I last read this book nearly six and a half years ago; when my friend Eleanor brought it up recently to share a quote from it someone had passed on to her, it felt like perfect time for a re-read. In those six odd years, I’ve read several of Solnit’s books and have come to appreciate her particular way of getting at a subject, where bits and pieces of anecdotes and research fuse together into a nuanced perspective. Much of her work is grounded in history and various arenas of activism, so this feels very personal and nostalgic in comparison, yet I think it has more of those elements than her more recent book, The Faraway Nearby.
As I was reading this again, I found myself sharing back another quote with my friend, because it’s peppered with such thoughtful treasures.
The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterﬂy, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who “knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you ﬁnd a rotting caterpillar. What you will never ﬁnd is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterﬂy, a ﬁt emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” But the butterﬂy is so ﬁt an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a ﬂower blooming.