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A Field Guide to Getting Lost: Rebecca Solnit on How We Find Ourselves

“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation… Never to get lost is not to live.”

“On how one orients himself to the moment,” Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves — to the moment, to the world, to our own selves — is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.

Rebecca Solnit, whose mind and writing are among the most consistently enchanting of our time, explores this tender tango with the unknown in her altogether sublime collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library).

Solnit writes in the opening essay:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

Illustration from ‘Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost.’ Click image for details.

The inquiry itself carries undertones of acknowledging the self illusion, or at the very least brushing up against the question of how we know who “we” are if we’re perpetually changing. But for Solnit, as for Rilke, that uncertainty is not an obstacle to living but a wellspring of life — of creative life, most of all. Bridging the essence of art with the notion that not-knowing is what drives science, she sees in the act of embracing the unknown a gateway to self-transcendence:

Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.

But unlike the dark sea, which obscures the depths of what is, of what could be seen in the present moment, the unknown spills into the unforeseen. Solnit turns to Edgar Allan Poe, who argued that “in matters of philosophical discovery … it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely,” and considers the deliberate juxtaposition of the rational, methodical act of calculation with the ineffable, intangible nature of the unforeseen:

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

The poet John Keats captured this paradoxical operation elegantly in his notion of “negative capability,” which Solnit draws on before turning to another literary luminary, Walter Benjamin, who memorably considered the difference between not finding your way and losing yourself — something he called “the art of straying.” Solnit writes:

To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

T and O map by Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 1392, from Umberto Eco’s ‘The Book of Legendary Lands.’ Click image for details.

Even the word itself endured an unforeseen transformation, its original meaning itself lost amidst our present cult of productivity and perilous goal-orientedness:

The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.

Taking back the meaning of lost seems almost a political act, a matter of existential agency that we ought to reclaim in order to feel at home in ourselves. Solnit writes:

There’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost.

[…]

Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.

The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Illustration for ‘Mapping Manhattan.’ Click image for details.

During a recent vacation, I went horseback riding on a California ranch, home to a tight-knit equine community. Midway along the route, my horse glimpsed his peer across the field, carrying another rider on a different route, and began neighing restlessly upon the fleeting sight. Our guide explained that the horses, despite being extraordinarily intelligent beings, had a hard time making sense of seeing their friends appear out of nowhere, then disappear into the distance. Falling out of sight held the terror of being forever lost. My horse was calling out, making sure his friend was still there — that neither was lost. Underneath the geographic disorientation, one can imagine, lies a primal fear of losing control.

Despite the evolutionary distance, this equine disposition bears a disorienting similarity to the duality of our own relationship to the concept of lost — losing something we care about, losing ourselves, losing control — which Solnit captures beautifully:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Where You Are, an exploration of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, then revisit Anaïs Nin on how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly.

BP

Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“There is no love of life without despair of life,” wrote Albert Camus — a man who in the midst of World War II, perhaps the darkest period in human history, saw grounds for luminous hope and issued a remarkable clarion call for humanity to rise to its highest potential on those grounds. It was his way of honoring the same duality that artist Maira Kalman would capture nearly a century later in her marvelous meditation on the pursuit of happiness, where she observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

In my own reflections on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves, I’ve considered the necessity of these two poles working in concert. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about these poles matter. The stories we tell ourselves about our public past shape how we interpret and respond to and show up for the present. The stories we tell ourselves about our private pasts shape how we come to see our personhood and who we ultimately become. The thin line between agency and victimhood is drawn in how we tell those stories.

The language in which we tell ourselves these stories matters tremendously, too, and no writer has weighed the complexities of sustaining hope in our times of readily available despair more thoughtfully and beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than Rebecca Solnit does in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library).

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Expanding upon her previous writings on hope, Solnit writes in the foreword to the 2016 edition of this foundational text of modern civic engagement:

Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Solnit — one of the most singular, civically significant, and poetically potent voices of our time, emanating echoes of Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose and Adrienne Rich’s unflinching political conviction — originally wrote these essays in 2003, six weeks after the start of Iraq war, in an effort to speak “directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and preconceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements.” Although the specific conditions of the day may have shifted, their undergirding causes and far-reaching consequences have only gained in relevance and urgency in the dozen years since. This slim book of tremendous potency is therefore, today more than ever, an indispensable ally to every thinking, feeling, civically conscious human being.

Solnit looks back on this seemingly distant past as she peers forward into the near future:

The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense… Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.

[…]

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

With an eye to such disheartening developments as climate change, growing income inequality, and the rise of Silicon Valley as a dehumanizing global superpower of automation, Solnit invites us to be equally present for the counterpoint:

Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.

Enumerating Edward Snowden, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter among those, she adds:

This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change, and deep, profound shifts in ideas, perspective, and frameworks for broad parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).

