Authors: Rebecca Solnit
Tags: #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Current Affairs, #Imperialism, #Political Science, #Women's Studies, #Download-Ebook Farm, #Social Science
This Saint Francis is wearing a white robe so all-enveloping we see only strong hands and one foot and a face in deep shadow from a hood. The light comes from the left and throws the heavy folds of what must be wool into deep shadows and ridges and his arms brought together to cradle a skull form a circle whose deep folds of cloth radiate outward. His namesake, the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, painted white cloth over and over in his depictions of saints, cascading like a waterfall to hide the form of Saint Jerome, swirling in light and shadow over Saint Serapion, his arms upraised in a kind of exhausted surrender, the chains around his wrists keeping him from collapse. The fabric gesticulates, absorbs, emotes; it speaks for its shrouded figures; it replaces the sensuality of flesh with a purer but no less expressive substitute. It both hides the body and defines its space, like the bedsheet in Fernandez’s painting. It’s an occasion for the pure pleasure of paint, of light and shadow, and it’s a source of luminousness against the older painter’s dark backgrounds. Women spun and wove most of the fabric in Zurbarán’s day, but they didn’t paint. I saw the exhibition of Zurbarán paintings in an old Italian town with a beautiful theater whose painted walls and ceilings reminded me of a San Francisco artist, muralist Mona Caron. Though the garlands and ribbons recalled her work, few women were able to paint then, to make images in public, to define how we look at the world, to make a living, to make something we might look at five hundred years later. In Fernandez’s painting, the white fabric with the expressive creases and shadows is a bedsheet. It speaks of houses, of beds, of what happens in beds and then gets washed out, of cleaning house, of women’s work. This is what it’s about but not what it is. The woman who is represented is obscured, but the woman who represents is not.
Paint in several colors was squeezed out of tubes and mixed and applied to woven fabric stretched on a wooden frame so artfully we say we see a woman hanging out a sheet rather than oil on canvas. Ana Teresa Fernandez’s image on that canvas is six feet tall, five feet wide, the figure almost life-size. Though it is untitled, the series it’s in has a title:
. Spiderweb. The spiderweb of gender and history in which the painted woman is caught; the spiderweb of her own power that she is weaving in this painting dominated by a sheet that was woven. Woven now by a machine, but before the industrial revolution by women whose spinning and weaving linked them to spiders and made spiders feminine in the old stories. In this part of the world, in the creation stories of the Hopi, Pueblo, Navajo, Choctaw, and Cherokee peoples, Spider Grandmother is the principal creator of the universe. Ancient Greek stories included an unfortunate spinning woman who was famously turned into a spider as well as the more powerful Greek fates, who spun, wove, and cut each person’s lifeline, who ensured that those lives would be linear narratives that end. Spiderwebs are images of the nonlinear, of the many directions in which something might go, the many sources for it; of the grandmothers as well as the strings of begats. There’s a German painting from the nineteenth century of women processing the flax from which linen is made. They wear wooden shoes, dark dresses, demure white caps, and stand at various distances from a wall, where the hanks of raw material are being wound up as thread. From each of them, a single thread extends across the room, as though they were spiders, as though it came right out of their bellies. Or as though they were tethered to the wall by the fine, slim threads that are invisible in other kinds of light. They are spinning, they are caught in the web.
To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.
Embracing the Inexplicable
“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal on January 18, 1915, when she was almost thirty-three years old and the First World War was beginning to turn into catastrophic slaughter on an unprecedented scale that would continue for years. Belgium was occupied, the continent was at war, many of the European nations were also invading other places around the world, the Panama Canal had just opened, the US economy was in terrible shape, twenty-nine people had just died in an Italian earthquake, Zeppelins were about to attack Great Yarmouth, launching the age of aerial bombing against civilians, and the Germans were just weeks away from using poison gas for the first time on the Western Front. Woolf, however, might have been writing about her own future rather than the world’s.
She was less than six months past a bout of madness or depression that had led to a suicide attempt, and was still being tended or guarded by nurses. Until then, in fact, her madness and the war had followed a similar calendar, but Woolf recovered and the war continued its downward plunge for nearly four more bloody years.
The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.
It’s an extraordinary declaration, asserting that the unknown need not be turned into the known through false divination or the projection of grim political or ideological narratives; it’s a celebration of darkness, willing – as that “
indicates—to be uncertain even about its own assertion.
Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.
As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, “Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.” It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.
Not all of them aspire to do so or succeed. Nonfiction has crept closer to fiction in our time in ways that are not flattering to fiction, in part because too many writers cannot come to terms with the ways in which the past, like the future, is dark. There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the absence of exact information.
Often enough, we don’t know such things even when it comes to ourselves, let alone someone who perished in an epoch whose very textures and reflexes were unlike ours. Filling in the blanks replaces the truth that we don’t entirely know with the false sense that we do. We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation. Woolf was unparalleled at that latter language.
What is the value of darkness, and of venturing unknowing into the unknown? Virginia Woolf is present in five of my books in this century,
, my history of walking;
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
, a book about the uses of wandering and the unknown;
, which focused on house and home fantasies;
The Faraway Nearby
, a book about storytelling, empathy, illness, and unexpected connections; and
Hope in the Dark
, a small book exploring popular power and how change unfolds. Woolf has been a touchstone author for me, one of my pantheon, along with Jorge Luis Borges, Isak Dinesen, George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and a few others.
Even her name has a little wildness to it. The French call dusk the time “
entre le chien et le loup
,” between the dog and the wolf, and certainly in marrying a Jew in the England of her era Virginia Stephen was choosing to go a little feral, to step a little beyond the proprieties of her class and time. While there are many Woolfs, mine has been a Virgil guiding me through the uses of wandering, getting lost, anonymity, immersion, uncertainty, and the unknown. I made that sentence of hers about darkness the epigram that drove
Hope in the Dark
, my 2004 book about politics and possibility, written to counter despair in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
Looking, Looking Away, Looking Again
I began my book with that sentence about darkness. The cultural critic and essayist Susan Sontag whose Woolf is not quite my Woolf opened her 2003 book on empathy and photography,
Regarding the Pain of Others,
with a quote from a later Woolf. She began this way: “In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published
her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war.” Sontag went on to examine Woolf’s refusal of the “we” in the question that launches the book: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”—which she answered instead with the statement, “As a woman I have no country.”
Sontag then argues with Woolf about that we, about photography, about the possibility of preventing war. She argues with respect, with an awareness that historical circumstances had changed radically (including the status of women as outsiders), with the utopianism of Woolf’s era that imagined an end to war altogether. She doesn’t only argue with Woolf. She argues with herself, rejecting her earlier argument in her landmark book
that we grow deadened to images of atrocity and speculating on how we must continue to look. Because the atrocities don’t end and somehow we must engage with them.
Sontag ends her book with thoughts about those in the midst of the kind of war that raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. As she wrote of people in war
, “‘We’—this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying, war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”
Sontag, too, calls on us to embrace the darkness, the unknown, the unknowability, not to let the torrent of images that pour down on us convince us that we understand or make us numb to suffering. She argues that knowledge can numb as well as awaken feeling. But she doesn’t imagine the contradictions can be ironed out; she grants us permission to keep looking at the photographs; she grants their subjects the right to have the unknowability of their experience acknowledged. And she herself acknowledges that even if we can’t completely comprehend, we might care.
Sontag doesn’t address our inability to respond to entirely unseen suffering, for even in this era of daily email solicitations about loss and atrocity and amateur as well as professional documentation of wars and crises, much remains invisible. And regimes go to great lengths to hide the bodies, the prisoners, the crimes, and the corruption: still, even now, someone may care.
The Sontag who began her public career with an essay she entitled “Against Interpretation” was herself a celebrant of the indeterminate. In opening that essay, she wrote, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical….” Later in the essay, she adds, “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactive, stifling. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish.” And of course she then went on to a life of interpretation that, in its great moments, joined Woolf in resisting the pigeonholes, the oversimplifications and easy conclusions.
I argued with Sontag as she argues with Woolf. In fact, the first time I met her I argued with her about darkness and, to my astonishment, did not lose. If you go to her last, posthumous essay collection,
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
, you will find a small paragraph of my ideas and examples interpolated in her essay, like a burr in her sock. Sontag was writing her keynote speech for the Oscar Romero Award in the spring of 2003, just as the Iraq War broke out. (The award went to Ishai Menuchin, chairman of the committee of selective refusal of military service in Israel.)