Rebecca Solnit, on Woolf and Uncertainty

Rebecca Solnit is my favorite author for the audiobooks I listen to. Maybe she’s the one who got me into listening to audiobooks with her Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me has seven essays, one focusing on Virginia Woolf in dialogue with Susan Sontag. She returns back to this topic in Hope in the Dark, too. Maybe I can add that here as well. For now, I’d like to quote a passage from this essay, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, to get back to it in the future.

Solnit, R. (2014). Men explain things to me. Haymarket Books.

Principles of Uncertainty

Woolf is calling for a more introspective version of the poet Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes,” a more diaphanous version of the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is another.” She is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels, less often that, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.

Woolf’s essays are often both manifestoes about and examples or investigations of this unconfined consciousness, this uncertainty principle. They are also models of a counter-criticism, for we often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic, I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. 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. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking | Rebecca Solnit

The book starts with 24 epigraphs; you estimate how many references would be given in the actual essays.

It’s the far most comprehensive text I’ve read on the history of walking. The last collection of essays I read was David Le Breton’s In Praise of Walking, which cannot draw near to Solnit’s book. She contains and surpasses Le Breton.

Wanderlust starts with a pretty subjective form in the first chapter, where Solnit opens up her personal passion for walking as an action in her personal life that reaches up to the anti-nuclear protests, spatiotemporal contemplations, resistance against productivity-freak society, critique of anti-democratic city planning that subjugates the public spaces and coop people up in private ones. However, there were so many descriptions and prose about the roads Solnit walks which made me think of the rest of the book as a referenced travelogue that combines some attributions to the famous walkers while telling her own, personal walking history.

I noticed that I was wrong; as the book unwraps, Solnit leaps from the philosophers to wanderers, history of gardens (one of my favorite historiography as a non-European) to mountain tops; walking-related record holders to marches, protests, pilgrims; from the evolutionary discourses on walking humans (weirdest part); from Dickens to Abramovic; combinations of trains-cars-planes and suburbs-sun tanning-treadmills, from New Mexico to England and then to Paris and finally reaches Las Vegas. Solnit’s historical analyses of walking in relation to class, gender, and mode of production give great insights into how we think about walking today and what are the sources of these ideas.

The hazard of that wide and loaded compilation is chucking away the reader with some subjectively non-interesting passages. For example, the parts about mountaineering did not interest me that much because I’m mostly interested in urban walks. Nevertheless, someone else may think the opposite, and the reader always has the right to skip -which I didn’t.

Last but not least, I enjoyed and learned a lot while reading Solnit’s feminist interventions after referencing twenty male authors about a subject. First, she criticizes the authors with a witty and dark tone and proceeds with a political, historical, and intellectual analysis of the era when referenced authors live and produce their ideas. The part where she criticizes and makes fun of the authors who both love walking and preaching sermons to the readers (i.e., ‘one should always walk alone’) and the pages where she subverts male authors’ memoirs (Kerouac) by replacing them with a female wanderer are exhilarating.

With the hope of encountering Solnit in a crowded, rainwashed, neon-lit city