too, the hoarding removes the objects — the Degas drawing, the diamond necklace — to the vault where they are suppressed from feeding anyone’s senses.

One of the top ninety-nine peculiarities about houses and homes is that they are both: real-estate speculation and sanctuary.

“The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular meditation on art, and indeed it is artists, Solnit argues, who best bridge — for themselves as well as us — the divide between objects and ideas, between the material and the metaphysical:

Artists have a different relation to the material, since, after all, the main animosity toward the realm of substances and solid objects is that they distract from the life of the mind or spirit; but it’s the job of artists to find out how materials and images speak, to make the mute material world come to life, and this too undoes the divide. Words of gold, of paint, of velvet, of steel, the speaking shapes and signs that we learn to read, the intelligence of objects set free to communicate and to teach us that all things communicate, that a spoon has something to say about values, as does a shoe rack or a nice ornamental border of tulips or freesias. But just as passion can become whoredom, a home becomes real estate, so the speaking possibility of the material world can degenerate into chatter and pitches… Desire is easy. And everywhere.

Illustration by Katharine Beverley from 'The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.' Click image for details.

But Solnit’s most poignant point has to do with how we use materiality as a hedge against our terror of our own impermanence, a counterpoint to the constant and towering evidence that we live in a universe of constant change, where the cycles of life and death spare nothing and no one:

Maybe a house is a machine to slow down time, a barrier against history, a hope that nothing will happen, though something always does. But the materials themselves are sometimes hedges against time, the objects that change and decay so much more slowly than we do, the empire bed in which were conceived children who died a century ago, the old silverware from weddings several wars before that you can buy at the better garage sales, the ones held by people who seldom moved so that objects could drift down on them like muffling snow over the decades until death or dissolution obliged them to dig out.

This is what Anaïs Nin resisted when she wrote in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.” But Nin was a woman who defied convention and lived life by her own rules, and perhaps this was precisely what fueled her philosophy of inner life and interior decor — that she was a woman, but a woman who rejected the norms of womanhood handed down to her by society. Gender, in fact, is something Solnit sees as central to the paradox of private space:

It often seems that the house is an extension of the female body, and the car, of the male body, for thus go the finicky and exacting arenas of self-improvement, the space that represents the eroticized self; and in these female interiors and male rockets lies the old literary division of labor, of travelers and keepers of the flame, of the female as a fixture in the landscape the male traverses and conquers. Certainly historically, men had far more mobility than women.

Illustration by Yaroslava from 'A Stocking for a Kitten' by Helen Kay, a vintage children's book about domestic life in Eastern Europe. Click image for details.

In one particularly outstanding passage, Solnit considers the ultimate modern female deity of the home: Martha Stewart, who built her empire by selling us “a vision of idealized life and instructions on the journey toward it.” She examines Stewart’s legacy as a potent metaphor for the broader cultural paradox of home and belonging:

Her empire’s putative subject is pleasurable leisure but its subtext is always labor, a labor redeemed or at least redecorated as pleasure, an interminable journey disguised as arrival… The moment of arrival is always delayed, for that is the moment of true idleness… The bride is always getting dressed, the hostess is always setting the table for the guests who have not yet arrived, like Penelope weaving and unweaving at her loom to forever delay the moment when she must choose a suitor to marry, only this Penelope seems to have skipped the suitors or forgotten them in favor of the loom.

Solnit returns to the central duality of the domicile:

The house is the stage set for the drama we hope our lives will be or become. And it’s much easier to decorate the set than to control the drama or even find the right actors or even any actors at all. Thus the hankering for houses is often desire for a life, and the fervency with which we pursue them is the hope that everything will be all right, that we will be loved, that we will not be alone, that we will stop quarreling or needing to run away, that our lives will be measured, gracious, ordered, coherent, safe. Houses are vessels of desire, but so much of that desire is not for the physical artifact itself.

That transference of desire owes much to the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag memorably accused photography. Solnit writes:

Maybe the problem is pictures, that we think in pictures, and we want to: the point of a wedding may be to reduce the weather-like volatility of a relationship into an authoritative picture of cake, happiness, lace, and rented tuxedo. Homes too are imagined as they should be — the Platonic version — before the mail begins to pile up on the table, before the collapsible pool dominating the yard leaves a round ring of brown on the grass, before our bodies leave their imprints in the furniture and their smudges on the walls, before the apple tree took on that strange lopsided shape, before the floor lost its sheen, before the last 117 purchases buried the architecture altogether. Dream homes are dreamt in pictures… Or maybe we want to be still as pictures, keep inserting ourselves into them, but find that we are too restless and active to stay in them. As though we wanted to be pressed flowers, but went on blooming and going to seed, decaying and regenerating.

