Friday, September 11, 2009

Rebecca Solnit

Genesis 1:1 tells us not only how we came to be, but stands as a rule of all good prose: put the hook at the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Not that there isn’t a place for coyness in what follows – after all, we can deduce from the logic of this unalterable statement that nothing will ever be so simple again. The beginnings we remember stand at a slight remove from the works and days they start, as a statue in a park stands at a slight remove from all the green thoughts in the green shade of the joggers, dogs, and loungers - but they wouldn’t exist except for the surrounding clutter of meaningfulness and revery. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

And so it is that I like the beginning of this interview with one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit.

“THE BELIEVER: I’ve seen you referred to as an art historian, a landscape writer, and an art critic, if not more. How do you consider your own work and writer’s identity?

Rebecca Solnit: In Wanderlust, I wrote, “This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.” I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”

Of course, as readers of Limited Inc and this blog know, she is intoning my credo. And that of the tribe of ghosts, our illustrious ancestors: Montaigne, Hazlitt, Woolf, Pessoa – the throng is extensive and shadowy, and we can only really see them, as Odysseus saw in the underworld, when we feed them blood. Our blood.

Solnit has blood to spare. And she makes wonderfully deep points, which is difficult to do in an interview. I don’t want to quote it too extensively, but rather want you, reader, to click on over to it.

And here I’ll contradict myself and quote extensively from it:

BLVR: Thoreau is a touchpoint for you in many of your writings. What is your relationship with him and his work? Kindred spirit? Admirer? Literary reference point? Misunderstood actor? Inspiration?
RS: Yes, (F), all of the above! I think he’s a great example of someone refusing the categories: he thinks about leaves changing color and he also thinks about, and talks about, and cares about, slavery and John Brown and the war on Mexico. In the introductory essay to Storming the Gates I write about the way he’s so insistent that when he got out of jail the morning after that founding act of civil disobedience, he went huckleberrying. It’s an insistence that pleasure and commitment, landscape and politics, the big and the small can and do coexist. He’s himself a great refuser of genre. And a founding father of insurrection against what the founding fathers gave us, and a great writer with an aphoristic way of describing that comes back again and again.

BLVR: Not to mention that “Walking”—his essay about both the pleasures of knowing the landscape from walking it and the future possibilities of an America defined by walking away from the constraints of society—resonates strongly with your work.

RS: Well, actually in Savage Dreams I tore into that essay for changing its mind halfway through about the conquest of the American land and praising the settlers as ax-swinging Adams in a new Eden. But Thoreau as a whole I love—lately I’ve been quoting, as I did earlier, his “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.” Part of my agenda in Wanderlust was to make it clear that you can wander widely on foot within miles of home or go around the world and never travel in any way that matters. I am still struck by how much unknown San Francisco contains after a quarter century in residence there. And I am a homebody in that my main urge is to deepen my knowledge of known and loved places and regions rather than jump into entirely new territory.

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