Rebecca Solnit’s prolific and varied career as a woman of letters is remarkable in its scope. Though I believe she is most often thought of as an essayist, she is in fact many different people, depending on who you ask. To feminists and women in general she is the brilliant champion who introduced the concept of mansplaining in her Men Explain Things to Me. To art historians she is the author of As Eve Said to the Serpent, a meditation on harsh landscapes and the feminine sublime. Sociologists read her reflections on disaster areas, most particularly Hurricane Katrina, in her Hope in the Dark and A Paradise Built in Hell.
To me, she is one of those rare souls who not only understands but is also able to explain the strange and wondrous existence of those of us who live most of our lives inside fictional worlds. That is the thing I have notes about: the way in which The Faraway Nearby so wonderfully captures the inseparability of our own stories from those gained through literature and other arts.
It begins: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.” It continues: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment.”
This is what we all do. We tell stories. And for Solnit, there is a very serious moral implication in the stories that we tell because telling stories, it turns out, is the basis for empathy. As she acutely sums up in an NPR interview: “We often talk about empathy as an emotional virtue, but it’s also an imaginative art. Before I can empathize with you, you have to become real to me. I have to listen to you, I have to tell myself your story. I have to imagine what it is like to be you with your illness or your situation or your aspirations or whatever it is. If you don’t have empathy, other people might not exist for you.”
Empathy is a major theme in the book, which takes place largely during her prolonged crisis of caring for a mother who has Alzheimer’s. A mother who, it turns out, was not terribly nice to Solnit in her younger days. Much empathy is required, and therefore much telling of stories. One of Solnit’s ways of empathizing is to imagine the stories by which her mother was affected:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, my mother liked to recite, though words hurt her all the time, and behind the words the stories about how things should be and where she fell short, as told by my father, by society, by the church, by the happy flawless women of advertisements. We all live in that world of images and stories, and most of us are damaged by some version of it, and if we’re lucky, find others or make better ones that embrace and bless us.
The point is this: we are at all times narrated, by ourselves and others. But you can work with the narration. Living life can be an immensely creative act. It’s both a personal creation and a creation that emphasizes the other in empathy.
[I feel like someone should insert an observation about Levinas and the Other here but that person isn’t me. You are welcome to chime in.]
To understand this, it is also useful to shift your perspective about what books are and how they work. There is one way to see it that I think we mostly all agree on at a basic level. This would be that the world is an infinitely complex web of interconnecting nouns – people, places, things – that interact with one another in interesting and sometimes grand and sometimes terrible ways. Book are reflections of that interconnecting web, and so books – which are also full of people and places and things – create their own worlds. Worlds that reflect or represent our non-book world.
She actually does make a point to discuss this kind of narrative mapping in terms of an archipelago: “You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.”
But for Solnit, fiction is not reflection or representation of this infinite web of island chains threaded together by our stories. (Or not only.) And this is where I find her perspective as a scholar of literature so valuable. Really, the best creative writers and theorists (I say ‘the best’ as if objectively when what I mean is ‘my favorite’) are those who show us how these multiple worlds are not separated into categories of real vs. not-real. But rather that they are all real.
[Perhaps also consult Leena Krohn’s wonderful story “The Darkness of Mirrors” which I discuss here.]
In The Faraway Nearby fictions are portals. One of the many forms of connective tissue in the web. When Solnit speaks of writing, she speaks of beginning in solitude but then discovering another world strangely inhabited by people. To anyone who reads as a child and then grows into an adult, it sounds familiar:
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised me and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.
She sees this as a tendency that forms a classic plot point in almost every book written for young people.
These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.
To continue the thought, this is why we feel so keenly related to Alice and her looking glass, to Mary and her secret garden, to Dorothy, to the wardrobe children, to all those who take the yearly train ride to Hogwarts – a place that is only kind of real. It is common to say that these figures represent our desire to disappear as well as our desire for transcendence. I say that they are not about potential escapes but actual escapes into literature. Which is transcendent in its own right.
So by way of closing, I think it’s valuable to tie together the idea of empathy with the idea of fiction as a form of reality into which one is absorbed in the reading. If we continue to think of fiction as mere representation, then story/narrative doesn’t have quite the force it deserves. It remains a sort of recounting. To think of empathy as Solnit insists we do – as a form of narrative understanding in which I am capable of grasping the story of another – is to insist upon the impact of narrative. Essentially, if empathy is an act of storytelling or storygrasping, then we had better be sure to treat stories not as something “out there” but as something very much “in here.” Narrative is what we live with and through, and so it is worth breaking down somewhat the categorization of fiction as a thing that is not a driving and important force in the non-fictional world.