You know that feeling of awe, delight and reverence when you stumble across your own thoughts about something but expressed exponentially more eloquently than you ever could? That just happened to me while reading Rebecca Solnit’s insights on pleasure, politics, art and activism and how they all interconnect. Head over to The Believer to read the full interview.
But we tend to think of politics as a tiny fenced-off arena of unpleasantness, which most Americans avoid—except for the horse race of a primary season or fun moral questions often centered in irrelevant individual crimes and acts. But politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.
Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.
Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequence through legislation and opposition, but to change the causes is cultural work—people are not less homophobic in this country because we have better legislation; we have better legislation because people—even the Supreme Court a few years back—are less homophobic. The political changes matter immensely, but they come out of cultural changes—which doesn’t mean you don’t need activists inside and outside electoral politics; it just means that everyone who came out of the closet to their friends, family, and schoolmates or coworkers was also engaging in a political act, and the rise of nonscary, nondamaged queer characters in entertainment mattered, that representations and the war against cliché mattered. Even Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres mattered, and that two-hankie movie about queer cowboys.
Pleasure can be radical. In a divided culture, being undivided and synthesizing and connecting across broad areas can be an act of resistance, just as being slow—as in doing things deliberately, walking or biking or cooking from scratch or gardening or sitting around and swapping stories, not being dilatory or sluggish—in a sped-up culture is an act of resistance akin to the work slowdowns that were one form of factory strike.
And there’s no firm dividing line between passionate political engagement and epiphany and pleasure. At the core of my writing is a desire to dissolve most of the cultural Berlin Walls running through our imaginations. After all, it was through that Nevada Test Site experience that I discovered that the sunset is just as beautiful when you’re in handcuffs, and a holding pen can be a very good place from which to watch it.
-Rebecca Solnit, Interview with The Believer