THE BELIEVER: On the one hand, then, you write strong activist tracts—against nuclear power, for example, but others too. It’s an appealing, respectful kind of activism rooted in knowledge. On the other hand, though, you have these very literate, complex exploratory essays that talk about being lost, about being surprised, about the wisdom of not knowing—or at least of recognizing the inherent limits to knowing. Somewhat of an enchantment theme, though not so-labeled. So, how thus reconciled?
REBECCA SOLNIT: I think it’s important to be clear about what we know and what we don’t. We know that nuclear waste is a big problem. And we don’t know quite what forces move even those we love best or exactly what the consequences of our actions are. Writing can travel in both territories, like a lens that can focus or widen, zoom or back up to the big picture. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell declared—and the passage and a bit more of it is on the wall near my desk at home—
I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
There’s also a wonderful essay of Orwell’s called “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” where he writes about a racy ballad, planting trees, and other pleasant subjects, and you get a taste of the writer he might have been had he not been so compelled by the bleak politics of his time.
Yet even this piece is a reflection on legacies and the good or bad effects we can have long after our own time—particularly when it comes to planting trees (and you get a rare glimpse of Orwell the gardener). Orwell’s moral imperative hasn’t gone to sleep—it’s just contemplating milder topics than totalitarianism and propaganda. But the planting of trees matters, to him and to the world—and in our time, as politics have become more and more about gender roles, food, the environment, culture, and representation, in part because we’ve become more politically sophisticated, every topic matters and is political in some sense. In that wonderful Orwell statement, he makes it clear that pleasure is a part of his life and work too, a necessary part. Of course there are less immediate and sensual pleasures in a life of purpose and engagement.
BLVR: That sounds more like a matter of engagement versus disengagement than knowledge and ignorance.
RS: Maybe so. But we tend to think of politics as a tiny fenced-off arena of unpleasantness, which most Americans avoid—except for the horse race of a primary season or fun moral questions often centered in irrelevant individual crimes and acts. But politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.
BLVR: You’re making a challenge there to the politics of art, of writing.
RS: Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.
BLVR: Savage Dreams (1994) and, more recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007) show that span, right?
RS: I hope so. In Savage Dreams, for example, I have a very strong polemic about the nuclear wars—for nuclear testing in Nevada was a war, against the desert and its inhabitants—and the unfinished Indian wars. Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequence through legislation and opposition, but to change the causes is cultural work—people are not less homophobic in this country because we have better legislation; we have better legislation because people—even the Supreme Court a few years back—are less homophobic. The political changes matter immensely, but they come out of cultural changes—which doesn’t mean you don’t need activists inside and outside electoral politics; it just means that everyone who came out of the closet to their friends, family, and schoolmates or coworkers was also engaging in a political act, and the rise of nonscary, nondamaged queer characters in entertainment mattered, that representations and the war against cliché mattered. Even Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres mattered, and that two-hankie movie about queer cowboys.
BLVR: Aren’t those all calls to know more? Not to appreciate mystery?
RS: It isn’t so neat. Fundamental causes of the troubles that engage me are metaphors of control, beliefs in the supreme value of convenience, efficiency, and speed, fear of the unknown, compartmentalization, moral and otherwise, and the belief that things as they are are inevitable and there’s little we can do about changing them. So a book like Field Guide is not a polemic, but in celebrating the unknown, wandering, and going beyond your limits, it is swimming upstream in the currents of our time. Of course Savage Dreams also had a lot of descriptions of beauties and pleasures; I don’t think you can or should leave those things out, and I tried to make it a pleasure to read. Pleasure can be radical. In a divided culture, being undivided and synthesizing and connecting across broad areas can be an act of resistance, just as being slow—as in doing things deliberately, walking or biking or cooking from scratch or gardening or sitting around and swapping stories, not being dilatory or sluggish—in a sped-up culture is an act of resistance akin to the work slowdowns that were one form of factory strike.
And there’s no firm dividing line between passionate political engagement and epiphany and pleasure. At the core of my writing is a desire to dissolve most of the cultural Berlin Walls running through our imaginations. After all, it was through that Nevada Test Site experience that I discovered that the sunset is just as beautiful when you’re in handcuffs, and a holding pen can be a very good place from which to watch it.