Painfully incapable as we may be of living alone, we inadvertently end up designing and decorating toward that fear. Solnit contemplates the mansions of the wealthy, where countless private bathrooms and individualized furnishings provide not only “a retreat from society but also an isolation of each from each, a sort of minimum security — for breaking out, not for breaking in — solitary confinement system.” This, perhaps, is the strange disconnect Bertrand Russell foresaw a century ago in considering the conquest of leisure. Solnit writes:

The house is the picture of pleasure, while the amount of time it takes to earn it or make it or maintain it or even reach it from the office is just an idea correlated to clocks. It’s partly in pursuit of ever-larger homes — the average American home has doubled in the last half century — that Americans got so frantic.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for Alice in Wonderland. Click image for details.

In Solnit’s closing passage, the word “execution” shimmers with the same uncomfortable duality as the subject of the essay itself:

Maybe we all dream of being God, the god who breaches dams, moves houses suddenly, erects bridges, decides where forests will be and who will die; and we graduate from the dollhouse to our own house if we are lucky, where we assume a role somewhere between God the Creator and the chambermaid, choosing but carrying out more painfully the clean floor, the dinner for six, the potted plants, the framed prints. The execution is difficult. The dreaming is easy and unending.

Each of the 29 essays in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a remarkable read. For more of Solnit’s elevating writing, see her explorations of what books do for the human spirit, why the sky and the ocean are blue, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.

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13 OCTOBER, 2014

A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

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“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.”

“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

In the fourth of the book’s thirteen extraordinary essays, titled “Flight,” Solnit writes:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Solnit recounts how, as a child, she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis’s own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing “for children.” Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis’s point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children’s books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit’s writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars — palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit’s masterful articulation of the universal:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that “one can never be alone enough to write,” Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away — first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding — unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.

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20 AUGUST, 2014

Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: The Color of Distance and Desire

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“Something is always far away… After all we hardly know our own depths.”

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote after Apollo 8’s legendary “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold…” Its unprecedented perspective of distance seemed, paradoxically enough, to bring us earthlings closer together, to desire connection to one another more strongly than ever before. Nearly three decades earlier, Simone Weil touched on another aspect of this paradoxical relationship between spatial remoteness and emotional closeness when she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” So much of “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” that takes place on our Pale Blue Dot seems to stem from this eternal tug-of-war between distance and desire.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — that sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknownRebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in an exquisite essay that begins with the scientific and blossoms into the poetic:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Trampolining off former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass‘s memorable formulation that “desire is full of endless distances,” Solnit dives into the pooling of the physical and the metaphysical:

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This relationship between desire and distance, Solnit argues in one of the most poignant passages in this altogether brilliant book, is also the root of our deep-seated unease with desire — a state we approach with a single-minded quest for its eradication. We seek to demolish it either with grasping action, through consummation, or with restless resistance, through denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire — bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” With extraordinary elegance and sensitivity, Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Playing off Simone Weil’s bittersweet paean to distance and separation, Solnit writes:

The far seeps in even to the nearest. After all we hardly know our own depths.

Artwork from Ralph Steadman's illustrated biography of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Blue, it turns out, has long been used as a symbolic demarcation of distance. Solnit cites Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy on painting buildings:

To make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building . . . of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

Solnit considers the role of temporal and psychological distance in the architecture of memory — that singular human faculty that keeps the horizons of our lived experience, however distant and blurry, in sight — by recounting the disintegration of a vivid childhood memory:

When I was two, we lived in Lima, Peru, for a year, and all of us, mother, father, brothers, and I, went up into the Andes once, and then sailed across Lake Titicaca, from Peru to Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, one of those high-altitude lakes, Tahoe, Como, Constance, Atitlán, like blue eyes staring back at the blue sky.

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. It vanished in an instant, and I saw it go… Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Solnit closes with a return to the overpowering duality of distance, at once destructive and generative:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[…]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is spectacular in its entirety and remains one of the best books I’ve ever devoured.

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