Men Explain Things To Me
Rebecca Solnit's slim volume brings to mind the Flaming Lips lyric, "a spoonful weighs a ton." They are referencing the density of planetary mass, but it's the right sentiment for this lean, intelligent set of essays in which each small bite of content feels like a meal, it is so filling with substance.
The book opens with the comic encounter Solnit has with a man who tries to explain a more "important" book to her on a topic she herself just wrote a book about. It quickly becomes clear that they are both describing the same book. A book she herself wrote. He has no idea, even when told mid-story that he is describing the work to the actual author. He literally cannot hear the truth being offered him from his authoritative position. "Men Explain Things to Me" is a launching point into how women find themselves fighting for their voices and positions in the world, laid out in cool, calm non-misandrous prose.
As the results of the 2016 Presidential Election slowly emerged, sadness and dread seeped into the atmosphere. I could not keep watching as the results slowly unfolded, and began re-reading Solnit's essay "Woolf's Darkness - Embracing the Inexplicable". She examine's Virginia Woolf's quote, "The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think," and makes a case for the darkness of uncertainty as the same darkness where hope lives. She indicates that at the time Woolf made this statement, the First World War was turning into a slaughter that would continue for years. Woolf was 6 months out from a period of madness/depression, during which she'd tried to kill herself, and was currently in the care of nurses. Truly dark times. And yet the world went on, and this wise woman's voice still resonates.
Solnit explores the idea of the dark "unknown" as a residence of hope. She asks the reader to consider the value of darkness, of venturing into the unknown. If we cannot truly know what the future holds, we can view hope as the knowledge that our future is undetermined. We cannot give into the certainty that is despair. Despair/certainty is a reason not to act - to be essentially beaten by negativity and fear. "Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannon be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed." These ideas were solid ground under my sinking heart. In fact, each essay in this book is dense with mental nutrients.
I happened to be reading this book during the presidential debates, and couldn't help seeing current events through the lens of Solnit's writing. I'd just finished the essay "The Longest War" when the 2005 Access Hollywood segment surfaced in which then-presedential-candidate Trump boasts about sexually assaulting women. In this essay she reveals how overlooked sexual assault is in our country. Rape and murder statistics against women are shocking, they always have been, but Solnit introduces the idea that while violence does not have a race, class, religion, or nationality, it does have a gender. We've never treated this epidemic as a gender issue even when murder is a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time. She points to the fact that "when you say lone gunman everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men." She reminds us that women are taught to protect themselves by limiting themselves. To avoid being raped women should stay inside, cover up, survive their attackers. Yet we invest so little in learning how to raise male children who do not attack, who do not rape. When America voted Trump into office, it felt like the majority of or nation voted that assault on women (or assault on anyone who is considered an "other" really) as permissible.
Another interesting case she makes is for same sex marriage as a threat to traditional marriage, but in a very positive way. When a man and woman enter a marriage there are very particular roles they assume due solely to gender. Who will do the dishes, shopping, cooking, laundry, majority of child care? Who will do mechanical repairs, bear the burden of providing more income? When two women or two men enter this contract all that goes away. They can negotiate those responsibilities without the burden of what we've been taught our gender must assume. Traditional marriage way back in history was a contract of male ownership over females. Though it has become close to a partnership of equals, it cannot really be until we are free of the gender rolls we play.
Gender is considered in nuanced ways in this book. Solnit is consistently careful to point out "not all men," and honors the fact that there are lovely wonderful men who cherish women and stand up for their human rights, but she also asks that we all do the work of considering painful truths that need addressing. This is a task for women and men. This book made me think of how we are better together, working in unity for the betterment of all. In the years to come, we are going to need strong, intelligent, clear minded voices who speak for the marginalized. While I'm sad these topics are still relevant, I do not have certainty of what the future holds, and will try to let that be a comfort.