Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

I think I’ll use the opening piece as part of a “personal essay” unit. I think students will like and recognize the opening anecdote. I hope they’ll see how you can take one story from your own life and work it into a larger reflection. And if it makes a few young men uncomfortable, so much the better.

The essay I really loved, though, was Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable. I could teach with this one, too — how do you weave together an interpretation of multiple books — but it would be just as helpful thinking about language, how to use it, when it needs to be concrete and when it can’t be.

“We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.”

(p.82)

We could argue about this quote for days. I thought about how often I urge students to be bold in their claims and I felt a flash of guilt. But I think what Solnit is urging us to consider is that we need to be bold in our ambiguity, in laying out both sides, in understanding that you make your best effort to understand through careful assessment of a situation and sources, but that you may fall short.

Several pages later, Solnit quotes Susan Sontag about war and what’s knowable:

“We’ — this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying, war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”

She follows by saying, “Sontag, too, calls on us to embrace the darkness, the unknowability, not to let the torrent of images that proud down on us convince us that we understand or make us numb to suffering.” (p.84)

I read this as a way of helping students understand that ambiguity is different than relativism. There are lots of ideas and experiences out there that need to be constantly interrogated and contextualized. They can’t just be set aside or neatly labeled. That’s our work as students, scholars, and human beings.

Finally, in talking of the role of criticism, Solnit writes:

“This (an essay of Virginia Woolf’s) is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens an exchange that need never end.”

I love this framing and will use this quote with students. How do your write in a way that invites exchange around ideas? How do you write something that leaves someone scrambling to write back, to want to respond?

Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Updated edition. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015.