Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is, like most contemporary writing, something that I saw floating around online and laid out prominently in bookstores for years before I eventually got my hands on it. Solnit even came through the city I live in about a year or two ago but, since I wasn’t really familiar with her work at that point, I didn’t even go see her talk — though now I am kicking myself for not going! I finally got the chance to read this collection of essays because of a secret gift exchange I do with some coworkers each year. The lovely lady who was my secret gift giver picked this book out for me because it was on her to-be-read list, too. I am so glad she sent this to me because I was (unsurprisingly) absolutely floored by Solnit’s writing.
Like I said before, I was pretty unfamiliar with most of Solnit’s work, though her name inevitably appeared in various literary lists, articles, and what not. I wasn’t even aware of the connection between this titular essay and the concept of mansplaining that took over in recent years, especially in the online space. I know both the term ‘mansplaining’ and the title ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ can elicit a knee-jerk reaction from some people who assume something about Solnit’s ideas from what they believe the title or word indicates. However, what I like about Solnit is that she can be fairly polemical in the way she unabashedly criticizes culture, but she is also very self-reflexive and that self-reflexivity is what makes her ideas so brilliant and nuanced. Take, for example, how she views mansplaining:
“The term “mansplaining” was coined soon after the piece appeared, and I was sometimes credited with it. In fact, I had nothing to do with it’s actual creation, though my essay, along with all the men who embodied the idea, apparently inspired it. (I have doubts about the word and don’t use it much myself much; it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed in this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.)” — Men Explain Things to Me, 13
She is also quick to acknowledge when men have been allies for women and when men have made use of whatever privileges they have to let women be heard. However, she does not sugar-coat the truth for the sake of a few (masculine) feelings:
“It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90% of the time.” — Men Explain Things to Me, 24
The easy movement between statistical data, feminist critique, and compassionate analysis of the horrific material before her, allows Solnit to really cut at the heart of why issues regarding deep-seated expectations around gender norms/roles are still incredibly pertinent today. I will admit that reading this essay collection, the newer 2014 edition, made me feel a bit sad; a lot of what she discussed as events or movements in the mid-2000s (and even earlier) are things we still see crop up today. I think it was also a bit disheartening because the watershed moments she described back then are similar to things that we see in the news now, often described as something completely new when in reality these are fights that have been going on for decades. In a lot of ways the same battles are fought and so many people must continue to suffer for society to change. Yet, Solnit makes the point that any significant change will, unfortunately, take time. Rather than becoming too disheartened by what has not changed, we can celebrate what has changed, and focus on what needs to happen for there to be more change sooner.
My favorite essay from the book was by far ‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’. What I loved about this piece was Solnit’s desire to push us towards accepting the unknown, accepting darkness, using a line from one of Virgnia Woolf’s journals as the jumping-off point:
“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think. 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.” — Men Explain Things to Me, 80
The focus is on accepting ambiguity and letting go of received narratives, whether that be about society writ large, or even the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. I think that oftentimes ambiguity seems to be uncomfortably close to negation; if we can’t actually pin ourselves down as something (or someone), then what are we — are we really anything? And that uncertainty can be alarming.
“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 we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses 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. Woolf was unparalleled at that later language.”– Men Explain Things to Me, 82
The need to constitute ourselves through definitive or authoritative ways presents itself in the way we use language. I think that the current political climate in the United States is an interesting case study of her point here – particularly when we have an administration who assert many things that end up being patently false and even easily debunked. What seems to matter is the manner in which these statements are made (intended to erase all ambiguity of who is “winning” or “the greatest”), not the actual content of these statements nor is it important whether these assertions are even able to stand up against any inquiry. When we run from ambiguity out of fear, we end up lying to ourselves and others — sometimes in spectacular ways.
Solnit highlights the beauty of ambiguity and accepting the darkness, ending the entire text on a hopeful note. Personally, I gravitate towards writers who are able to point to the horrific things occurring in the world (such as gendered violence taking place globally), while also being able to see how, in some places, things have improved in a relatively short amount of time. Though there is darkness, as Woolf penned, there is some way we can read this darkness as something positive — an aspect of being, rather than negation. We can be hopeful because although there is still so much that needs to be addressed outside of issues of gender, the work has begun and no one can forcibly turn back the clocks on these ideas,
“Here is the road, maybe a thousand miles long, and the woman walking down it isn’t at mile one. I don’t know how far she has to go, but I know she’s not going backward, despite it all – and she’s not walking alone. Maybe it’s countless men and women and people with more interesting genders.
Here’s the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now. People die in this war, but ideas cannot be erased.” — Men Explain Things to Me, 154
As is probably clear from this post, I really enjoyed reading Solnit and would like to read more. I think it’s a shame that a lot of people have reduced her work to “mansplaining” when what she addresses is so much more compelling than a buzzword. However, I will say that there was one moment in the text that gave me pause and I couldn’t really decide whether I bought the imagery she was using or not. In one chapter, Grandmother Spider, Solnit meditates on the idea of female nonexistent and the violence of obliteration. She begins with a description of a painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez that is placed under the chapter heading, an image of a woman whose body is mostly obscured by a large bedsheet she is hanging up on a line. From the image of the female body obscured (veiled, covered), Solnit moves eventually to other examples of women who “have been made to disappear”. One example is a photograph that ran in The New York Times during the war in Afghanistan:
“The big image at the head of the story was supposed to show a family, but I only saw a man and children, until I realized with astonishment that what I had taken for drapery or furniture was a fully veiled woman. She had disappeared from view, and whatever all the other arguments may be about veils and burkas, they make people literally disappear.” — Men Explain Things to Me, 67–68
Likening things to other things based on how they look (or how you yourself perceive them) is how many terrible — and false — equivalences are made. I am not someone who wears a veil of any kind, nor am I someone who understands the culture behind this photograph or the power structure supporting it. However, I think that this moment is an example of someone excited about making connections between things (the idea of gendered disappearance – the painting – the photograph) without the making use of the ambiguity that she later lauds Woolf for. Do I find a lot of fault in this passage? Not really, because I am in no position to support it nor offer a really meaningfully critique. I did notice that this passage felt different from what I read elsewhere in the book and, since it stood out to me in some way, I wanted to touch on it here for anyone who happened to be curious.
I plan on continuing reading Solnit’s work, because I think her writing is absolutely beautiful and I love how she balances evidence with her own reflections. It’s crazy how long it took me to reading her work, but I am so happy that I did now and I look forward to reading more from her.
Please let me know if you have any recommendations on other Solnit books!