www.newyorker.com /culture/q-and-a/rebecca-solnit-on-the-politics-of-pleasure

Rebecca Solnit on the Politics of Pleasure

Condé Nast 9-11 minutes 11/5/2021

Rebecca Solnit is a dizzyingly prolific writer. Her two dozen or so books and innumerable essays, published throughout a career now in its fourth decade, tunnel variously into history, science, cultural criticism, politics, and the interiors of her own life. She was already a considerably influential literary figure by the time her 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me” catapulted her to a new level of cultural stardom, as a 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 that she really ought to read a tremendously important book, recently published, about the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Solnit, of course, was its author.) After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, her political writing—progressive, epigrammatic, genteelly furious—published in the Guardian and elsewhere, brought her a still greater audience, to the point that she was named “the voice of the resistance” by the Times and now presides over a Facebook community page with some 189,000 members, though the intensity of its discourse has tapered with the advent of a new Presidential Administration.

Rebecca Solnit

“Roses can just be themselves, or they can have all the burden of meaning packed onto them,” Solnit says.Source photograph by Kelly Sullivan / Getty

Solnit’s most recent book, “Orwell’s Roses,” is, depending on how the light hits, a natural history of gardening, a dissection of the rose as 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 recounting of the life and politics of George Orwell, who planted the roses of Solnit’s title in the spring of 1936, when he was living at a cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, about thirty miles north of London. That year, between reporting on labor conditions in Manchester coal mines and travelling to the Continent to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell found time to get his hands in the soil, and over the following years he took great pleasure in cultivation. When Solnit visited his cottage in person, in 2017, she found that the fruit trees he had planted were decades gone, but two tremendous rosebushes—likely Orwell’s own—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 rose farms, and why she doesn’t consider “Orwell’s Roses” a biography.

Is it out of character for Orwell—somebody who is so antifascist and so politically strident—to also care about flowers?

I don’t think it is at all. We’re all complex that way. But I do think that there’s a kind of left-wing sense that, if you care about something smaller, charming, or personal, you don’t care about the great public issues of the day. Somehow, caring about anti-racism or human rights or climate change means you can’t enjoy yourself or spend time on things that are not furthering the revolution, and that’s not true of any of us. Sometimes the people who try to only care about the great noble goal make themselves miserable, and then go on to make everyone else miserable, and don’t really accomplish a great deal, necessarily. There are lots of other figures where you could look at their hobbies, their pastimes, their pleasures, and people would go, “Oh, but they weren’t really serious.” But nobody’s going to say that about Orwell: he’s so white and male and heterosexual and stern and committed. If you can make the case with him that these things always belong together, you can make it for all of us.

Is it actually the case that cultivating a rose garden can be an act of resistance, or is it just a line that we tell ourselves to stave off despair?

There are a lot of ways in which the destructive forces around us want us to be consumers, want us to be malleable and gullible. Anything that makes us something else—somebody with a robust sense of self, somebody with a sense of pleasure, somebody with independence of thought—is not the revolution itself, but it might help reinforce the character who can resist. This touches on something else that was really important to me in the book: we often have a sense that the only stuff that makes us people who can resist is, you know, the propaganda telling us that bad people are doing bad things, and it’s bad, and we should stop it. But there’s also a question of who is capable of independent thought, who resists the lies, the propaganda, the totalitarianism, who has the courage to stand up—and what might instill that in you?

Various people—including, I think, Orwell—argue that this is often a much more complex and subtle process. Rereading “1984” in the course of writing this, I was surprised to find a book that felt very different than it had all the other times I’d read it over the forty or so previous years. Winston Smith, in rebelling against Big Brother—his very first act is to pull out a beautiful blank book he’s bought, and Orwell describes the sensuousness of the paper, the act of writing with pen and ink. He’s not only cultivating an independence of thought but he’s appreciating the sensuality of the materials and the act. He goes on from there to listen to birds singing, to have a love affair, to eat forbidden chocolate, to acquire a paperweight with a bit of coral that becomes a symbol for this private world he’s created with his love affair, to admire the washerwoman hanging up diapers and singing in a beautiful contralto voice out the window. This itself becomes his reclaiming of all the things he’s not supposed to have and see and be and enjoy. When I understood that, the book took a really different shape: it’s not just about the need to destroy or resist Big Brother, but to do it in these very indirect ways, by being who they don’t want you to be.

Celebrating these domestic, human-scale pleasures feels familiar to me from activist philosophies and feminism and anti-racism—the sort of reclamation of selfhood that is central to liberating the marginalized or exploited. And, as you say, Orwell was stern and white and male and heterosexual. Does that change the nature of this reclamation?

Women, people of color, queer people all have claimed the right to well-being, to pleasure and joy, as part of the rebellion against inferior status or oppression. Although there’s plenty of austerity in all of those movements, and I’ve run into them—in anti-racism, it’s mostly from other white people telling people what to do, and God knows the feminism that I was around in the nineteen-eighties essentially said that a woman should wear Doc Martens and work clothes, and anything feminine was somehow subjugation. But these were just the young, anarchist-y activist circles of my youth. More broadly, we still haven’t fully accepted the question of how the personal and the political connect. It was a great feminist rallying cry, but we’re still not done doing that work. And we’re still not done thinking about what an activist life, an engaged life, can look like. We’re still not done connecting the natural world to the political world. It’s an ongoing project, and it felt like this book was an eclectic way to come at some of that stuff from an unfamiliar angle.

Roses have such a rich history as a metaphorical vehicle that they’re almost a cliché—Robert Burns, Gertrude Stein, Shakespeare. But in this book you take them to places that feel very new: capitalism, colonialism, climate change.

What I love is that roses can just be themselves, or they can have all the burden of meaning packed onto them as religious symbols, tools of romance, et cetera. Or they could stand for flowering plants and the whole plant kingdom. I could think about carbon sequestrations: there’s the coal that Orwell went to investigate just before he planted those roses—which itself was compressed plants of the Carboniferous period. I could look at roses as a commercial product, and go to Colombia and look at the completely horrific rose industry, and roses then became a wonderful way to think about how something that can be visually appealing, something that can seem to have high aesthetic values, can have very different ethical values. In that sense, they became a symbol for the whole contemporary world.

We live in a world of alienated commodities, where lots of things that look pretty or taste good or are fun and useful are produced in completely horrific conditions, in terms of labor and human rights and environmental impact. And, by design, we’re not supposed to notice that. A lot of the work that activists do—from sweatshop activists to climate activists—is to try to make the invisible visible. The ultimate visibility of roses—which, curiously, in these situations, become only visual, because they no longer have much in the way of scent—became a great way to represent all of that.