Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

Our mental landscape

There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever, for a child the time until a birthday is endless. Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall. The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not what Nabhan calls abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway,”

Rebecca Solnit, from “The Blue of Distance,” A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking Penguin, 2005) (from here) 

 

 

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What is omitted

Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend purely from painters. Just as purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out mothers and even fathers of the mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources of inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers (p 59). Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost 

(from here) 

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The power of absence

Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you’re present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion. The places inside matter as much as the ones outside. It is as though in the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities — a lot of religions have local deities, presiding spirits, geniuses of the place.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost 

 

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The purpose of art and literary criticism

. . . . [W]e often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.

Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, The New Yorker, 24/4/2014

(from here) 

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On not knowing

There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the absence of exact information.

Often enough, we don’t know such things even when it comes to ourselves, let alone someone who perished in an epoch whose very textures and reflexes were unlike ours. Filling in the blanks replaces the truth that we don’t entirely know with the false sense that we do. We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretences at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.

Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable (from here) 

 

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