A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Rebecca Solnit: Metaphor And Migration

I'm very much drawn to the mind and writings of Californian author, activist, feminist, environmentalist and cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, and her way of seeing the world. If a book is extra-special, I often find myself marking passages, taking notes, copying out quotations. The reason is: I don't want such exciting thoughts and ideas, such arresting tropes and expressions, simply to disappear into the ether. I want my memory to be jogged; and these joggings prompt me back into the lush experience of the whole book.

Recently I read through some notes I'd made on A Book of MigrationsSolnit's book about Ireland. You can't really call her travel books 'travel' books; they are an uncategorisable pot pourri of history, geography, politics, anthropology, ecology, environmentalism, personal anecdote and first-hand experience — so different from the gimmicky, laugh-a-minute, populist travelogues of the Bill Bryson school. A Book of Migrations is full of penetrating insights, sharp and fresh observations, imaginative connections. She writes beautifully, finding metaphor in everything. Her phrases and figures of speech can be lyrical and poetic, though she also has her feet placed firmly on the ground. And sometimes she reveals a wry sense of humour, casting an owlishly beady eye on the world.

Here are some of my marginalia and brief jottings; I hope they stimulate you too.

Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place.

One climbs the mountain to see the valley.

Walking round the Dublin Natural History Museum, Solnit sees the stuffed animals as imperial souvenirs, and calls the museum itself a lexicon of form.

She calls metaphors the transportation systems of the mind (brilliant, this, I think). Metaphors are the way we make connections between disparate things, the way we make creative sense of the world. Machines can not make these intuitive, aesthetic connections. We make contact with Creation through metaphor. The first symbols were animals, then plants, then words. Human beings first as nomads (birds), then settlers (trees).

Every cell in the human body is renewed every seven years.

Travel: a series of discomforts in magnificent settings.

Contrast between Academia and New Ageism: the Academic accentuates too many distinctions between cultures; the New Ager blurs too many differences between cultures. Solnit seeks the middle ground between what she terms the fuzzy (New Age) and the icy (Academe).

Nietzsche says that truth is a metaphor we have forgotten is a metaphor.

Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery. (An American wildlife expert.)

Two things are alike up to the point of their differences.

Masculine England and feminine Ireland (Ireland raped by England).

The freemasonry of the road.

Things seen to rise gradually out of their surroundings are infinitely more real than things which suddenly bump up in front of one.

She is not taken in by the folksiness, the shamrock image, the professional charm of the Irish. She is refreshingly realistic about landscape, doesn't write about it in clichés as 'pretty' etc. She sees landscape as it properly is — in the context of people, geology, history, politics, culture.

Reversing the popular view, she hates B & Bs, viewing them as an enforced intimacy, a miniature 'colonization'!

She likes recounting short chance meetings, impressionistic personal encounters — then interpreting them, contextualising them. Every chance encounter is the beginning/middle/end of a story only glimpsed incompletely.

Identity as destination not origin (an anti-Eden myth). (NB This echoes the Existentialist position of existence before essence.)

National identity is based as much on forgetting as remembering.

Walking — or upright bipedalism — is the common point of origin for all human beings.

She describes tomb uprights with a slab on top as being in defiance of gravity or celebration of balance.

Every place is both exotic and local.

The Irish: 80% drunk and 20% depressed (cheeky!).

Efficiency is an unfriendly virtue, and no one I met in Ireland seemed afflicted with it.

The mobile person sees the landscape as static . . . but the stationary person sees that everything around is changing.

Ireland is not rocklike or static, but is always changing itself.

Birds are rooted in Irish culture: swans are incarnations of human souls. The symbology of birds: the soaring imagination, freedom, escape, spiritual energy, song.

The Irish exile (e.g. James Joyce): no longer belonging to where one comes from, yet unable to become part of where one has ended up.

This may be one of the under appreciated pleasures of travel: of being at last legitimately lost and confused.

I like inconclusiveness, like a conversation that will always need more to be said . . .


Susan Scheid said...

The art of marginalia is a very fine art. It took me so long to bring myself to jot in margins (only books I own, of course), and what a difference it makes to the pleasure of reading, as you so amply demonstrate here. I'm hard pressed to choose, but here's one that struck me particularly: "The mobile person sees the landscape as static . . . but the stationary person sees that everything around is changing." I think part of the reason was attendance at a concert last night where one of the composers, in introducing his piece, commented: It's not narrative. Think of it like a painting, just be in and with it. It was, definitely, about the art of being still and absorbing one's surroundings.

donna baker said...

Oh, I have literally piles and bits scattered about. Not just literary writings, but factoids and pics. I run across them from time to time. My children will think I'm crazy when they sift through them I think. I have never heard of this author, but she does sound interesting.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, a kind of synaesthesia of art forms, Susan... very reminiscent of Solnit's own genre-bending approach to writing. Think too of a modern jazz piece (perhaps late Miles Davis) or a piece of Indian raga music being circular, not linear like a sonata or symphony or pop song... Confounding expectations: so stimulating and refreshing.

The Solitary Walker said...

Let the inner magpie have its wings, Donna! That's what I say.

Anonymous said...

I will always now associate B&Bs with meeting fellow bloggers!

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I know what you're talking about, Dominic! And B & Bs also remind me of this: http://solitary-walker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/south-west-coast-path-day-12-sidmouth.html

George said...

A wonderful, inspiring post, Robert. I feel as if I've just had a wonderful dinner conversation with two of my favorite people, Solnit and The Solitary Walker.

The Solitary Walker said...

Why, thank you, George! I felt you were there too, as I know how much you like Solnit's 'Wanderlust'. Now, do have a nice glass of port to accompany that Stilton...

dritanje said...

I particularly like the comments on the Irish non-affliction with efficiency, and arrival, like origin, being a mythical place (as in Cavafy's 'Ithaca') oh and Nietzsche's comment on truth being a metaphor that we've forgotten is a metaphor.
Solnit's name keeps coming up and I know I will have to read her soon hopefully. Thanks for an excellent introduction, solitary walker.

Anonymous said...

Your B&B kipper story reminded me of my wedding night, spent in a Welsh B&B.

It was a farm. Every room had a clock in it and -in all ones we went into, anyway- all showed wildly different times. The farmer's wife complained to us how her husband was forever starting things, but not finishing them. In the morning I woke up and opened the curtains. Outside, a lawn stretched away toward the mountains. A brick wall had been built half way across the middle of the lawn. Where it left off, overgrown, a wheelbarrow lay on its side beside a pile of bricks.

It was a great B&B by the way. If I could remember where it was I'd happily stay there again.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ah, yes, Wales. Enough said.

Do you think the husband was lying somewhere nearby in a shallow grave?