Rebecca Solnit is a stunning and prolific writer. His more than two dozen books and countless essays, published throughout a career now in its fourth decade, variously explore the history, science, cultural criticism, politics, and the interiors of his own life. She was already a tremendously influential literary figure by the time her 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me” catapulted her to a new level of cultural stardom, as the guiding voice of feminist exasperation. (The essay opens with a now famous anecdote: In 2003, Solnit was cornered at a party by her host, a man who insisted she really should read an extremely important, recently published book. , on the first photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Solnit, of course, was its author.) After the 2016 election of Donald trump, his political writing – progressive, epigrammatic, gently furious – published in the Guardian and elsewhere, won her an even wider audience, to the point where she was called “the voice of the resistance” by the Times and now chairs a Facebook community page with some 189,000 members, although the intensity of his speech has diminished with the advent of a new presidential administration.
Solnit’s most recent book, “Orwell roses, is, depending on how the light strikes, a natural history of gardening, a dissection of the rose as a capitalist metaphor, or a defense of art and beauty as a bulwark against the annihilating forces of totalitarianism. At its core, it is an intimate account of the life and politics of George Orwell, who planted the roses of Solnit’s title in the spring of 1936, while living in a cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, about thirty miles north of London. That year, between reporting on working conditions in Manchester’s coal mines and traveling to the mainland to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell found time to get his hands on the land and, over the course of the following years he took great pleasure in cultivating. When Solnit visited his cottage in person, in 2017, she discovered that the fruit trees he had planted had been gone for decades, but two huge rose bushes, possibly Orwell’s, were in bloom. I recently spoke to Solnit by phone; in our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed pleasure as a form of resistance, the horrors of modern commercial roses, and why she doesn’t consider ‘Orwell’s Roses’ a biography .
Is it unusual for Orwell, someone so anti-fascist and so politically strident, to care about flowers too?
I don’t think it is. We are all complex that way. But I think there’s a kind of left-wing feeling that if you care about something smaller, charming, or personal, you don’t care about the big public issues of the day. Either way, caring about anti-racism, human rights, or climate change means you can’t have fun or spend time on things that don’t advance the revolution, and none of us do. Sometimes people who try to only care about the great, noble goal make themselves miserable, and then continue to make everyone miserable, and don’t really accomplish much, necessarily. There are a lot of other figures where you could look at their hobbies, their hobbies, their pleasures, and people would say, “Oh, but they weren’t really serious.” But no one will say that about Orwell: he’s so white and masculine and straight and stern and committed. If you can argue with him that these things always go together, you can do it for all of us.
Is it true that cultivating a rose garden can be an act of resistance, or is it just a line we tell ourselves to ward off despair?
There are many ways that the destructive forces around us want us to be consumers, to be malleable and gullible. Anything that makes us something else – someone with a robust sense of self, someone with a sense of fun, someone with independent thought – is not the revolution in itself, but it might help. to strengthen the character that can resist. It touches on something else that was really important to me in the book: we often feel like the only thing that makes us people who can resist is, you know, the propaganda telling us that the wrong people are doing bad things, and it’s bad, and we should stop it. But there is also the question of who is capable of independent thought, who resists lies, propaganda, totalitarianism, who has the courage to stand up – and what could instill that in you?
Various people, including, I think, Orwell, argue that this is often a much more complex and subtle process. Proofreading “1984”As I wrote this, I was surprised to find a book that looked very different to me from all the times I had read it in the past forty years. Winston Smith, in rebelling against Big Brother, his very first act is pulling out a beautiful white book he bought, and Orwell describes the sensuality of paper, the act of writing with pen and ink. He not only cultivates an independence of thought but he appreciates the sensuality of the materials and the act. It goes from there to listen to birdsong, to live a love story, to eat forbidden chocolate, to acquire a paperweight with a piece of coral which becomes the symbol of this intimate universe that it is. is created with her love story, to admire the washerwoman hanging up diapers and singing in a beautiful contralto voice through the window. That in itself becomes his reclamation of all the things that he is not meant to have, see and be and appreciate. When I figured that out, the book took on a really different form: it’s not just about the need to destroy or resist Big Brother, but to do it in these very indirect ways, being who they are. don’t want you to be.
Celebrating these domestic pleasures on a human scale strikes me as familiar to militant philosophies, feminism, and anti-racism – the kind of reclaiming individuality that is essential to liberating the marginalized or the exploited. And, as you say, Orwell was stern and white and masculine and straight. Does this change the nature of this recovery?
Women, people of color, homosexuals have all claimed the right to well-being, pleasure and joy, as part of the rebellion against inferior status or oppression. While there’s a lot of austerity in all of these movements, and I’ve encountered them – in anti-racism it’s mostly other white people telling people what to do, and God knows the feminism I’m in. was in the eighties basically saying that a woman should wear Doc Martens and work clothes, and that anything feminine was kind of subjugation. But it was only the young people, the militant anarchist circles of my youth. More broadly, we still haven’t fully embraced the question of how the personal and the political connect. It was a great feminist rallying cry, but we still haven’t finished doing this work. And we have not yet finished thinking about what an activist life, a committed life can look like. We are not yet done connecting the natural world to the political world. It’s an ongoing project, and I felt like this book was an eclectic way to approach some of these things from an unfamiliar perspective.
Roses have such a rich history as a metaphorical vehicle that they are almost a cliché: Robert Burns, Gertrude Stein, Shakespeare. But in this book, you take them to places that seem very new: capitalism, colonialism, climate change.
What I like is that roses can just be themselves, or that they can have the full weight of meaning on them as religious symbols, tools of romance, et cetera. Or they could represent flowering plants and the whole plant kingdom. I could think of carbon sequestrations: there’s the charcoal that Orwell went to study just before he planted these roses – which itself were compressed plants from the Carboniferous period. I could think of roses as a commercial product, and go to Colombia and look at the completely horrible rose industry, and then the roses have become a wonderful way of thinking of something that can be visually appealing, something that can seem have high aesthetic values, can have very different ethical values. In this sense, they have become a symbol for everyone today.
We live in a world of insane commodities, where a lot of things that look pretty or taste good or are fun and useful are produced under completely horrible conditions, in terms of labor rights, human rights. human and environmental impact. And, by design, we’re not supposed to notice it. Much of the work that activists do, from sweatshop activists to climate activists, is trying to make the invisible visible. The ultimate visibility of roses – which, oddly enough, in these situations become alone visual, because they don’t have much left in terms of smell – has become a great way to represent it all.