I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I’ve often thought of each of Solnit’s books as a tapestry, and of her as a master weaver, incorporating threads that less capable hands could never lace into a single work, let alone something so fiercely elegant. Her essays and books trace the contours of a culture in flux, uncovering hidden histories and bringing subterranean social currents to the surface. Savage Dreams, a genre-defying exploration of the relationship between Yosemite National Park and the Nevada Test Site, unites topics as seemingly diverse as the saga of the Shoshone Indians and the movement for nuclear disarmament. Wanderlust , an unfettered history of walking, investigates the increasing disembodiment of everyday life. River of Shadows, an expansive biography of the visionary photographer Eadweard Muybridge, reveals the often unappreciated causes and consequences of the industrialization of space and time. Hope in the Dark recasts the standard narrative of political despair, illuminating unsung progressive victories of the last two decades.
Though Solnit is one of San Francisco’s most devoted residents, we met in Manhattan to discuss her latest offering, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, a tour through a century of North American catastrophes that deftly guides us through the rubble that results from the volatile combination of social darwinism and disaster. After opening with an astounding portrait of San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake, Solnit takes readers to Halifax in 1917, where a cargo-ship crash caused the largest man-made explosion before the invention of the atom bomb. In Mexico City she revisits the 1985 earthquake, spending time with seamstresses who organized themselves after witnessing bosses who rushed to salvage machinery while workers perished. Solnit then presents 9/11 through the eyes of survivors and volunteers before taking an unsparing look at New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. There, the apathy of government authorities and unremorseful confessions of racist vigilantes who killed innocent people in order to protect their property against imaginary looters stands in dramatic contrast to the stories of selfless citizens who navigated their boats down flooded streets to rescue stranded citizens, opened their homes to flood survivors, or traveled to Louisiana to contribute to the rebuilding of the broken city.
Extensive archival research allows Solnit to paint a colorful portrait of mutual aid at the turn of the 20th century, while contemporary first-person investigative reporting lends a sense of urgency and, also, possibility. As Solnit points out, untold disasters lurk just over the horizon. What remains unknown is whether self-interest or a sense of community will guide our next response.
Astra Taylor I want to begin by talking about your Harper’s essay, “The Uses of Disaster: Notes on Bad Weather and Good Government,” which led to your new book, A Paradise Built in Hell. The essay went to press the day Katrina hit, which is astounding. How did it feel, that uncanny timing?
Rebecca Solnit I was very distressed about what was happening in New Orleans and was following it intently, like a lot of other people were. I was also freaked out by the coverage of it: you know, the reports of viciousness, mayhem, and murder. I felt a little bit anxious about my very positive view of human nature in the piece. Luke Mitchell, my editor at Harper’s, was wonderful; he said, “The dust will settle and you’re right and they’re wrong, and just watch, and let’s put this out on the Web immediately.”
AT What led you to the topic of disaster in the first place?
RS My inspiration came partly from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, whose 20th anniversary is almost upon us. The 1989 earthquake was a remarkable occasion for a lot of us, a moment when everyday life ground to a halt and people looked around and hunkered down … a lot of people still glow when they talk about it, which is not how we think of disaster, really.
I was invited to give the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at Cambridge in late 2004 and I thought that in honor of that great cultural critic I should do something good and fresh rather than recycling something else. So this talk began it; then the Harper’s piece went deeper, and in the book I was able to go further into and engage with the impact of those disasters. Though it was not what I envisioned at the outset, A Paradise Built in Hell, like Hope in the Dark, argues for a radically different view of human nature and possibility. I realized how much the usual pessimistic view of human nature—which is not a conspiracy, because it’s not that organized—serves the status quo of authoritarianism, state violence, and fear incredibly well.
While I’ve been working on this project, my running summary for my friends has been that what happens in disasters demonstrates everything an anarchist ever wanted to believe about the triumph of civil society and the failure of institutional authority. It does—this alternative information is truly radical.
AT But all that wasn’t entirely clear to you at the outset, right? I want to linger on that because that first week the news was coming in about Katrina, I can imagine you feeling pretty conflicted about your thesis.
