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NBCC Reads

NBCC Featured Review: Brian Sholis on Rebecca Solnit

By Eric Banks

Each week Critical Mass features an exemplary review by an NBCC member. Below, in a review that originally appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brian Sholis considers Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

Rebecca Solnit agrees with one aspect of commonplace thinking about disasters: once a hurricane’s winds subside, an earthquake’s upheavals abate, or an explosion’s concussive force dissipates, the trouble is far from over. But the premise of Solnit’s forceful new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is that nearly everything else we are told about the aftermath of such events is wrong. Conventional wisdom suggests that the veneer of civilization is so thin as to be nearly translucent, and that at moments of desperation we regress to a Hobbesian state in which self-interest predominates to the point of violence. We expect looters to cart off large-screen televisions from the local Best Buy. We assume survivors will hoard water, food, and clothing. In such situations, we believe, compassion extends only as far as one’s family, or perhaps to one’s immediate neighbors. To counter this potential anarchy the full weight of institutional law and order must be brought to bear upon the devastated area—not only cops must patrol the streets but so, too, must the National Guard. And the recovery efforts must be managed by large organizations experienced in such relief work, whether governmental (FEMA) or non-profit (The Red Cross). Or so the story goes.

Solnit, however, contends that in the wake of disaster, altruism, purposefulness, and a sense of commonality bind people together. She was inspired in part by her experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, in which the ruptured earth created a parallel breach in normal priorities that led to a strange elation among the city’s residents. Everyday worries ceased to matter, if only temporarily. As she described it elsewhere, “the long-term perspective from which so much dissatisfaction and desire comes was shaken too: life, meaning, value were close to home, in the present.” In subsequently researching the 1906 earthquake (and fires) that wiped out much of the same town, the 1917 explosion of a French cargo ship carrying munitions through the narrows of Halifax Harbor, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, Solnit has uncovered a deep vein of benevolence, unselfish charity, and equanimity, all characteristics that contribute to what William James called the “civic temper.” There is Anna Amelia Holshouser, who set up a soup kitchen in Golden Gate Park three days after the 1906 quake and eventually served food to thousands of strangers. There is Vincent Coleman, a Halifax train dispatcher who lost his life rushing back to a telegraph office to warn incoming trains not to proceed. There are the hundreds of people who volunteered to escort through New York City nervous Arab American women and children in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

In the process of presenting this evidence, Solnit marshals a vast array of related topics and figures. As her previous books demonstrate, ranging widely is her modus operandi. Savage Dreams (which Solnit published in 1994) yokes together the mid-nineteenth-century war against American Indians and the mid-20th century nuclear tests that decimated acres of the same western states. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) expounds upon the many meanings of bipedal movement. The prize-winning River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003) spins outward from the photographer’s late-nineteenth-century technical achievements to mind-opening ruminations on the characteristics of modernity. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) offers a series of autobiographical essays that examine the possibilities inherent in uncertainty—and in the process touch on Renaissance painting, country music, and early American captivity narratives. So it isn’t surprising that while explicating the aftermaths of her five chosen disasters in this book, Solnit also discusses Hollywood horror movies, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, a Buddhist community’s reaction to recent wildfires, and the Diggers, a short-lived group of agrarian communists in seventeenth-century England. As with her earlier works, Solnit’s elegant and direct prose bridges the spans her mind fearlessly leaps across.

One can’t quite describe A Paradise Built in Hell as revisionist history, because for decades academics have observed and commented upon the generosity, friendliness, and attachment that characterize communities beset by tragedies. It is one of Solnit’s achievements, however, to set an intellectual history of disaster sociology—from early avatars like Samuel H. Prince and Charles Fritz to still-practicing scholars like Kai Erikson, E. L. Quarantelli, and Kathleen Tierney—in the context of anarchist and communitarian writings that theorize or call for this magnanimous spirit as a way of life. Many commentators marveled at the decline of partisan bickering in the first few weeks after September 11. Fewer critics have, like Solnit, openly lamented that the space for civil discourse created by such horrible events is so quickly abandoned for the status quo. This book not only excavates the memory of five “extraordinary communities,” it places them in the context of those who aimed to make the extraordinary ordinary.

In this regard, Solnit’s study can be viewed as a successor to Hope in the Dark, her slim 2004 open letter to an activist community disappointed by its inability to halt the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That book “tells stories of [activist] victories and possibilities because the defeats and disasters are more than adequately documented,” and offers spirited, wide-ranging reflections on the ways in which the masses foster change and wield power. Solnit is an activist aware of the forces raged against such communal assertions of power, and the sections of A Paradise Built in Hell dedicated to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina show clearly that the attempt to solidify the social gains of a “disaster utopia” is always a political struggle. For every concerned citizen who distributes supplies during the critical moments just after disaster strikes, there is an appointed official who swoops in to displace this spontaneous charity and enact institutionally sanctioned rules. For every person who finds a bridge to dry land after the levees in New Orleans break, there are Gretna sheriff’s deputies to block African American victims from that route to safety. Solnit dissects how such administrative inflexibility and “elite panic” hinders rather than helps recovery efforts.

Only in Mexico City does Solnit find long-term gains in the wake of its disaster. There the rapacity of corporate leaders asserting their property rights (with governmental forces as handmaidens) caused the working classes to band together to enact significant housing reform and to create unions in the textile industry. How were such changes made possible? “Revolution has a different legacy here,” Solnit suggests, “and the idea of radical change a different currency. It is as though they had an ability to recognize that disaster utopia, name it, connect it to other experiences, and make something of it. In other places, the unnamed qualities of a richer civic life and deeper ties often slip away for lack of a language and framework to prize them. It remains an orphan experience, unconnected and ultimately lost.”