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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…”

Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries

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.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

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.

Solnit writes:

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.

Art from Maurice Sendak's take on Nutcracker
Art from Maurice Sendak’s take on Nutcracker

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.


The Problem of Shakespeare’s Sister: Virginia Woolf on Gender in Creative Culture

“To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire.”

Half a century before Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent meditation on “being a man” — the finest, sharpest thing ever written on the question of gender in creative culture — another woman of extraordinary intellectual acuity and penetrating prose turned the problem over in the wave of her own elegant mind.

In a passage from the 1929 classic A Room of One’s Own (public library), Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) presents a pause-giving thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had had a sister — that is, a female sibling of comparable talent and identical family background? It’s a question that applies as much to women in the arts and humanities as it does to women in science — for Galileo’s sister wouldn’t have fared any differently than Shakespeare’s — and one that, despite half a millennium of tremendous progress, addresses some of the most elemental forces animating modern society and shaping our lives to this day.

Woolf writes:

Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational — for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons — but were none the less inevitable. Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.

Gazing at the bookshelf empty of works by women from that period, and turning an eye toward George Eliot and George Sand, Woolf argues that even if such a rare woman had somehow bulldozed through the era’s barriers to female self-actualization, she would have likely gone anonymous or written under a male pseudonym in a culture where “publicity in women is detestable.” (In many ways, we still subscribe to the same limiting mythologies today.)

Illustration from I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!, a parodic 1970 children’s book by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. satirizing limiting gender norms

Woolf considers the effects of these social structures on the creative spirit:

That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain. But what is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation, I asked? Can one come by any notion of the state that furthers and makes possible that strange activity?


One gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement. A curse, a cry of agony, rises from those books of analysis and confession. ‘Mighty poets in their misery dead’ — that is the burden of their song. If anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle, and probably no book is born entire and uncrippled as it was conceived. But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.


Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing? Here [psychologists] might come to our help, I thought, looking again at the blank spaces on the shelves. For surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

Feast upon A Room of One’s Own — which also contains Woolf’s enduring insight into the creative advantages of the androgynous mind — and complement it with Woolf on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist, the elasticity of time, how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.


Kierkegaard on Ideals, Happiness, and the False Allure of the Extraordinary

“The Highest is not to comprehend the Highest, but to do it, and note this well, including all the burdens it involves.”

“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake,” William James wrote in contemplating how to be extraordinary. “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” A century and a half earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) — another one of humanity’s most enduringly insightful minds — tussled with the perennial problem of enlisting one’s full resources in attaining one’s ideals.

Writing in his journal, later published as The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — which also gave us the great Danish philosopher on why haters hate, the power of the minority, and the only cure for embitterment in creative work — Kierkegaard considers the parallel threads of humility and ambition of which greatness is woven.

In a diary entry from November of 1846, he writes:

I realize more and more that I am so constituted that I shall not succeed in realizing my ideals, while in another sense, and precisely in the human sense, I shall grow far beyond my ideals. Ordinarily, most people aim their ideals at the Great, the Extraordinary, which they never attain. I am far too melancholy to harbor such ideals. Others would smile at my ideals. It is certainly true that my ideal was simply to become a husband, to live solely for being married. And lo and behold, while I despair of attaining that goal I become an author and, who knows, maybe a ranking author.


I have been content to be regarded as half-mad, though this merely was a negative form of being something out of the ordinary. And this may quite possibly remain my essential form of existence, and I shall never attain the pleasant, becalmed existence of being something very small.

And yet what made Kierkegaard extraordinary, despite his resistance to the notion, was his ability to transmute this resignation into a vitalizing force and to grant both burdens — his irrepressible idealism and his fatalistic melancholy — equal gravity as he marched forward. In another entry from the same year, under the heading “How I understood my whole activity as a writer,” he crystallizes this disposition beautifully:

I have conceived of myself as intent upon standing up for the Ordinary — in a bungled and demoralized age — and making it lovable and accessible to those of my fellow-creatures who are capable of realizing it, but who are led astray by the times and who chase after the Un-Common, the Extra-Ordinary. I have understood my task to be like that of a person who himself has become unhappy and therefore — if he loves human beings — particularly desires to help others who are capable of realizing happiness.

But a true effort at amplifying the happiness of others, Kierkegaard cautions, can’t be a mere vehicle for narcissistic self-gratification:

I have been especially vigilant that my efforts should not be tainted with self-seeking vanity and, above all, that I served Thought and Truth in such a way as not to derive any secular and temporal advantages therefrom. Therefore I know, in all good conscience, that I have worked with true resignation.

In an autobiographical reflection from 1852, under the heading “My life’s course,” Kierkegaard writes:

The Highest is not to comprehend the Highest, but to do it, and note this well, including all the burdens it involves.

Complement the enormously insightful and satisfying The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard with the Danish philosopher on our greatest source of unhappiness and the only true cure for existential emptiness.


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