Christine E. McCarthy, Fordham University
Today, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is an apt and necessary meditation on time, activism, and cultivating a spiritual orientation of hope and possibility. It is no wonder that Solnit released the 2016 revised third edition of her 2004 text as a free e-book the day following the historic 2016 U.S. presidential election. Not even two months into the current administration—one in which no shortage of people remark that a question not infrequently posed to oneself upon waking is ,“What fresh hell awaits us today?”—Solnit’s meditations help to anchor her particular audience of activists in the historical space and energy of creation.
Solnit excels at narrating an alternative history in which the work of creation, of resistance and hope, is the necessary praxis of humanity in the face of defeatism. I admit that such a narrative is one I (desperately) need as much as an educator as a person making sense of these interesting and challenging moments of history. My undergraduate students at Fordham reflect a diversity of political, ethnic, and religious perspectives that collectively seem to want new ways of looking for paths forward, regardless of how they voted or what policies they voice preference for. In line with my course objectives, I stress that one of the primary foci of the course lies in the individual students’ construction of her or his own theological (and ethical) voice. In many ways and on many topics, Solnit’s voice can act as one of their clearest, most provocative, and most prophetic interlocutors, speaking to causes and concerns they share in today. In a slim volume of twenty-five brief essays, it is easy to work parts or all of the text into any undergraduate introductory or ethics course, particularly on the themes of history, activism, and hope.
Solnit retrieves lost histories. By looking to “The Angel of Alternate History,” she argues that we remind ourselves that our present circumstances could always be (could always have been) worse. In reading the presented narrative of the new hopeful, creative millennium, marked by Solnit’s own personal history in the moments of the fall of Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the rise of the Zapatistas on New Year’s Day 1994, the November 1999 Seattle WTO protests, 9/11/2001, and the massive protests against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, it cannot but sting in the present to consider how greatly the tides seem to have turned in the last four months. Yet, Solnit presents, it is in the darkness of this uncertainty that a hopeful future can arise.
In “Changing the Imagination of Change,” Solnit reminds her audience that activism does not seek a final, fixed status quo of peace and justice. Rather, drawing on the analogy of successes within environmental activism, there is never a final success, never a feeling of being settled at home after certain victories, never anything that really be saved:
Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final.
The only real home, she suggests, is activism itself. In “Getting the Hell out of Paradise,” she writes,
Activism … is not only a toolbox to change things, but a home in which to take of residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made.
In “After Ideology, Or Alterations in Time,” Solnit writes,
the goal [of revolution] is not so much to go on and create the world as to live in that time of creation…. The revolutionary days I have been outlining are days in which hope is no longer fixed on the future: it becomes an electrifying force in the present.
Knit together, Solnit’s insights flesh out in new ways the “inner life to politics” that runs parallel to and draws out so much of the content of what one wants any student of theological ethics to understand. Her work is an apt companion to liberative systematic or moral theology. Reading with Solnit, one can comprehend more readily Ignacio Ellacuría’s noetic, ethical, and praxical method for comprehending the real or Elizabeth Johnson’s call to speak of the divine in language that facilitates the “praxis of hope and resistance,” ways seen “only through a mirror dimly,” spoken “with broken words.” In the face of so much of what Solnit would describe as “easy despair,” it would be all too lazy to see Solnit’s work as a mere digestif for our present crises. The gift of Solnit’s work is the transformation of our present anxiety into excitement for and participation in creating a hopeful future. At least it has done as much for me.
Christine E. McCarthy is a teaching associate and doctoral candidate in systematics and ethics at Fordham University’s Department of Theology. Her academic interests live at the intersection of Catholic social thought, health, peacebuilding, and gender. Her dissertation is entitled, “The End of Family Planning?: Renewing the Church’s Authoritative Teaching Practice Through a Catholic Social Ethic of Care.”