This is that dread thing: a slim volume. Not of poetry, no, but veering dangerously close to it at times. It is an account by seasoned activist Rebecca Solnit of how things aren?t all that bad really (it was written before Bush won four more years). The beacons of hope that Solnit identifies in the darkness include the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of the Zapatistas, the blockade and subsequent collapse of the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle, 2003?s global demonstrations against the war on Iraq and ? with a great sense of immediacy and excitement in a breathless chapter added to the book as the events unfolded ? the collapse of the WTO talks in Canc?
Solnit is at her best (and I realise I am betraying my own reading preferences here) when recounting such events or analysing changes in activist struggles but that?s not really what the book is all about. It is more a personal meditation on activism and hope. For instance, alongside admirably concise discussions of how the growing rapprochement of environmentalists and ranchers in the US reflects the move in activism away from dogmatic yea-or-nay positions toward an all-embracing global justice movement there are such gems as: ?To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that might be considered feminine or childish or sweet? (16). Does a rational weighing up of probabilities mean assuming a persona which might be considered masculine, mature and sour? The example comes from chapter 3, ?Despair and Discontent or the Wall and the Door,? a title which might give some warning of the confusion that follows. We come across false hope (occasionally in ?dilute? forms) and something called ?official hope? as well as ?blind hope? and a whole load of metaphors about beating one?s head off walls, hacking doors into walls and diagnosing diseases. Perhaps this kind of thing is endemic in writing about hope. Solnit quotes Ernst Bloch in chapter 1: ?The work of this emotion [hope] requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong? (5). I can?t say I find this very illuminating.
It is a pity that this comes at the beginning of the book as it may put people off the rest, which, philosophising and poeticising largely out of the way, is much better (though there are wobbles such as a discussion of hope and faith, and an invocation of Coyote, a Native American deity). Solnit is no wide-eyed optimist but she finds reasons to be cheerful in the most unexpected places: the invention of viagra, she points out, has taken some of the heat off endangered species prized for their aphrodisiac properties.
The discussion of the terms ?globalisation? and ?global justice,? the reassessment of the nature-culture divide, the descriptions of the effects of NAFTA, the Methanex affair, the rights-free zones around globalisation summits, and of Vá£¬av Havel (a ?77-cent? politician) ? all these are interesting points well taken and if this review has concentrated less on these positives it is because the book emphasises the woolly at the expense of the concrete. For example, the Via Campesino coalition is only briefly mentioned though it apparently has 100 million members. Meanwhile, space is found to include sentiments like ?Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles ? not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don?t know? (136-137). Poetry or not, no editor should have let that one through.
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit is published by Nation Books, New York.