Rebecca Solnit: Welcome to the Impossible World

2006-05-22

Richard Moore

Original source URL:
http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?emx=x&pid=83153

Tomgram: Solnit on Our Impossible World and Welcome to It!

This post can be found at http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=83153

Last May 30th, with the help of Mark Danner, I 
graduated all of you (as well as a whole class of 
English students at Berkeley). I swore at the 
time that this would be "the last commencement 
Tomdispatch will attend for a while." As it 
happened, "a while" turned out to be less than a 
calendar year -- but can I help it if the English 
Department at Berkeley insists on inviting 
Tomdispatch writers to usher its students into 
the cold, cold world? This year in George Bush's 
America, they evidently thought their graduates 
needed a little more encouragement than usual, 
and so invited the lovely, hopeful Rebecca 
Solnit, author of the just revised and expanded 
Hope in the Dark (as well as, most recently, A 
Field Guide to Getting Lost), to put a little 
glow in the air, a little bounce in the step. She 
delivered as ever. In fact, she delivered the 
following address which I just couldn't help 
passing on to all of you. So, for one more year, 
consider yourself an honorary Tomdispatch 
graduate of the Internet University of hard 
knocks, mixed metaphors, and strange analogies. 
Enjoy Solnit. Then shut off that computer and 
smell the spring air! Tom

Welcome to the Impossible World
By Rebecca Solnit

Some of you here today receiving degrees took 
time off to explore the world, work for a cause, 
or earn enough money to get to college, but I 
suspect the great majority of you went straight 
through from high school and thus were likely 
born in 1984. What does it mean to be born in 
1984, the ominous year that hung over humanity 
for 36 years after George Orwell made those four 
numbers a synonym for totalitarianism; what does 
it mean to be born atop the high wall at the end 
of the grim future of the imagination?

I thought of that as soon as I was invited to 
give this talk, thought about the enormous gap 
between when Orwell, on the beautiful isle of 
Jura in Scotland, wrote this bleakest of 
anti-utopian novels in 1948, and the actual 1984, 
as well as the no less profound chasm between 
1984, real and imagined, and the present moment. 
To contemplate those chasms is to recognize, in 
the most literal sense, just how utterly 
unpredictable the future is. To recognize that is 
to realize that a rapidly changing world requires 
an ability to appreciate uncertainty, and what in 
books we call wild plot twists, at least as much 
as the wobbly gift of prophesy.

I thought of these things with the tools with 
which we English majors graduate into the world 
-- not the tools that enable you to splice genes, 
cantilever bridges, or make piles of money, but 
those that enable you to analyze, to see 
patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather 
than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down 
notions; those that enable you not to make a 
living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian 
of educations prepares you to make sense of the 
world and maybe to make meaning; for one way to 
describe the great struggle of our time is as the 
endeavor to become a producer of meanings rather 
than a consumer of them -- in an age when meaning 
as advertising and marketing, as others' 
definitions of pleasure and terror, is daily 
forced down our throats.

To make meaning, to change the world, or just to 
read it thoughtfully (which can itself be 
insurrectionary)Š And never has our world been so 
overloaded, so rapidly changing, and so full of 
surprises that require us to change our minds, 
rethink possibilities, and then do so again; 
never has it required such careful reading. In my 
own case, the kind of critical reading I first 
learned to do with books, then with works of art, 
turned out to be transferable to national parks, 
atomic bombs, revolutions, marches, the act of 
walking -- a skill transferred not only to feed 
my writing but my larger path through the world.

Books themselves sometimes change the world 
directly: you can talk about nonfiction like 
Diderot's Encyclopedia, about the Communist 
Manifesto, The Origin of Species, Upton 
Sinclair's The Jungle, about an essay that 
mattered a great deal only a very long time after 
it was written, Henry David Thoreau's "Civil 
Disobedience," and about a book in that 
Thoreauvian vein whose practical impact we might 
actually be able to measure.

In 1975, Edward Abbey published his novel about a 
charming bunch of what the Department of Homeland 
Security would now call domestic terrorists, The 
Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel changed the English 
language in a small way by popularizing 
monkey-wrenching as a verb for sabotage, but it 
did more. (And here, being an English major and 
thus a lover of obscure scraps of information, 
let me mention that the word sabotage itself 
comes from the wooden shoes French workers -- 
actually peasants just off the land -- wore. Not 
so long after the Industrial Revolution, such 
workers would sabotage machinery by throwing 
their wooden shoes, or sabots, into it, and so 
jamming up the works.) Anyway, in the novel The 
Monkey Wrench Gang, the protagonists plan to blow 
up Glen Canyon Dam, the huge and ultimately 
useless structure strangling the Colorado River 
upstream from the Grand Canyon.

