Our True Natures Are Revealed in Times of Chaos, Jan Term Speaker Says

Solnit signing booksOur nation has suffered a barrage of disasters – both man-made and natural – in the past decade or so. We’re still reeling from the aftereffects of the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession.

For cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, such times are opportunities to observe the essence of human nature, when catastrophes strip away the trappings of habit, custom, political order and social constraints. They provide an opportunity to ask the all-important question: Who are we really? The answer she provides may surprise you. 

In a speech at Saint Mary’s, Solnit argued that disasters create a “temporary utopia” in which we reveal our true nature. Relating her talk to the January Term theme of “Crossing Borders,” she suggested that in the midst of chaos, we often cross the artificial border between our private lives and public life and, at least for a while, relinquish self-interest in order to serve the common good.

It’s a message of hope for an anxious age, though it seems to be rooted in a deeply pessimistic world view. “Hell is the given,” she said at one point. “Paradise is what we sometimes make.”

Solnit is the author of 12 books, many of which cross the borders between history, art, social criticism and politics. “Nothing is off limits” for her, Professor Marilyn Abildskov said in introducing the writer. Her books are captivating because they “invest universal acts with particular meaning and particular acts with universal meaning.”

For her speech at Saint Mary’s, she drew on observations from her recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, in which she probes the aftermath of five disasters, including the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Courtesy and Collaboration in the Midst of Chaos

In these disasters, she noted, private life was set aside as people collaborated to improvise order out of chaos. “Unlike the expectation that people will descend into lawlessness and looting,” she said, “most people are solid in a disaster.”

After the 1906 earthquake that shook San Francisco, “the most perfect courtesy obtained,” she said, quoting a report published in Collier’s Weekly at the time. As the writer Mary Austin put it: “San Francisco didn’t burn down; it rose up.”

Residents preserved an air of cheerfulness, even bravado, as the they camped out in the ruins of their city. A sign over one of the makeshift outdoor food stations read: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.”

Truly extreme circumstances often do seem to bring out the best in us. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 knocked out all electricity and shut down the traffic lights in San Francisco, I recall standing at Fifth and Mission Streets and watching as homeless people leaped into action to direct traffic. As a journalist working for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was dispatched with a team of reporters to cover looting in various neighborhoods. We found hardly any at all.

After Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, there were reports of widespread looting by both civilians and police. Solnit dismissed them as exaggerated and said they were simply examples of “people being resourceful” in meeting their needs for food and clothing (an argument that breaks down when the goods stolen, by both civilians and police, are TVs and electronics, as they were in some cases). She condemned the harsh police crackdown in New Orleans for exacerbating the disaster.

But one must ask: If disasters often reveal our innate altruism, why then do they sometimes unleash just the opposite response? Examples abound of horrific instances when citizens turned on each other in the midst of chaos: the bloodbath in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia, the aftermath of the French and Russian Revolutions.

Solnit didn’t deal with the question of revolutions in her speech, but she did attempt to address it in her book.

“There are plenty of failed revolutions and revolutions such as the French Revolution that lapse into bloodbaths — and yet when that revolution was over ... ordinary French people had more rights, and people around the world had an enlarged sense of the possible,” she wrote. “All revolutions fail because they set their sights heaven-high, but none of them fail to do something, and many increase the amount of liberty, justice, and hope for their heirs.”

True Believer in Utopia

In our post-Communist era, which views the idea of utopia with great skepticism, Solnit stands out as a true believer in its possibilities. In A Paradise Built in Hell, she includes this quote from Oscar Wilde: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always heading."

In the Occupy movement that has swept the country, Solnit sees a similar sort of temporary utopia arising in response to the economic catastrophe of the recession and the widening economic divide in the United States.

“In the past few months, a lot of people have crossed the border between private and public life,” she said. In encampments on Wall Street, in San Francisco and in Oakland, she has observed the same patterns that emerge in the wake of disasters: a loss of social isolation, an eagerness to embrace individual responsibility and a passion for true participatory democracy.

“It might be who we could be all the time,” she said wistfully, although in reality the fissures that divide our society -- class, race, wealth and power -- often fall swiftly back into place once a disaster fades away.

Still, Solnit expressed hope that humanity may find a way to preserve the virtues uncovered during catastrophes, including a willingness to question the governments that have failed them.

She noted that many of the revolutions in her lifetime have been predominantly nonviolent, including the civil rights movement, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the anti-apartheid movement, and the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East.

“We live in a heroic age if you pay attention,” she said. “Civil society is back. You are part of it.”

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photo by Jaycee Casalnuovo '14

View a shorts video from Rebecca Solnit's speech at Saint Mary's.

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