RS There was this moment of being overwhelmed by this hysterical belief in all these Hobbesian rumors—about rape, child rape, murder, general mayhem, and even at one point cannibalism, like something out of Bosch or Goya—but I was pretty sure it was a pile of lies. I’d already delved into the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which hasn’t been written about with enough boldness. Back then the city was essentially taken over by a hostile army that may have killed as many as 500 people as looters. The mayor issued a shoot-to-kill proclamation about looting. In what society do you kill for minor property crimes? Like in New Orleans, the public was demonized. That’s the social disaster, which is not at all the same thing as a natural disaster. I hope my new book will dissuade some of this thinking, so we’ll handle disasters better in the future. San Francisco already has made some big changes, not to praise my own city.
AT You’d never do that! (laughter)
RS After the ’89 earthquake, the city government looked at the fire department’s resources and it turned out they’d need twice as many engines and something like ten times as many firefighters than they had. They were not equipped to respond to a major earthquake, so they created a system to delegate and train the citizens, a system that said, “You are powerful; we trust you.” This is exactly what governments should do in terms of our highest ideals and our most urgent needs.
AT One of the most interesting ideas in the book is the concept of “elite panic”—the way that elites, during disasters and their aftermath, imagine that the public is not only in danger but also a source of danger. You show in case after case how elites respond in destructive ways, from withholding essential information, to blocking citizen relief efforts, to protecting property instead of people. As you write in the book, “there are grounds for fear of a coherent insurgent public, not just an overwrought, savage one.”
RS The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster—Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke—proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface—that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.
But there’s also an elite fear—going back to the 19th century—that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.
AT So on the one hand there are people responding in these moments of crisis and organizing themselves, helping each other, and, on the other, there are power elites, who sometimes, though not always, sabotage grassroots efforts because, as you say at one point, the very existence of such efforts is taken to represent the failure of authorities to rise to the occasion—it’s better to quash such efforts than to appear incompetent. The way you explore the various motivations of the official power structure for sabotaging people’s attempts to self-organize was a very interesting element of the book.
RS You are an anarchist, aren’t you?
AT Maybe deep down. (laughter)
RS Not all authorities respond the same way. But you can see what you’re talking about happening right after the 1906 earthquake. San Franciscans formed these community street kitchens. You weren’t allowed to have a fire indoors because the risk of setting your house, and thereby your neighborhood, on fire was too great—if you had a house, that is. People responded with enormous humor and resourcefulness by creating these kitchens to feed the neighborhood. Butchers, dairymen, bakers, etcetera were giving away food for free. It was like a Paris Commune dream of a mutual-aid society. At a certain point, authorities decided that these kitchens would encourage freeloading and became obsessed with the fear that people would double dip. So they set up this kind of ration system and turned a horizontal model of mutual aid—where I’m helping you but you’re helping me—into a vertical model of charity where I have and you lack and I am giving to you. Common Ground, the radical organization for community rebuilding, 100 years later in New Orleans chooses as its motto: “Solidarity not charity.”
AT The charity model fits hand in hand with the “we need a paternal, powerful authority figure in a time of crisis” mindset that your book refutes. Do you think people need to be led?
RS Part of the stereotypical image is that we’re either wolves or we’re sheep. We’re either devouring babies raw and tearing up grandmothers with our bare hands, or we’re helpless and we panic and mill around like idiots in need of Charlton Heston men in uniforms with badges to lead us. I think we’re neither, and the evidence bears that out.
AT The most poignant part of the book for me, maybe from having been downtown during 9/11, had the stories of people on the stairwells of the World Trade Center telling others to pass them, or waiting for their slower coworkers.
RS Those stories amazed me as well. The young man who told his story to the fantastic Columbia oral history archives, which I used extensively … he said, “I was evacuating with my coworkers; this sort of cloud of death was approaching. I’m an ex-college athlete, I could run faster than all of them, but I slowed down.” To slow down as death is approaching is completely contrary to who we think we are in an emergency. Most of us believe in the “you’ll trample me to save yourself, you’ll push me out of the lifeboat” premise.
To find how often in the most extreme circumstances almost universally the opposite is true was just amazing. This guy slowed down just out of a sense of solidarity. This wasn’t his family; these were his coworkers in some kind of big Wall Street corporate entity. There’re so many stories like that: of the quadriplegic guy who gets carried down 69 floors by his coworkers, for example.
What I found is that a lot of that terrible behavior comes because I assume that you’re trying to kill me. So I need to threaten you first, I need to sit on my porch in New Orleans with a shotgun, or I need to deny you aid, or I need to control you in some way, because if I don’t, you’ll get me first. In protecting myself from my fantasies of your monstrousness, I become the monster.
