Higher ground

Pub date September 30, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


LIT What Susan Sontag wrote about illness in 1978’s Illness as Metaphor and 1989’s AIDS and Its Metaphors holds for disaster as well: all too often, widespread devastation is made to serve moralistic meanings. Perhaps the primary virtue of Rebecca Solnit’s clear-headed new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, 353 pages, $27.95), is that it does not simply swap one interpretation of disaster — as anticonsumerist reckoning, for instance — for another, such as Jerry Falwell-style damnation. Solnit is interested in how people act in the aftermath, for better and for worse.

By tallying stories from a century’s worth of disasters, Solnit mounts a passionate argument that altruism and solidarity are the norm, no matter what the media or authorities might report. Early in A Paradise Built in Hell, she reflects on the unexpected joy found in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989: "We don’t even have a language for this emotion in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological."

Solnit collects evidence of commonplace resilience from bottom-up accounts of earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, the London Blitz, 9/11, Katrina, and the Halifax Explosion of 1917. She marshals these anecdotes against the Hobbesian view, often taken by those in power, that ordinary people will backslide into chaotic violence without strict social controls. A ruling class’s authority is disrupted in disaster, and this tends to put them in a preemptive, paranoid mood. The helpful term for this displacement is "elite panic." The predictability of warrantless crackdowns is depressing. In Solnit’s history, we see Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco ("These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will") echoing the brutal edict issued by San Francisco’s mayor, Eugene Schmitz, in 1906 ("The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force, and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons engaged in looting"). People matter more than property, except when they don’t.

It’s to Solnit’s credit as a journalist that she departs from her script in New Orleans for a harrowing account (with an assist from former Guardian reporter A.C. Thompson) of the murder of several black men by heavily armed white vigilante groups. One wonders, however, if these ragtag brigades—which certainly cannot be called "elite" — aren’t filling a similar vacuum, in their way, as the informal groups that set to feeding the hungry. How does Solnit’s goodness match up with the mass-complicity required of genocide? It’s telling, after all, that Jan T. Gross’ 2001 book about a massacre of Jews in World War II was titled Neighbors.

A Paradise Built in Hell is a little didactic and a lot repetitious in the typical nonfiction style, and for someone obviously concerned with the impact of words, Solnit never really explains the Christian tuning of her title. But these are only chinks in the book’s broad spirit of inquiry. Solnit’s sources include Carnival, Russian anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, the reactionary politics of disaster movies like Dante’s Peak (1997), and William James, who was visiting Stanford during the ’06 quake. Her most intriguing proposition is that the civic temper — James’ phrase — loosed by disaster represents a kind of desire. We’re so used to thinking of desires, both as they’re expressed and repressed, as a private matter of sexuality and identity that it’s almost shocking to hear the word in this social context.

One can easily think of Solnit’s look at hope regained as a kind of parable of the Bush-Obama transition, but if A Paradise Built in Hell is a product of its time, it’s not because it channels our new president’s good tidings. Instead, Solnit’s work is best read as a sustained critique of the degraded view of ordinary citizens taken by the Bush administration: in its eyes we were craven, greedy, vindictive, and worse. Solnit says no, not when it counts. It takes real imagination to answer the intellectual crisis provoked by the reign of W with a study in altruism. What’s even more surprising, she succeeds.