Men Explain Things to Me

Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully and passionately on a handful of gender-related topics in this mini-book compiling essays that each have something to do with women; unfortunately, the titular essay – which I loved in terms of both style and substance – is followed by others that challenge the boundaries of my willingness to read academic writing and consider gruesome topics. Solnit covers the range of severity with which women are silenced – from “forces that are usually . . . sneaky and hard to point out” to “the atrocities [that] don’t end” – because “somehow we must engage with them.” I am glad that she and others are up to the task, but I just don’t have the capacity to add domestic violence, rape, and murder to my list of preferred reading subjects at the moment, nor did I much care for the art-speak analyzing a painting and the work of Virginia Woolf. On the other hand, the entire book took less than three hours to read and each essay served up at least one sentence or sentiment that left a lasting impression:

“He was already telling me about the very important book – with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth . . . but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.”

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths . . . .”

“Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

“The pandemic of violence always gets explained as anything but gender, anything but what would seem to be the broadest explanatory pattern of all.”

“[W]hen you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men . . . .”

“‘The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.’ His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble.”

“Filling in the blanks replaces the truth that we don’t entirely know with the false sense that we do.”

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it . . . .”

“[There is] a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it, the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented.”

“A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the road upon the plate, to classify and contain.”

“The worst criticism seeks to have the last work and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.”

“Maybe there is a full-fledged war now, not of the sexes – the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides – but of gender roles.”

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