With great care, Solnit — whose mind remains the sharpest instrument of nuance I’ve encountered — maps the uneven terrain of our grounds for hope:

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

Solnit’s conception of hope reminds me of the great existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s conception of meaning: “The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure,” he wrote, “must be conducted obliquely.” That is, it must take place in the thrilling and terrifying terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we wish to go, ultimately shaping where we do go. Solnit herself has written memorably about how we find ourselves by getting lost, and finding hope seems to necessitate a similar surrender to uncertainty. She captures this idea beautifully:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Amid a 24-hour news cycle that nurses us on the illusion of immediacy, this recognition of incremental progress and the long gestational period of consequences — something at the heart of every major scientific revolution that has changed our world — is perhaps our most essential yet most endangered wellspring of hope. Solnit reminds us, for instance, that women’s struggle for the right to vote took seven decades:

For a time people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first-world cities.

She considers one particularly prominent example of this cumulative cataclysm — the Arab Spring, “an extraordinary example of how unpredictable change is and how potent popular power can be,” the full meaning of and conclusions from which we are yet to draw. Although our cultural lore traces the spark of the Arab Spring to the moment Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest, Solnit traces the unnoticed accretion of tinder across space and time:

You can tell the genesis story of the Arab Spring other ways. The quiet organizing going on in the shadows beforehand matters. So does the comic book about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience that was translated into Arabic and widely distributed in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring. You can tell of King’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by Gandhi’s tactics, and Gandhi’s inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British women suffragists. So the threads of ideas weave around the world and through the decades and centuries.

In a brilliant counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell’s notoriously short-sighted view of social change, Solnit sprouts a mycological metaphor for this imperceptible, incremental buildup of influence and momentum:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

[…]

Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.

One of Beatrix Potter’s little-known scientific studies and illustrations of mushrooms

And yet Solnit’s most salient point deals with what comes after the revolutionary change — with the notion of victory not as a destination but as a starting point for recommitment and continual nourishment of our fledgling ideals:

A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go lounge around until the end of time. Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I’ve long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognize the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win, and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

Solnit examines this notion more closely in one of the original essays from the book, titled “Changing the Imagination of Change” — a meditation of even more acute timeliness today, more than a decade later, in which she writes:

Americans are good at responding to crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew both because we imagine that the finality of death can be achieved in life — it’s called happily ever after in personal life, saved in politics — and because we tend to think political engagement is something for emergencies rather than, as people in many other countries (and Americans at other times) have imagined it, as a part and even a pleasure of everyday life. The problem seldom goes home.

[…]

Going home seems to be a way to abandon victories when they’re still delicate, still in need of protection and encouragement. Human babies are helpless at birth, and so perhaps are victories before they’ve been consolidated into the culture’s sense of how things should be. I wonder sometimes what would happen if victory was imagined not just as the elimination of evil but the establishment of good — if, after American slavery had been abolished, Reconstruction’s promises of economic justice had been enforced by the abolitionists, or, similarly, if the end of apartheid had been seen as meaning instituting economic justice as well (or, as some South Africans put it, ending economic apartheid).

It’s always too soon to go home. Most of the great victories continue to unfold, unfinished in the sense that they are not yet fully realized, but also in the sense that they continue to spread influence. A phenomenon like the civil rights movement creates a vocabulary and a toolbox for social change used around the globe, so that its effects far outstrip its goals and specific achievements — and failures.

Invoking James Baldwin’s famous proclamation that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” Solnit writes:

It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.

What often obscures our view of hope, she argues, is a kind of collective amnesia that lets us forget just how far we’ve come as we grow despondent over how far we have yet to go. She writes:

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau, the story of how Paul Gauguin used the grief of his childhood as a catalyst for a lifetime of art

This lack of a long view is perpetuated by the media, whose raw material — the very notion of “news” — divorces us from the continuity of life and keeps us fixated on the current moment in artificial isolate. Meanwhile, Solnit argues in a poignant parallel, such amnesia poisons and paralyzes our collective conscience by the same mechanism that depression poisons and paralyzes the private psyche — we come to believe that the acute pain of the present is all that will ever be and cease to believe that things will look up. She writes:

There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.

A dedicated rower, Solnit ends with the perfect metaphor:

You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.

Hope in the Dark is a robust anchor of intelligent idealism amid our tumultuous era of disorienting defeatism — a vitalizing exploration of how we can withstand the marketable temptations of false hope and easy despair. Complement it with Camus on how to ennoble our minds in dark times and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best realism, then revisit Solnit on the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion.

BP

Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries

“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect…”

Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries

I think a great deal about what it means to live with hope and sincerity in the age of cynicism, about how we can continue standing at the gates of hope as we’re being bombarded with news of hopeless acts of violence, as we’re confronted daily with what Marcus Aurelius called the “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”

I’ve found no more lucid and luminous a defense of hope than the one Rebecca Solnit launches in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library) — a slim, potent book penned in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq; a book that has grown only more relevant and poignant in the decade since.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

We lose hope, Solnit suggests, because we lose perspective — we lose sight of the “accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes” which constitute progress and which render our era dramatically different from the past, a contrast obscured by the undramatic nature of gradual transformation punctuated by occasional tumult.