AT How do you define a natural disaster?
RS There is no such thing as a natural disaster. In earthquakes the architecture fails. If you’re out in a grassy meadow, it doesn’t matter how big the earthquake is: it might knock you down, but if nothing falls on top of you and nothing catches fire from broken gas mains or power lines, then you’re probably okay. Architecture is the first casualty of earthquakes, and human beings under the architecture are the casualties of the architecture. Even with a wholly natural disaster, whatever that might be—a tsunami, maybe—who gets help, who has resources to rebuild, who is treated as a threat or a malingerer—those are not natural but social phenomena. With Katrina you need to talk about the role of climate change in making the hurricane; of the crappy levees built by the US Army Corps of Engineers and not adequately maintained; of the lack of evacuation resources for the poor; of the demonization of those left behind; of the transformation of New Orleans into a prison-city preventing evacuation … nothing could be less natural. The natural disaster was the least of what happened to the people of New Orleans, if not the rest of the Gulf, that week.
AT One phrase you come back to again and again is “civil society.” Why did that concept capture your imagination? What does it mean to you?
RS I’m a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone at home, but I also spend a lot of time as an activist in the streets, in gatherings and things like that, and following revolutions around the world: the Velvet Revolution, Tiananmen Square, the Zapatistas … In those moments, I’ve discovered in myself and in others a deep happiness, an unknown desire that’s finally fulfilled to be purposeful, to be a part of history and society, to have a voice.
One of my arguments in A Paradise Built in Hell is that we have almost too much language for private needs and desires and not nearly enough for these other things. This need and desire is so profound that when it’s fulfilled, you find these weird moments of joy despite everything in disaster. The whole world is falling apart, but I am who I was meant to be: a citizen, a rescuer, a resourceful person who belongs to and is serving a community.
AT This may be part of why people respond so strongly to your work. You provide your readers with a reinvigorated sense of the social, with affirmation that a vital civil society actually lurks below the surface of all this social darwinism.
RS My running joke about Hope in the Dark is that it’s a book in which I snatch the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left. There are ways in which people are very attached to these despairing narratives—a lot of people got very upset with me.
AT You were trying to disabuse them of their comfortable cynicism, which they didn’t like.
RS Yeah. I’d get attacked by old, middle-class liberals and leftists who felt that you can’t be hopeful while people are suffering. I’d be like, “Well, people who are suffering are hopeful.” Look at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the Zapatistas, who speak so beautifully about hope, and keep going.
AT Maybe despair is a privileged position.
RS That’s exactly what I realized. For some people, the alternative to hope is to surrender to the horrible things that menace them. The alternative to hope for the upper-middle class is to stay home and watch television or whatever. These alternatives don’t involve death, torture, annihilation, starvation, exploitation, or slavery. So despair is easy, or at least low cost.
For me, it goes back to my second book, Savage Dreams, about two paradigmatic landscapes—the nuclear test site in the Nevada desert where more than 1,000 nuclear bombs have been set off, and Yosemite National Park, where the Indian Wars never really came to an end. Between 1951 and 1991 you have a nuclear bomb a month for wars that weren’t supposed to have begun, along with Indian Wars that were supposed to have ended in the 19th century and yet never did. The Native people didn’t vanish, and their right to be on the land was still contested, though the violence was more subtle. While Yosemite has this conventional image of paradise, it ended up being a kind of hell for social alienation. At a test site, of course, atomic bombs are hell, but the communities organized to resist them have made it a kind of paradise. So the ideas about paradise and hell got turned inside out for me because of this stalwart, broad community of Mormon downwinders, Hiroshima survivors, nuclear physicists, anarchists, environmentalists, Buddhist monks, and Catholic priests who were convening at that test site.
AT It’s neat to trace ideas as they wind through your various books. I was rereading A Field Guide to Getting Lost and there was one line that seemed to convey the essence of A Paradise Built in Hell.
RS Maybe I didn’t need to write the new book. (laughter)
AT You have the anecdote about the figure of Justice guarding the gates to Hades—basically, to go through hell is sort of a privilege as it provides an opportunity for growth, it’s not just a punishment opposed to heavenly stasis.
