Purgatory Under the Patriarchy

“What is won or changed or fixed has to be maintained and protected or it can be lost. What goes forward can go backward.”

– Rebecca Solnit, 2020

Along with the Canadian-born journalist, Naomi Klein, Rebecca Solnit has explored the unnatural nature of disasters. While Klein has emphasized the ways that capitalism exploits them, Solnit has touted the ways communities provide for themselves in the wake of catastrophes. Sometimes it’s both. It was and still is in Sonoma County, where I live and work. Klein seems to have changed her focus somewhat in her new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico takes on the Disaster Capitalists. Paradise and utopia are two places Solnit won’t relinquish. Klein isn’t as quick to go there.

I have been writing about Solnit and her books ever since the publication in 2015 of Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In my review of that book, I wrote, “’We walk, therefore we are,’ Solnit might say, as well as the corollary, ‘We don’t walk, therefore we lose our identity.’”

Sonit has continually surprised me and probably will go on doing so. Sometimes she can be refreshing and at other times she seems to have an intellectual chip on her, rightly or wrongly I can’t say. I have thought of her and Klein as two of our leading intellectuals and among the feistiest of feminists. Solnit has helped to shape the national dialogue about the American west and how it’s represented, and also about the ways we see and response to events like Katrina, which are often framed as natural disasters, but that can be best understood as created by humans.

In her latest book, Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir (Viking; $26), Solnit, moves away from social and environmental catastrophe, and instead looks at some of the personal crises that have made her who she is today. Recollections is much more intimate than her previous books, with the notable exception of Men Explain Things to Me, her most popular work, in which she “struck a chord. And a Nerve”—as she puts it—with women readers who identify with her. Her phrase “mansplaining” is part of the vocabulary now when people talked about sexism.

By exhuming her own experiences with men who have dismissed her, ignored her, patronized her, harassed her and assaulted her, or tried to, Solnit described realities that have resonated with a great many women. In Recollections, she joins the #me too movement.

No wonder that Penguin Random House, the publisher of Recollections, calls her a “renowned feminist writer.” Her newest book is a long, eloquent and nearly perfectly pitched exploration of daddy patriarchy, and its nasty henchmen: sexual terrorism, male privilege, male chauvinism and the global epidemic of femicide, which has made headline news recently.

I learned about male chauvinism thanks to the women’s liberation movement of the Sixties when I discovered I wasn’t as liberated as I thought I was. Second-wave feminism changed my life and the lives of many men of my generation. In a way, feminism made a real name of me, though I also know that men are still trapped in old roles and inequalities are still the name of the game.

On nearly every page of Recollections I found provocative comments, or rather they found me. The book struck my chords and my nerves. It’s likely to do the same for you, especially if you’re a fan of Solnit’s previous books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby and Hope in the Dark, the title of which expresses her own sense of optimism and need for alacrity when confronted by war and disaster.

Some of the issues Solnit raises in her new books seem to have simmered for a long time. So, for example, she takes aim at the Beat brothers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, both of them misogynists. She also lambasts City Lights’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published one of her books and then apparently snubbed her at a literary gathering when he paid homage to a male writer, who was also in his literary stable.

I’m not surprised by Solnit’s report on the time Ferlinghetti ignored her. He has been a patriarchal figure in both a positive and a negative sense for as long as City Lights has been around. Still, he has also tried, on occasion, to make amends for his patriarchal stance and has welcome women writers. He’s also one of the midwives of the Beat Generation. Solnit’s view of Ferlinghetti only tells a very small part of the story. Elaine Katzenberger is now the head of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing, and while she has published a great many women writers, she has rarely received credit for the good work she does.

Ferlinghetti & Co. have published the work of Diane di Prima, and other women who have stretched the boundaries of the Beat Generation to make room for them and their sisters. In Memoirs of a Beatnik, which blends fact and fiction, di Prima recounts her dalliance with the Beats and praises Ginsberg for paving the way for her own liberation. Kerouac and Company were patriarchal, indeed, but the women who joined them and the Beat circle say that life among the Beats was less confining than life among the philistines of the 1950s. But di Prima’s generation isn’t Solnit’s. She has other irons in the fire.

In Recollections, she describes “the gender politics” of Kerouac’s classic picaresque novel as “contaminated,” though she also allows that she liked “some things” about it. Since Kerouac is a major American literary figure—and since many women literary critics and biographers (Ann Charters, Ann Douglas and Joyce Johnson, once Kerouac’s lover) have touted him as a literary genius—it would be helpful to know how and why Solnit reached her conclusion about On the Road. Contaminated suggests something toxic. If the book’s gender politics is contaminated, then what if anything follows? Does Solnit think that On the Road should be banned before it causes injury to young people, no matter what the gender?

When I read her book Wanderlust I wondered why the author didn’t discuss Kerouac’s walking. After all, he traveled across San Francisco on foot and wrote about it, too, in the essay “October in the Railroad Earth.” I wonder now if Solnit’s views of Kerouac’s contaminated gender politics, as she calls it, kept her from writing about his wanderlust. Clearly, she makes decisions about who to include in her books and who to exclude. All writers do. I suppose I expected more from her than what she has so far delivered.

Most or at least many women readers will get what Solnit is doing in Recollections without having to stretch. After all, they have been in much the same situations that she has been in, in the streets, in bedrooms and kitchens and at literary events: browbeaten, ignored, patronized, hit-on, and silenced. Male readers might have to overcome their urge to explain things to Solnit, which they have apparently been doing for years, without taking the trouble to read her books. They might also listen more carefully than in the past to what she has to say, and also how she says it.

That might be easier to do in Recollections than in any previous book she has written. Solnit seems to extend an olive branch to the world, as when she writes in the Afterword, “It seems safe to say that I’m damaged and a member of a society that damages us all and damages women in particular.” She goes on to say, “Though damage is not necessarily permanent, neither is repair. What is won or changed or fixed has to be maintained and protected or it can be lost. What goes forward can go backward.”

The first time I read those lines I bristled at the words “damages” and “damaged.” I kept on bristling every time I reread them. I’m willing to believe that Solnit has been hurt by men and by the patriarchy, but I don’t want to accept her notion that she has been damaged and that all of us have also been damaged. Speak for yourself Rebecca.

Reading her conclusions, I couldn’t help but recall the 1972 book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, which seemed to hit the proverbial nail on the head. In a class society—and what society isn’t classless?—everyone is hurt and everyone is injured. Sometimes the injuries are not visible. Much the same might be said for the hidden injuries of gender, race and ethnicity. “Emotional Hardship”— as the authors of The Hidden Injuries call it—hits all of humanity. PTSD is near universal. Revolutions don’t automatically heal hardship and injury. Not even the kind of love that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached can do that.

Recollections won’t be Solnit’s last book. You count on her to go on writing. If you aren’t familiar with her work, you might do so now. Recollections is as good a place as any to begin.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.