Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness” that appeared in the New Yorker online was what made me buy her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me. It wasn’t enough to read it in digital and possibly not have access to it forever. I had to read it in print so I could mark it up and I had to know that I would always have it.
What I like so much about this essay is not just that it is about Woolf, but that it is also about art, criticism and life and instead of being an abstract theory, Solnit manages to ground it and make it relevant to reading Woolf, reading in general and to being a human.
Solnit begins by quoting a January 18, 1915 diary entry of Woolf’s:
The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.
And she goes on to assert how
It’s an extraordinary declaration, asserting that the unknown need not be turned into the known through false divination, or the projection of grim political or ideological narratives; it’s a celebration of darkness, willing—as that “I think” indicates—to be uncertain even about its own assertion.
Most people are afraid of the dark.
Solnit suggests that it is the job of writers to go into the dark with eyes open, “to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing.” She acknowledges that not all writers are successful nor are all writers even interested in such an undertaking but if one wants to get at the truth, one needs to be willing to engage repeatedly with the dark unknown.
The main thrust of the essay is the ability to dwell in uncertainty whether you are a writer, critic, reader, or person who cares about the world. And it is easy to think, well, I am just fine with uncertainty, no problem at all, why, I don’t even know what I’ll be having for dinner tonight! Ah, but do you make plans? I do. I am a planner to the nth degree. Solnit quotes wilderness survival author Laurence Gonzalez:
‘The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.’ His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.
It is not the planning itself that is the problem, it is how we cope with the inevitable uncertainty that will arise when the plan and reality do not meet. Do we stick to the plan no matter what? Or do we revise the plan or maybe even toss it out completely?
This is where Woolf comes in:
All Woolf’s work as I know it constitutes a sort of Ovidian metamorphosis where the freedom sought is the freedom to continue becoming, exploring, wandering, going beyond. She is an escape artist.
The language of authority and assertion is so much simpler and easier, Solnit suggests, than that of nuance, speculation and ambiguity. Woolf is “unparalleled” at the latter language. Instead of trying to pin things down, she is always working at opening them up, expanding, connecting, inviting possibilities.
And I think that is what made me like this essay so much. Solnit’s Woolf is very much my Woolf too. What I love about Woolf is how she is so much like water: smooth, slippery, shape-changing, both transparent and opaque at the same time, she is never the same yet she is always herself. It is the darkness, the uncertainty that Woolf embraces that makes me describe her as being like water and the roots of her writing that I love most. Woolf never fails to astonish and delight me, to frustrate and anger me, to make me cry from sadness and beauty.
The essay as it appears online is edited a bit from how it appears in the print book so if you have the chance to read it in print, do. Also, whether you read it online or in print, be prepared for a sudden urge to read Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting” and her novel To the Lighthouse. I have been meaning to reread To the Lighthouse for awhile now. I think the time has finally come to actually do it.