Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries
“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect…”
By Maria Popova
I think a great deal about what it means to live with hope and sincerity in the age of cynicism, about how we can continue standing at the gates of hope as we’re being bombarded with news of hopeless acts of violence, as we’re confronted daily with what Marcus Aurelius called the “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”
I’ve found no more lucid and luminous a defense of hope than the one Rebecca Solnit launches in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library) — a slim, potent book penned in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq; a book that has grown only more relevant and poignant in the decade since.
We lose hope, Solnit suggests, because we lose perspective — we lose sight of the “accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes” which constitute progress and which render our era dramatically different from the past, a contrast obscured by the undramatic nature of gradual transformation punctuated by occasional tumult.
Each of our lifetimes brims with personal evidence of these collective cultural shifts: At the time I was born, no one imagined that the Cold War would end and a girl raised in communist Bulgaria would make a life for herself reading and writing about books in English while facing the Manhattan skyline; a mere decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that a distributed tribe of strangers would raise a million dollars for refugees in another part of the world via an instantaneous global communication system of 140-character neo-telegrams; just a couple of years ago, it was hard to imagine that the day would come when all of us would be able to marry the people we love.
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.
In a sentiment that parallels the relationship between dark matter and ordinary matter in the formation of the universe, Solnit offers the perfect metaphor for the source of our tenuous grip on hope:
Imagine the world as a theater. The acts of the powerful and the official occupy center stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on the stage. The limelights there are so bright they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that no other place matters.
In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s memorable words — “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?” — Solnit adds:
What is onstage is a tragedy, the tragedy of the inequitable distribution of power and of the too-common silence of those who settle for being audience while paying the price of the drama. Traditionally, the audience is supposed to choose the actors, and the actors are quite literally supposed to speak for us. This is the idea behind representative democracy. In practice, various reasons keep many from participating in the choice, other forces — like money — subvert that choice, and onstage too many of the actors find other reasons — lobbyists, self-interest, conformity — to fail to represent their constituents.
Hope, Solnit observes, dies when we choose to watch the unfolding drama in resignation and abdicate all responsibility, pointing a blaming finger at those in the limelight. (Lest we forget, Joseph Brodsky put it best: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”)
She considers the disposition of the hopeless:
They speak as though we should wait for improvement to be handed to us, not as though we might seize it. Perhaps their despair is in some ways simply that they are audience rather than actors.
Our most radiant horizon of hope, Solnit argues, lies in the darkness beyond the limelight:
The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for. For those onstage, we can just hope the curtain comes down soon and the next act is better, that it comes more directly from the populist shadows.
Hope in the Dark is an immensely invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with E.B. White’s elevating letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, Albert Camus on how to ennoble our spirits in dark times, and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best activism, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, what reading does for the human spirit, how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion, and her beautiful manifesto for the spiritual rewards of walking.