The novel helped prompt the founding of Earth 
First! -- which has not always been perfect but 
has sometimes been useful, even heroic, in the 
protection of the environment. In 1981 Earth 
First! announced its arrival on the scene by 
rolling an immense length of plastic painted to 
resemble a crack down the wall of Glen Canyon 
Dam, saying with this that the dam was neither 
immutable, nor inevitable. From its creation in 
the early Sixties until then, the dam had seemed 
just that; since then it has become ever less 
crazy and hopeless to dream, think about, even 
work for the opening of its sluice gates and the 
rebirth of the wild river.

The same is true of another dam that famously 
broke another writer's heart, Hetch-Hetchy Dam 
inside Yosemite National Park in the Sierra 
Nevada, built in the teens of the last century. 
That praise-singer of peaks and Sierra Club 
cofounder John Muir mourned its construction; you 
young Californians may live to see its 
dismantling. I can't say nobody imagined we would 
come to such a pass, but I can say that few did, 
maybe not even Muir and Abbey.

Let me reach for another book, Lewis Carroll's 
Through the Looking Glass, to cite the Red 
Queen's reprimand of Alice's rational assertion 
that "one can't believe impossible things." The 
Queen replies, "I daresay you haven't had much 
practice. When I was your age, I always did it 
for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've 
believed as many as six impossible things before 
breakfast."

You might want to take up the Red Queen's 
practice. For we are impossible people living in 
an impossible world -- or at least inconceivable 
to the great majority not so long ago. The year 
2006 would certainly have been even more 
unimaginable from the perspective of 1984 than 
1984 was from the perspective of 1948. Who would 
have believed it if you had told someone in, say, 
1954, or even 1974, of our world as it is now in 
all its scientific, genetic, social, political, 
environmental, and sexual transformation, this 
melting, mutating, tainted world that still holds 
such hope? Various forms of federal collapse and 
repression have long been anticipated, but a 
dynamic and vocal Latino population, same-sex 
marriage, radical food activism? Oddly enough, I 
don't think that science fiction is particularly 
good at teaching you to anticipate such 
unexpected change, but perhaps fiction in general 
and poetry can indeed provide lessons in 
unpredictability.

For me one of the great pleasures of writing 
nonfiction is that real life supplies 
coincidences and upheavals too improbable for 
novels. The amazing thing about the novel 1984 is 
that Orwell could invent the Ministry of Truth, 
Big Brother, thought crimes, and the Memory Hole, 
but in his book women are still hanging cloth 
diapers on clotheslines. It's easier to prophesy 
global politics than laundry, but our lives are 
shaped by both. And fiction and poetry, as well 
as movies, music, and conversations, help 
generate the changes that don't come as 
revolutions or reforms but as shifts in how 
people think about their daily lives and acts -- 
and by this I mean not just changes in 
sensibility but in what people consume, who they 
support, embrace, even love. You can see, for 
example, that the arts have led the battle 
against homophobia and other kinds of 
intolerance. As the San Francisco poet Diane 
DiPrima likes to say, "The only war that counts 
is the war against the imagination," and every 
creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every 
opening of a mind is a triumph for our side in 
that war.

Books matter. Stories matter. People die of 
pernicious stories, are reinvented by new 
stories, and make stories to shelter themselves. 
Though we learned from postmodernism that a story 
is only a construct, so is a house, and a story 
can be more important as shelter: the story that 
you have certain inalienable rights and 
immeasurable value, the story that there is an 
alternative to violence and competition, the 
story that women are human beings. Sometimes 
people find the stories that save their lives in 
books.

The stories we live by are themselves like 
characters in books: Some we will outlive us; 
some will betray us; some will bring us joy; some 
will lead us to places we could never have 
imagined. George Orwell's 1984 wasn't a story to 
shelter in, but a story meant to throw open the 
door and thrust us into the strong winds of 
history; it was a warning in the form of a story. 
Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang was an 
invitation in the form of a story, but even its 
author didn't imagine how we might take up that 
invitation or that Glen Canyon Dam might have 
taken on a doomed look by 2006. "The universe," 
said the radical American poet Muriel Rukeyser, 
"is made of stories, not atoms." I believe that 
being able to recognize stories, to read them, 
and to tell them is what it takes to have a life, 
rather than just make a living. This is the 
equipment you should have received.

The good thing about being born in 1984 is that 
it should inoculate you against nostalgia. The 
actual 1984 was no Arcadian daydream, no 
uneventful utopia; it hovers back there in no 
golden haze. This week in 1984, Ronald Reagan was 
campaigning for his second term against a feeble 
Democratic candidate; democracy and human-rights 
activists from Poland to the Philippines were 
being imprisoned and otherwise repressed for 
daring to demand something better than 
dictatorship; AIDS was a big new disease and 
political issue with no effective treatment; and 
all across the U.S. deregulated savings and loans 
were beginning to collapse, taking people's 
hard-earned savings with them. Thanks to related 
policies, a new American subgroup that had hardly 
existed in the 1970s was beginning to appear, the 
mass of people we call the homeless. And the U.S. 
was busily intervening in the worst possible way 
in the politics of Central America. What the 
Middle East is to Bush Jr., Central America was 
to Ronald Reagan, a place to assert U.S. might 
with ruthless disregard for human rights.

Those who imagine that the American torturers in 
the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are some appalling 
new aberration need to remember that, in El 
Salvador and Guatemala in 1984, the most hideous 
kinds of torture were in widespread use. Although 
these were generally not directly inflicted by 
U.S. troops, they were carried out with U.S. 
training and funding, and often with CIA 
direction. The U.S. also had a powerful 
anti-intervention movement defending the right of 
Nicaragua's Sandinista Government that had 
overthrown the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio 
Somoza, and the rights of the rebellious in 
Guatemala and El Salvador, those rebelling 
against brutal regimes in blood-soaked civil wars.

At the same time, President Reagan had just 
stepped up the nuclear arms race and many in that 
moment anticipated an end-of-the-world nuclear 
war any time, a war with what Reagan called the 
Evil Empire, aka the Soviet Union. This generated 
a powerful antinuclear movement that changed 
quite a few things around the world, a movement 
that, sadly, dissipated when the Cold War came to 
an end and we failed to seize the fabled "peace 
dividend." The sudden vanishing of the Soviet 
Union was one of the most impossible things the 
Red Queen could have imagined before breakfast.

You who were born in 1984 would have been 
entering second grade as the Soviet Union 
dissolved and the Cold War went on hold -- only 
to be reborn as the War on Terror. Now, there are 
two ways I can bring this story of where we were 
then and where we are now forward. One you 
probably know; and, if you have been in too many 
graduate seminars, you also know that it could be 
called a declensionist narrative: Reagan was bad; 
Bush is worse; we have lost a lot of wilderness, 
polar ice, species, rainforest, battles, 
independent media outlets, family farms, and so 
forth; while gaining a lot of weapons systems, 
marketing strategies, TV channels, genetically 
modified organisms, and pavement. This is all 
true, and the reason why I seldom bother telling 
this story myself is that it is told so well, 
even exhaustively, by so many of my compañeros on 
the left. There's "another way of telling," as 
the great writer John Berger says, and a lot more 
stories.

When I consider the state of the world I go back 
to those Dickens novels in which so many 
characters are onstage that there can be no 
single conclusion. Think of Great Expectations, 
in many ways the most purely tragic of his 
novels, with Pip and Estella forever separated 
and forever saddened by the hard lessons they 
have learned. (At least in the unsweetened 
original ending.) Tragedy, my splendid 
undergraduate English professor told me, ends in 
exile, comedy in marriage. But remember that 
Dickens in all his multifarious generosity gave 
us many stories in one book. After all, in Great 
Expectations, Biddie and Joe seemed to be living 
as happily ever after as Pip's great friend 
Herbert and his dear girl. Great Expectations is 
a tragedy, but only for the major figures, and 
perhaps these millennial years are a tragedy for 
the U.S.A. and a few other giant countries like 
Russia, but not for all smaller countries. 
Bolivia and Chile, for example, have begun to 
bloom, and India is most certainly in both the 
best and the worst of times.

For others and elsewhere it has been an era of 
miracles, if not of paradises. You have probably 
heard all too many mythologizing stories about 
"the Sixties," you who were born in the late 
1970s and 1980s, but you have not heard nearly 
enough about the ferocious and sometimes very 
powerful activism of the 1980s and 1990s. While 
there is little to be nostalgic for in 1984 
itself, there is in the later 1980s, which may 
well have been the greatest era of revolution 
this world has ever seen. Certainly, 1989 was a 
year to compare with 1789 and 1848. Those Polish 
and Filipino activists who were being squelched 
in 1984 triumphed a little later, as did the 
Koreans, grasping democracy from the bottom up 
from the military autocrats who had ruled over 
them for so long. The U.S.-backed dictator 
Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown by a defecting 
army and what came to be called "people power" 
twenty years ago this spring.

Poland's Solidarity labor movement was only part 
of a great surge of boldness that ultimately 
toppled the Soviet empire in the fall of 1989 in 
a series of breathtaking events that let Hungary, 
Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland be free 
and, two years later, resulted in the full 
dismantling of the Soviet Union. Its sudden 
vanishing was one of the most impossible things 
the Red Queen could have imagined. The CIA and 
other U.S. intelligence pros never for a second 
anticipated that such a thing might happen, even 
as Eastern European and Russian writers, artists, 
union organizers, and others dreamed it and 
organized it into being. The student uprising in 
Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989 
ended in tanks and Orwellian oppression, but the 
spark it lit may not be extinguished.

1992 brought a deeper revolution reaching back 
farther in time, one that throws open the doors 
of my own imagination. This revolution was 
lovingly crafted by scholars, by poets, by tribal 
leaders and ceremonial elders, by speakers of 
endangered languages, organizers, and activists 
-- mostly indigenous ones because this was the 
great indigenous reclamation that transformed the 
quincentennial of Columbus's bumbling arrival in 
the Americas from a sugar-coated commemoration of 
conquest into an anticolonial insurrection. Back 
then, the native people of the Americas were 
supposed to be conquered, silenced, even extinct 
-- many of us non-natives were raised to believe 
that they were, especially those of us who grew 
up earlier than you did on the old textbooks that 
reduced the extraordinary richness of languages 
and cultures in Native California to a handful of 
primitive diggers, rooting up grubs to eat with 
sharpened sticks. Stories matter, and here the 
stories and the circumstances have changed, 
unbelievably.

In 1994, an indigenous army walked out of the 
remote Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, in Mexico's 
poorest and southernmost state, and staged a 
revolution, not only in what the status of 
Indians would be in that country but in the 
nature of revolution too. These were the 
Zapatistas, named after an earlier Mexican 
revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata. Their mouthpiece 
was a nonnative guy who called himself 
Subcommandante Marcos and who reinvented the 
language of politics as something poetic, 
paradoxical, playful -- who found another story 
to tell. The Zapatistas burst onto the world 
stage on January 1, 1994, when you would have 
been going on 10 years old, in response to the 
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which 
went into effect that day. That measure made so 
many Mexicans so much more desperately poor and 
has everything to do with the millions of Mexican 
migrants arriving here today.

The Zapatista response to NAFTA was the beginning 
of a remarkable, unforeseen, and still-raging war 
against corporate globalization. As it happened, 
they had been inspired to rise fifteen months 
before by the indigenous questioning of the 
quincentennial. Even the magic realism of Gabriel 
Garcia Marquez couldn't anticipate the Zapatistas 
but writers like the Uruguayan history-poet 
Eduardo Galeano and John Berger welcomed them. 
And when they arrived, the story of what was 
possible changed.

Twelve years later, on January 22 of this very 
year, the poor, mostly indigenous nation of 
Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, 
Evo Morales, a story that has taken 514 years to 
come not to its happy ending but to at least an 
auspicious, audacious new beginning. President 
Morales was an impossibility a hundred years ago, 
fifty years ago, twenty years ago, when only a 
Red Queen would have believed in him.

In Latin America, from Mexico to Chile, from the 
mid-1970s into at least the late 1980s, most 
countries were governed by military juntas, by 
dictators, by regimes that relied on terror and 
torture to thwart the will of the people. One by 
one in the past twenty-two years, those regimes 
have been overthrown, voted out, gradually 
transformed, so that Latin America, that former 
continent of carnage and fear, is now a beacon of 
hope for the rest of the world and many of its 
governments lead the fight against corporate 
globalization. That seemed impossible in 1984.

What, then, is impossible in 2006 that you who 
are still so young will live to see become 
actuality? More atrocities, more miracles and 
shocks, much that is now unimaginable.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The test of a 
first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold 
two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, 
and still retain the ability to function." The 
state of the world is always a jumble of opposing 
ideas, of uprisings and crackdowns, of wonder and 
horror. Fitzgerald's forgotten next sentence is, 
"One should, for example, be able to see that 
things are hopeless and yet be determined to make 
them otherwise."

Hopeless is one story, otherwise is another; go 
tell it on your mountain or internship or 
wherever you're headed, but never forget that you 
know how to dismantle stories, how to question 
them, how to compare and contrast them, and maybe 
sometimes how to invent or reinvent them. This is 
vital, since your task as the young being cut 
loose at this moment of graduation from what we, 
the old, have to give is to reinvent the 
universe, the universe made out of stories -- to 
change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, 
and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but 
not an impossible one. Not if you remember, as 
readers and scholars might, that we are living in 
an impossible world already.

Rebecca Solnit's Tomdispatch-generated Hope in 
the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is 
out in a new and expanded edition. Her most 
recent book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

[This is the text of the 2006 commencement 
address for the Department of English at the 
University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright 1984/2006 Rebecca Solnit.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
posted May 14, 2006 at 7:40 am
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