Our Storied Future

Painting: David Alfaro Siqueiros

THE EUROPEAN tradition loves opposites. One that Hannah Arendt dwelt upon in The Human Condition is the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. For Arendt, the active life was the life lived in the world, the life of making, laboring, and acting; the contemplative life was the monastic and philosophical life, life on the sidelines. But contemplation is what gave the monks of Burma the tranquil courage to walk out of their monasteries and temples last fall, chanting the Metta Sutta of compassion for all beings amid rows of heavily armed soldiers prepared to kill them. It was as moving, as brave, and as defiant an exercise of nonviolence and spiritual strength in action as we may ever see, those boys and men in robes the color of blood standing up to the military junta that has long ruled their country. The ethics of their contemplative life demanded action.

The same was true for many Vietnamese monks during the U.S. war on that country. Action and contemplation can be parts of the same life. The latter gives us the depth, the ethics, the imagination, and the understanding to become active, to work for what we believe. And action brings our contemplative work to life, gives it purpose and meaning; compassion may be learned by meditation but it can only be realized by some form of engagement. I know I have learned much by reading and writing, but I have also learned by traveling, by encountering, by watching history firsthand and sometimes participating in it. There is no divide.

An equally disabling distinction, handed down from Plato, is the one between representation and reality. This exiling of representations to the realm of the irrelevant, the inactive, the opposite of acts and actualities, trivializes the power of words and ideas. Campaigns of destruction always begin with language and symbols — even calling a forest a natural resource makes it easier to see it as board feet. People die of ideas all the time. The representation of people as loathsome or invasive, for example, is often the first step toward brutalizing or exterminating them. The anthropologist Hugh Raffles points out that the Nazis made constant analogies between Jews and insects and then made the metaphors real by using the insecticide Zyklon B to murder some of us in the gas chambers. Ideas matter. This is what Patrick Reinsborough, founder of San Francisco–based Smart Meme, calls “the battle of the story.” There are battles in the streets and then there are battles over which metaphors and images will be used to tell those stories and, ultimately, which version of history will shape the memories and imaginations that guide and limit the future. To write, to make art and film, to work as a journalist or an educator can be a radical act, one that blurs the lines between action and contemplation by employing ideas as tools to make the world as well as understand it.

I often joke that I want to be a Latin American intellectual — a loose rubric for the remarkable contributions of Ariel Dorfman, Eduardo Galeano, Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel García Márquez, Subcomandante Marcos, and many more writers from south of the border — because these writers offer great examples of the union of the active and contemplative lives, the union of art and politics. They do not believe, as so many English-speaking writers do, that there could be, let alone should be, an art that is not political. Apolitical art and artless politics are the fruit of a divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both; art and politics ignite each other and need each other. The idea that political art must degenerate into propaganda or unsubtle screed is also misguided. There is enormous beauty in the way Galeano and Marcos, for example, write about politics, a poetics of policy and possibility, of seeing the unexpected and teasing out the meaning. And there is hope. As Galeano said on the radio recently, “We are all obliged to live life as a duty, but secretly willing to live it as a feast.” And sometimes the feast is not on luxuries and private pleasure, but on braveries and public hopes.

Another dichotomy that we can throw out immediately is the false opposition between the naïve and the cynical. English-speaking writers too often believe that you are one or the other. But cynicism is itself naïve. I often hear people make cynical statements in defiance of actual history — you can’t change anything, they control everything, we’re powerless, it never works — as if there had been no civil rights movement and no feminist movement; as though to be gay or lesbian in 1960, when it was considered both a crime and a mental disease, were the same as today; as though unarmed citizens had not overthrown dozens of governments in recent decades. Yet cynicism, defeatism, and despair are often considered to be signs of worldliness.

At a conference where I’d stood up to celebrate the Zapatistas as an example of revolution in our time, a powerful man from an environmental foundation later hissed at me angrily, in private, “The Zapatistas lost.” He was so attached to their failure, as so many U.S. progressives are attached to failure and defeat, to the excuse for doing less, hoping less, dreaming less. If not much is possible, not much is demanded of us. He meant that they had not succeeded in what he imagined to be their goal, abolishing the Mexican government in Chiapas or in Mexico altogether. But they have survived, and that is one victory. They have created autonomous areas in Chiapas, another. And their greatest victory has been a victory of art, of story, of the revolutionary vita contemplativa: they have inspired people around the world to rethink power, participation, revolution, and the possible in the most beautiful and unexpected ways. When the Zapatistas rose up on the day that NAFTA went into effect, most people around the world knew little and cared less about neoliberalism, corporate globalization, and the economic forces that shape our lives; that has all changed, in part because of them.

Despair is a luxury. If I despair I can drive a Yukon and watch bad television. Despair makes no demand upon us; hope demands everything. For people around the world, in places like Burma and Chiapas, giving up means accepting hideous conditions of life, or death. Despair is cheap for us, expensive for them. What does it mean to be radical, to tell radical stories in our time, to win the battle of the story? The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.

Thus the Latin American intellectuals: having survived coups, gone into exile, faced off dictatorships, seen their countries taken over by generals and neoliberals, seen destitution and death squads, they understand that cynicism is naïve and hope is radical. The mainstream story about the Burmese insurrection last fall was that the monks rose up spontaneously and naïvely, met with an unexpected crackdown, and were quickly defeated. It was a story with no imagination for how history unfolds, told even while competing stories about fissures and defections in the Burmese army emerged, small acts of resistance and great determination continued among the Burmese citizenry, and activists around the world organized in solidarity with the ongoing uprising. As citizens engaged in the daily task of remaking the world, we get to choose our stories — the stories that divide and conquer or those that tie things together with possibility.


