Men Explain Things to Me

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit wrote the first and titular essay in this collection in 2008, after which it was posted on TomDispatch. Since then it has taken off and been reposted several times, along the way inspiring the portmanteau “mansplaining.” It was worth rereading that one for a second or maybe third time, but the other six essays in this book aren’t just filler to make a book version of a viral sensation.

Despite giving a feminist eye to some bleak topics — as in the one where she connects Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault of a hotel maid with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries — there’s a recurrent sense of hope across these essays, for me most palpably in “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” published last spring in adapted form in The New Yorker. It’s a beautiful piece about Woolf and darkness and uncertainty. There are two parts where Solnit references a phrase by Laurence Gonzalez that particularly struck me:

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.

· • ·

Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…

How fascinating that both overwhelming optimism and pessimism can lead to inaction, and that choosing to make some kind of action, including beginning creative projects, happens inside the uncertainty of whether success or failure will result. The idea of despair as a reason for inactivity is something Solnit has kicked around before. In a 2009 interview with Astra Taylor for BOMB magazine, she described how after publishing her book Hope in the Dark, she was “attacked by old, middle-class liberals and leftists who felt that you can’t be hopeful while people are suffering,” leading Taylor to wonder if “despair is a privileged position.”

Solnit also includes an astute analysis of the fight around marriage equality being rooted as much in homophobia as people feeling “threatened by the idea of equality between heterosexual couples as same-sex couples.” She shows how the movement for marriage equality owes a lot to feminism in regards to deconstructing the misogyny of the traditional family and opening the door for equality in a different sense.

At this point I’ve read a fair amount of Solnit’s work and what strikes me most is that I have always had at least one moment of feeling stunned by a particular idea and impressed how she can weave different concepts together into a cohesive tapestry of thought. I expected this collection of essays to be somewhat of a side note, capitalizing on the popularity of the first essay, but was happily proven wrong.