RS There’s also bitter American optimism—nothing bad is supposed to happen to you and, therefore, when something bad does happen, there’s a sense of betrayal and shock. On the other hand, there’s a Buddhist paradigm I find much more useful, which is that suffering is inherent. A certain amount of suffering is a given in this world: old age, sickness, and death are built into it. So the question is not how you avoid it, which is what Americans are always trying to do, but how you are going to respond to it. Paradise lies in forming a meaningful and even a beautiful response.
AT A sort of alchemy can be performed.
RS There’s a phrase that I keep coming back to that says if everyday life is a disaster, then even disaster can relieve us from it. (laughter) You know, it’s easy to misread this book as endorsing disasters. Part of why I called it A Paradise Built in Hell is so that people will recognize that I know it’s hell, yet sometimes you can build a paradise in it. To go back to a kind of religious thinking, if disaster is a kind of awakening, the point is the awakening to possibilities, not the celebration of calamities.
AT It’s a delicate balance and one that you manage really well: how to present disaster as possibility. You’ve walked that line in various books. I’m thinking of your discussions of the American West or various political movements and what it means to be part of an unfinished history.
RS I love being an American because it’s this great, messy experiment. It’s tedious and failing in a lot of ways, but it’s also full of enormous possibility that calls for participation in shaping the future.
AT I wanted to ask you about the function of criticism and your influences. Are there critics that you admired when you were beginning your path as a writer?
RS Gustavo Esteva, Subcomandante Marcos … I joke that I want to be a Latin-American intellectual when I grow up. There are a lot of engaged but lyrical writers there, including Eduardo Galeano, Pablo Neruda, Ariel Dorfman, Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel García Márquez. Whereas here people think you either write beautifully or you write politically.
AT That’s the same thing with philosophy, either you write seriously and philosophically, or you must be writing poetry or literature.
RS I think you can do both. There is pleasure and joy and sensuality and lyricism in these political realms. You know, there’s sort of a privatization of beauty in the lack of recognition both that there is beauty and love in public and political life, and that it is not separate from, but conditions and impacts our most private moments. Politics affects us deeply with joy as well as despair, and we could start dealing with that. Some writers have: Virginia Woolf was able to describe the most subtle, internal, emotional weather, and to demand a political liberty that allows those moments of awakening, of possibility to arise for everyone.
AT I like the blurb on Savage Dreams that says your writing has both heart and teeth. It’s a great description; you need both. How do you see yourself in the role of the critic here given that there isn’t the same tradition as in Latin America?
RS There are good voices often coming out of these radical movements, like those of the Immokalee workers. There are always these annoying white college boys when we talk about the ’60s, but that also was the era of the civil rights movement where you have the poetry of Martin Luther King, and Ella Baker, and a lot of visionaries who were connected to the black church and all this beautiful, biblically inspired language of “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” That’s been a model for me. The essayist and naturalist Barry Lopez was also really important for me. When I started to look at how directly he spoke to people’s hopes and needs, I asked myself why I wasn’t more direct. I also met Susan Sontag toward the end of her life and I had two thoughts when I first met her. One was, Thank God I’m not a New Yorker! And the other one was, Why isn’t my work that direct? Direct politically, in her case, and emotionally in Barry’s.
AT Go on.
RS When the Iraq war broke out, I felt like I had something different to say about it. In some sense we failed, yes, but we mitigated the nature of the war through the global antiwar movement; the Turks prevented Turkey from providing bases to support the war; the war started later; shock and awe was scaled back, etcetera. People have forgotten how different the world would be had we not done all these things. Same with the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the queer-rights movement, and the various movements for racial justice, not that they all succeeded and we all lived happily ever after—yet much has been achieved. A lot of the time, our achievement is nothing to look at: the species that didn’t go extinct, the dissident who wasn’t executed, the civil liberties that didn’t wither, the wetland that didn’t become a mall …
AT There’s been real progress. I have an activist friend who has a quote of Hope in the Dark as the tagline of his email: “History is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away a stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.”
RS That’s Tom Engelhardt’s favorite line. It’s funny because I wrote Hope in the Dark as an extension of an essay first published on my beloved TomDispatch.com. I had initially sent Tom the essay. He wrote me a gruff note saying, “I don’t take unsolicited work,” but then left me a phone message saying, “Ignore my email, call immediately, and here’s my home number.” He put it out in this fantastically viral way on the Internet and it went all over the world; it was the first thing I ever did online, and it had a life like nothing I had ever done before.