  1. This essay claims: “you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. [[Forgot??! or is this some kind of cynical irony?]] You need to tell the stories they are not telling, [as is happening more and more, via the internet, but more despicable obscene off-stage lies are spread there too, in the grossest ways], to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.

    Thus the Latin American intellectuals: having survived coups, gone into exile, faced off dictatorships, seen their countries taken over by generals and neoliberals, seen destitution and death squads, they understand that cynicism is naïve and hope is radical. ….

    Yes, the last statement is true, but aside from the tiny marginal gestures of Buddhist monks or some saintly gesture of a single compassionate giving person or perhaps some small powerless group, just where today are progressives “winning” in the globally dominating US CENTER of expanding imperial power? What activity in the US is a basis for progressive hopes even at the margins? Maybe we can see a few tiny environmental gains (despite huge losses, some of them in the name of environmental sanity)?

    Let’s see how solidly the potential for a continuing social revolution in the US against racism and feminist ideals/hopes is tested and remains hopeful in the struggle between Obama and Hillary and between their supporters and the bigotry of the US populace at large…. who depend upon bigotry to maintain their false sense of superiority.

    A race and class and gender war is certainly going on but that story is ignored or denied, is not just off center stage, but effectively obliterated. The mass media makes its external traces into a horse race sufficiently open for profitable gambling but, as they maintain and thus make generally happen in this their created world, dependent on star jockeys and elite expensive breeds of horses.

    All our metaphors cannot make despair go away, nor, as it happens, stop the generating of new consoling metaphors and stories, like the concept of radical hope (i.e., that without any rational or evidentiary basis). I have been moved, after all, by this essay’s pleas, but perhaps most, these days, by John Berger’s seeing “undefeated despair” as the living and sustaining cultural/personal expression of those doomed to repeated, unending disappointment, as are the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (no longer labelled that and so, practically speaking, the concept disappears as a basis for effective public action….). See Berger’s essay entitled with that powerfully descriptive expression in HOLD EVERYTHING DEAR (2007).

    Sorrowfully, neither naively nor cynically, with radical hope that recognizes its baselessness in publicly effective collective action, we are necessarily resigned to stories of feeble gestures at allowable margins. Such acts are initiated, of course, for selfish reasons of creating/preserving a self-tenable, self-sustainable self-image while the global power system ignores the powerless and keeps on destroying itself and us all. Keep hope alive will be our epitaph, expressing our undefeated, despairing hope for love, peace, justice and hope for all. ATB, JOP

  2. (I lost a longer essay, with a few more points, because my session timed out. Maybe that was a good thing…)

    I agree with Solnit’s tendency to reject our strict cultural distinctions–representation vs. reality, contemplation vs. action. Indeed, I think they often fail us.
    But the distinction between hope and despair–even cheap despair and real hope–doesn’t help either.
    It leads us, for example, to point at certain people and say really cynical things like, “Despair is a luxury.” In the face of real despair, we wouldn’t dare say that. And in the face of destructive luxury, it doesn’t really help anything to say that anyway.

    Whether in hope or despair, if we’re specifically interested in the attitude that makes a better difference, we shouldn’t make another strict distinction. Hope and despair are meaningless without each other. Real hope comes from knowing despair. Despair can give way to hope. The posture of possibility, the constructive posture, comes from both (and I find hope and despair just come flat out all at once!).

  3. John Oliver Perry asked: ”…just where today are progressives “winning” in the globally dominating US CENTER of expanding imperial power?”

    You’re right that “progressives” are making no real impact, but you miss the point. Progressives are those who continue to believe (and perhaps strive for) social/economic/political progress – in other words a more enlightened version of the same old story.

    Solnit’s essay is a tribute to those who are crafting a new story, or at least taking possession of the language and metaphors and images (the vision) that springs from contemplation and fuels action.

    The problem is not that we are enacting a good story badly, but that we are living a self-defeating (and world-destroying) story. Real change always comes from the margins populated by visionaries and mavericks and revolutionaries, and is easily overlooked by those acclimatized to the atmosphere of RealPolitik and blinded by the cloud of cynicism.

    Making art in the face of despair is, itself, an act of hope. And using art and language to craft a new story (a story that many millions are enacting in the multitudinous margins of the world), is the only hope for a sideways shift into a life-affirming zeitgeist.

  4. A sideways shift, indeed! I have always thought there were parallel universes, this being just one of many possible versions of reality, albeit the “commonly” agreed upon one. I enjoy and appreciate Solnit’s ways of looking at things. Just posted a review of her book, “Hope in the Dark,” in my blog at http://goodwordswan.wildflowerstew.com

  5. Dear Friends,

    Let us remember that an ordinary fellow named Noah built the vital Ark that saved life as we know it. It took a remarkably large number of self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe to construct the colossal, now sunken wreckage known as the Titanic.



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  6. What a great sentence, Ms. Solnit: Despair makes no demand upon us; hope demands everything.

  7. Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for your insights and poetic languaging. You spark my brain to rethink and rejoice. I see the world falling apart in so many ways – all my 67 years of life – and continue to hope. I work with teenagers whose only negatives are dramatic – but there is always hope – perhaps untested – but very present! What are we without our hopes and dreams? Life is incredibly resilient. Thank you for that confirmation!

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