For Rebecca Solnit and Virginia Woolf, thought travels by detour and collision.
By **William M. Morgan**
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf famously speaks of the way a thought comes upon her. While she sits beside the river, thought lets “its line down into the stream , letting the water lift it and sink it, until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line.” Upon hauling in the thought, Woolf remarks that it might be best “put back.” Yet once put back, the thought excites her again, and Woolf walks off “with extreme rapidity” over the Oxbridge grass. She is immediately intercepted, however, by “a man’s figure” and told to use the gravel path. Woolf next remarks: “What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing, I could not now remember.”
Having lost her thought at a border enforced by patriarchy, Woolf raises the problems of wandering, trespassing, and thinking as a woman. The contemporary essayist Rebecca Solnit renovates Woolf’s metaphor, writing in Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (2007): “the straight line of conventional narrative is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours. It is not how our thoughts travel, nor does it allow us to map the whole world.” For Solnit and Woolf, thought travels by detour and collision, by “trespassing geographical[ly] and intellectual[ly].” Solnit pays homage to and transforms Woolf’s ideas about wandering, thinking, human rights, and community. Reading Solnit next to Woolf gives us a fresh sense of Woolf’s feminist criticism, as Solnit re-charts Woolf’s path and reconfigures our sense of belonging.
Solnit and Woolf both embrace the figure of the intellectual as a wanderer, rambling through landscapes, haunting streets, and changing our perceptions. In “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (1927), Woolf walks “half across London” just to buy a lead pencil and mingle in the urban river of anonymous humanity. Woolf’s delight is both that her eye “rests on beauty” and that she “shed[s] the self our friends know us by” and feels “no longer quite [herself].” Such momentary self-loss is exhilarating for Woolf but fundamental to our better instincts for Solnit.
Solnit’s essays collected in Storming the Gates of Paradise also suggest that “a passion for justice and pleasure in small things are not incompatible.” Part of the pleasure of “A Route in the Shape of a Question” is that Solnit gets lost while retracing Walter Benjamin’s escape route from the Nazis through southern France to the Spanish border. Walking through terraced vineyards above the Mediterranean Sea, she notices grasshoppers “with the wingspans of dragonflies” and “species of butterflies,” which all “have four basic wing motions that occur in so random a sequence that predators cannot predict where they will be.” Soon, she is thinking of how Benjamin’s writing, like the long city walks he took, investigates “a series of ideas that spiral around, double back, open into each other, metamorphose, and make endless connections, a map of the world drawn as much by poetic intuition as by rational analysis.” Her meditation deepens, however, by drawing on the darkness of Benjamin’s story: he was turned back for not having an exit visa and died soon after. Elsewhere, Solnit recognizes that such darkness is “the ground and condition of hope” for her and Woolf.
Solnit calls herself a “low-rent Virginia Woolf,” yet Solnit moves beyond Woolf’s lingering class prejudices to develop a broader range of applications for Woolfian insights.
As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, Judith Shakespeare “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads,” because she could not wander freely, making known her incandescent genius. Pondering the empty bookcase of women’s literature, Woolf wonders how many others must have “dashed [their] brains out or mopped about crazed with the torture of [their] gift[s]” because they “had been made to stagnate when [they] wanted to wander free over the world.” And for Solnit, Benjamin becomes an instantiation of all refugees—whether Jew, Palestinian, or Mexican—who are denied refuge and human rights by border police. Solnit wonders what European cultural centers might have been like had six million Jews not vanished, and what the Middle East or the North American West might be like if, as she states in “Thirty-Nine Steps across the Border and Back,” “empathy [were not] confiscated, truth held up indefinitely, [and] meaning lost in translation” at the border.
Stories of immobilization, bereavement, and loss thus ground Solnit’s claim in Wanderlust (2000), her history of walking, that “from Aristotle’s peripatetics to the roaming poets of New York and Paris” “walking has been a mode of contemplation and composition,” and “those who have been unable to walk out as far as their feet would take them have been denied not merely exercise or recreation but a vast portion of their humanity.” And these stories suggest exactly why Woolf figures the best ideas in her non-fiction through images of unencumbered women.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf conceptualizes the androgynous mind needed for literary greatness while watching a woman and a man cross the park from opposite directions, get into a cab, and drive away together. And throughout Three Guineas (1938), she locates her argument about women, education, and pacifism in public spaces that are uniquely free. “From one bridge over the Thames, she looks onto the monuments of English authority—St. Paul’s, the Bank of England, the Houses of Parliament,” criticizing the privileged garb of men and the causes of war. From another, she thinks through how women will reconstruct the modern university. With these images before her, Woolf decides she cannot respond in an ordinary way to a letter she received from a lawyer asking for help in the anti-war effort. Instead, Three Guineas is penned to re-chart the whole conversation about pacifism, war, and education, eventuating in Woolf’s call for a society of outsiders who swear off patriotism and forego money, power, and vanity, refusing to be “adulterers of the brain” as they enter the professions and redefine the globe.
In a moment of levity in Wanderlust, Solnit calls herself a “low-rent Virginia Woolf,” yet Solnit moves beyond Woolf’s lingering class prejudices to develop a broader range of applications for Woolfian insights. Where Woolf mentions democratic sociability as a motive for her rambles but pulls back from strangers, Solnit thrusts us into the streets for good. Mapping alliances among peace advocates, refugees, immigrants, urban dwellers, and the homeless, she reveals how profoundly we depend on “our sense of connection and trust in strangers.” And, further, A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Solnit’s recent study of the utopias that rise from disasters, champions our ability to metamorphose, showing us how ordinary people repeatedly respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and economic collapses by creating improvisational communities “where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and [where] the fate that faces [us], no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared.”
In “Woolf’s Darkness,” a talk delivered in 2009, Solnit suggests that Woolf, perhaps more than Susan Sontag, practices a criticism that aims not “to nail down the clouds” but to unleash their energy. Yet even more than Woolf, Solnit’s criticism gives full value to Oscar Wilde’s quip (which she quotes approvingly) that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always heading.” As in Wilde’s art and life, there is anguish in Solnit’s utopian writing. It is, however, like the anguish of the butterfly, whose body disintegrates and reforms throughout its life—an anguish, as Solnit suggests in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), that makes the butterfly “so fit an emblem for the human soul.”
William M. Morgan directs the Writing Center and teaches essay writing at New York University.