AT I think of you as a book person. You write these perfect, polished essays that appear in magazines and, occasionally, in art books, such as the 2008 Whitney Biennial catalogue. Have you been at all interested or involved in this print-versus-online-publishing debate?
RS One of the joys of TomDispatch.com is that Tom is a book editor and he wants things that are beautifully written and thoughtful. We’re not blogging, we’re publishing the kinds of things that I would write for a magazine.
AT Looking at your body of work as a sort of mapping of your interior landscape, does it surprise you how much you’ve produced and how substantial it is?
RS Everything surprises me. I was raised with very low expectations for what I was going to do with my life, and when I started out, I thought I was going to write essays on the side and work full-time as an editor or something. I quit my last job 21 years ago. It’s all turned out far better than I ever expected.
AT It’s interesting how even in Savage Dreams, your second book, so many of your themes are there.
RS Savage Dreams is the book in which I was born.
AT Your voice is so fully formed and confident in it.
RS I started that book when I was almost 30. The Nevada Test Site was the place that taught me how to write. Until then I had been writing in three different ways: I had been writing as an art critic, in a very objective, authoritative voice; I had been writing as an environmental journalist, also with objectivity; and then I had also been writing these very lapidary essays on the side. It felt like three different selves, three different voices, and explaining the test site and all the forces converging there demanded that I use all those voices at once. So as to include everything relevant, it also demanded I write in a way both meandering and inclusive. A linear narrative is often like a highway bulldozed through the landscape, and I wanted to create something more like a path that didn’t bulldoze and allowed for scenic detours.
My training as an art critic was a wonderful background because it taught me to think critically about representations and meanings, and that applied really well to national parks and atomic bombs and Indian Wars. It was great to realize that I didn’t have to keep these tools in museums and galleries—it was a tool kit that could go anywhere. Also, I was trained as a journalist. A journalist can become an adequate expert pretty quickly and handle the material, whereas a lot of scholars dedicate their life to one subject.
AT More power to them.
RS Yeah, they’re great; I depend on them. For me it’s a kind of symbiosis—my telescope depends on the results of their microscopes. I love doing research. The book with the most joy in research for me was the one about Eadweard Muybridge, River of Shadows. As I was going through these archives and boxes of old photographs, I was able to put together a picture of what was happening in the life of this amazing, eccentric photographer, and of the birth of cinema, the Indian wars, and the advent of the railroad—the lightning storms were going off in my head.
AT That book does cause an electrical storm of ideas, even just in the sense of inviting us to imagine what it was like to experience time when we weren’t all on these standardized clocks, or what it was like to have our kin, who were only 100 miles away, be days or weeks of travel from us. Did you know all that going into this project?
RS I had a hunch; hunches drive a lot of my work.
AT It must be a strong hunch, to bet that something worth devoting years of research and writing to will manifest out of it.
RS There’s a funny dialectic between knowing what you’re doing and having it surprise you. You’re like a jazz musician; you have to learn really hard how to control the instrument before you start breaking the rules. I think of writing a bit like building, in that you need something of a blueprint and building materials. That’s where the pre-writing, the notes, the books full of Post-its, the photocopies, the downloads, the interviews, and everything else come in. And then there’s the process of building with all these materials.
Though perhaps building is an imperfect metaphor: you should go into a big piece of writing like a book with some sense of what you want to do, but you also have to be prepared to be surprised, to improvise when things change.
In the end, to provide something for people and provide those electrical storms in other people’s heads has been astonishing. And to have real influence on people’s lives.
AT Wanderlust inspired my film Examined Life!
RS It’s even more astounding to have that happen occasionally when you’re really solitary. It’s like, This is great, I’m connected to hundreds of thousands of people. Where the hell are they?
AT They don’t know what you look like. (laughter)
RS That communion is extraordinary. Writers whine a lot about the solitude, but I remember that at one bookstore on my first real book tour, there was a very good crowd, and I realized that my solitude was like the apex of a pyramid supported by the editor, the publisher, the distributor, the printer, and by the bookstores supporting the work, and, ultimately, the readers. When I go out in public I get to see these people who are supporting me, giving me a living—like a sponsored explorer sending back dispatches.
Writer and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor was named one of 25 New Faces to Watch in 2006 by Filmmaker Magazine. Her feature documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life, both premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and are distributed by Zeitgeist Films. The companion book Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers is available from The New Press. She has taught at the University of Georgia and SUNY, New Paltz.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee