The Lost World of Rebecca Solnit

“You rely too much on the brain. The brain is the most overrated organ, I think.” — Isaac David, Manhattan

I should say from the onset that I am not chronicling Rebecca Solnit the writer, at least as she presents herself in her text. Rather, I am dwelling specifically upon Solnit the public intellectual, the figure you are likely to encounter at a book reading. Or perhaps this is about Solnit the writer. You see, that’s the way things work in the Solnit universe. Terms are set up, but they merely serve as a needlessly convoluted bypass to Solnit’s vast depository of heavy reading and inventive associations. Basic premises are not followed up or questioned, because the intellectual peanut gallery (in Berkeley, no less) is too busy fawning over just how damn smart Solnit is and how damn articulate she is. Which must count for something if you live a life cloistered from actual feeling and when regular people aren’t nearly as interesting as arcane books intended to be endlessly deconstructed by gray pates.

I should point out that it is not anti-intellectualism that fuels this post. Rather, it is context and dimension. Because anyone who publicly declares herself “the love child of Gary Snyder and Susan Sontag” must be taken to task. Anyone who constantly kveteches about the evils of the right-wing in a completely unrelated tangent while expatiating about a French philosopher must be reconsidered.

There were seven of us, including Tito, Scott and several other nice people, at Cody’s Books. We were there to see Solnit, who lives here in San Francisco and has written eight books, including a microhistory called Wanderlust. The latest book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which was germinated by a fair enough premise: How to go about finding something unknown to you? Solnit, a self-described cultural historian and activist, was dressed in a close-fitting grey leather jacket, a black top, black jeans, and a faded pink scarf embedded with thin white stripes that suggested an explorer motif. She had a very large head on a very petite body. She stared at the crowd with enormous owl-like eyes that blinked in mechanical measure just above a slight aquiline nose. She had blonde hair with a slight shock of grey, suggesting Sontag’s famous white streak, just above her right temple.

I liked her best when she was mispronouncing French terms. I liked her best when she drifted away from lecture mode. She was better slinging unexpected malapropisms. Because this insinuated a well-read and potentially down-to-earth person with a self-deprecating sense of humor. A human who might just communicate with the layman or, if not that, anyone with a bit of a brain. A human who might be viscerally as well as intellectually lost.

Unfortunately, when Solnit read, the hauteur was laid thick. There was a pompous and elitist New England intonation when she read from her pages that suggested the worst aspects of NPR. It did not help matters that she would follow her sentences with a deep sniff, as if expecting to engage in an obnoxious breathing contest with Parisian intellectuals.

Never mind that what she read was quite interesting. First, she noted the history of maps, pointing out how Las Vegas was developing so fast that it required a new map every month so that parcels could be delivered and residences could be found. She referened terra incognita and referred to San Francisco as the mysterious island attached to North America. But when she read and when she lectured, it sounded like some soporific narration from the Discovery Channel. This may have had something to do with the microphone volume, which meant hunching close to the mike so that the folks in the back could hear.

But it also may very well be that Solnit is too institutionalized to see the real world. After all, she did refer to Novato, the city where a good deal of my extended family lives, as the “redneck part of Marin.” Never mind that an average home there goes for $366,921.

Solnit confessed that she “had a lot of fun with tangled tangential narratives” when writing the book. I’ve had a lot of fun with terms that are too intricate to vocalize myself, but you wouldn’t catch me announcing such an unfortunate phrase in public. And she described the sensation of being lost, only to describe how she perceived the color blue and her take on country music. During eight rounds of questions, I kept my hand patiently raised, wanting to ask her how settling on pure constructs and ideas actually led to one genuinely being lost. After all, wasn’t the idea of being lost visceral? Didn’t it involve letting the mind go and, if returning to a terrain, recapturing the initial lost feeling you felt when first discovering it? If one knew the intellectual terrain, then the sensation of being lost was, to my mind, emotionally challenged.

But Solnit, perhaps seeing my wry smile, passed. Even when Tito tried to get Solnit to remark on how her sensation of San Francisco compared to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Solnit evaded the issue, preferring to expatiate on another subject, rather than convene with another thinking mind who wanted to understand where she was coming from.

Here were some of the pronouncements uttered midway through Solnit’s responses:

  • “The self is a trauma” without any real elaboration on this idea.
  • “Socrates always wins, even though he’s so annoying.”
  • A brief allusion to a “punk rock youth,” presumably to establish streetcred.

Solnit also made reference to being “cross-examined” on a hour-long radio show (“a weird interview”) shortly before her hegira to safety and unquestioning mass acceptance across the Bay. The radio show hosts in question had dared to ask Solnit about what she intended by the title.

The Berkeley liberal crowd ate Solnit up like a rock star. One almost expected them to touch Solnit’s hem when she was done. A father asked Solnit how he could instill the spirit of “being lost” within offspring. Call me crazy, but parenting advice from a deconstructionist is never a sound proposition. One woman declared that in light of Solnit’s ability to get lost in her native environment, she couldn’t “possibly imagine how you’d get lost on an exotic cantina!” Another commented upon how “musical” Solnit’s voice was, presumably confusing hollow etherealness for an actual key.

Solnit’s strategy seemed to be to evade any question asked of her, throwing in a Walter Benjamin reference or two, and speaking without so much as an “uh” or “ah.” Although again, there were plenty of prerigged sniffs.

Rather interestingly, Solnit had been told by some unknown representative that she needed to repeat all questions and flattering remarks to her bookstore audience.

The book, incidentally, had been padded out because Solnit’s editor told her that a handful of chapters was not long enough to sell her book. So four chapters, chronicling “The Blue of Distance” were inserted among Solnit’s ruminations upon the issue of being lost.

But my general conclusion was that the real person who was lost was Solnit herself, no matter what her strengths on paper. Perhaps more than she knew.

[RELATED: Scott Esposito’s account of the event. Also, Tito offers a Consumer Reports-style comparison of the Ames and Solnit readings.]

[UPDATE: Mere Observation wonders if I’m being “too assholian” with this post. Again, I was very clear to explain from the onset that my opinion reflected Solnit’s public persona — a valid perspective, given that Solnit went out of her way to compare herself with one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. To refrain from anything less than an honest assessment here would be to serve injustice upon what I experienced. Nor was I completely negative in my depiction, as I’m sure the above will attest. However, in hindsight, I should point out that I find myself willing to subscribe more towards Scott’s view, which laid the onus at the crowd.]

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