Each of our lifetimes brims with personal evidence of these collective cultural shifts: At the time I was born, no one imagined that the Cold War would end and a girl raised in communist Bulgaria would make a life for herself reading and writing about books in English while facing the Manhattan skyline; a mere decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that a distributed tribe of strangers would raise a million dollars for refugees in another part of the world via an instantaneous global communication system of 140-character neo-telegrams; just a couple of years ago, it was hard to imagine that the day would come when all of us would be able to marry the people we love.

Solnit writes:

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.

In a sentiment that parallels the relationship between dark matter and ordinary matter in the formation of the universe, Solnit offers the perfect metaphor for the source of our tenuous grip on hope:

Imagine the world as a theater. The acts of the powerful and the official occupy center stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on the stage. The limelights there are so bright they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that no other place matters.

Art from Maurice Sendak's take on Nutcracker
Art from Maurice Sendak’s take on Nutcracker

In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s memorable words — “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?” — Solnit adds:

What is onstage is a tragedy, the tragedy of the inequitable distribution of power and of the too-common silence of those who settle for being audience while paying the price of the drama. Traditionally, the audience is supposed to choose the actors, and the actors are quite literally supposed to speak for us. This is the idea behind representative democracy. In practice, various reasons keep many from participating in the choice, other forces — like money — subvert that choice, and onstage too many of the actors find other reasons — lobbyists, self-interest, conformity — to fail to represent their constituents.

GeorgeLauri1916

Hope, Solnit observes, dies when we choose to watch the unfolding drama in resignation and abdicate all responsibility, pointing a blaming finger at those in the limelight. (Lest we forget, Joseph Brodsky put it best: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”)

She considers the disposition of the hopeless:

They speak as though we should wait for improvement to be handed to us, not as though we might seize it. Perhaps their despair is in some ways simply that they are audience rather than actors.

Our most radiant horizon of hope, Solnit argues, lies in the darkness beyond the limelight:

The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for. For those onstage, we can just hope the curtain comes down soon and the next act is better, that it comes more directly from the populist shadows.

Hope in the Dark is an immensely invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with E.B. White’s elevating letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, Albert Camus on how to ennoble our spirits in dark times, and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best activism, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, what reading does for the human spirit, how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion, and her beautiful manifesto for the spiritual rewards of walking.

BP

We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.”

We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

Recently, while packing to move, I came upon a stack of letters from my Bulgarian grandmother. During my time in college, we wrote each other long, beautiful letters about once a month. Then she discovered the internet. The letters became emails and, invariably, their nature changed. The slow mutual beholding of sentiment and feeling that co-respondence implies became the quick mutual reaction to information under the pressure of immediacy, which often bled into the banal — daily errands, travel plans, the weather.

As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person. Each appears to be a dormant potentiality, beckoned forth by the respective medium of expression — something that makes it hard not to notice, and hard not to worry about, how such shifts in medium might shape what parts of ourselves we manifest, which in turn add up to the sum total of our personal identity.

The many dimensions of this question are what Rebecca Solnit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, explores in a spectacular essay titled “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library) — the superb nonfiction collection that gave us Solnit on what our dream homes reveal about our interior lives.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s famous proclamation that “on or around December 1910, human character changed,” regarding the arrival of Modernism, Solnit writes:

On or around June 1995, human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.

Perhaps each generation broods over how the disruption technologies of its time are taking civilization down — Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned the newspaper itself as a worrisome distraction and one twelfth-century Zen monk thought the same of books — but Solnit’s point is far from that familiar techno-dystopian refrain. Rather, she contemplates the subtler and more insidious effects of our communication technologies on the human psyche — the shredding of the very fabric of time, which blankets our daily lives and dictates their rhythm:

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.

Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children's book illustration
Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children’s book illustration

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.

While she acknowledges that a great many benefits have come from our modern communication technologies, Solnit considers their cost:

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Reflecting on witnessing an all too familiar vignette — a group of young people waiting to be seated together at a restaurant, each staring into her or his phone instead of conversing with one another — Solnit writes:

It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

In a lament evocative of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that the sense of missing out, however psychologically discomfiting, is essential to a full life, Solnit observes:

A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.

She considers the sense of loss, nebulous in its precise object but undeniably palpable, that many of us feel in bearing witness to and partaking in this profound shift in the human experience:

I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too — it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.

With an eye to the particular atrocity of interruption that was Google Glass — an atrocity that has since perished after metastasizing into too uncomfortable a caricature of our modern malady of productivity-guised flight from presence — Solnit writes:

I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up or someone’s trying to schedule me for a project or a drink is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning, and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

malmo_tower1

Nearly seven decades after Henry Beston’s magnificent manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning the art of presence, Solnit wonders when the uprising will come — against the part of ourselves too easily lured by the promise of efficiency at the expense of aliveness, and against the corporations exploitively perfecting the allure of such seductive illusions. Looking to the groundswell of craftsmanship and the maker movement — gardening, knitting, and the general surge of interest in making things by hand via traditional methods — she considers how this shift might help us reclaim our sense of time:

It is a slow-everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting — but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time.

[…]

Getting out of [the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world] is about slowness and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labor practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labor. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with how Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter-writing can make email more civil, then revisit Solnit on how walking vitalizes the meanderings of the mind, what reading does for the human spirit, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.

BP

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