Rebecca Solnit: On Letting Go of Certainty in a Story That Never Ends

Finding Communion in the Fairy Tales We Tell

The price of oil as I write (on Monday, April 20), or rather the benchmark of West Texas crude oil with May delivery, is negative $37 a barrel and while there had been recent predictions that we were heading this way, it is still a wild event and not one most who weren’t studying the context carefully could’ve foreseen. “Owing largely to a quirk in the way that oil prices are set, the May benchmark actually fell into negative territory, suggesting people who had oil to sell were willing to pay to have it taken off their hands,” noted the New York Times. I had been watching, I’d heard predictions this was going to happen, because this was foreseeable a few weeks beforehand, but probably inconceivable a few months before when oil was at $60 a barrel.

The unforeseen happens regularly, and then not a few people forget that it does and look forward to a foreseeable future all over again and pretend they foresaw what surprised them, flatten the bump back into their smooth version of reality. We can make informed guesses, and the oil decline went down a well-marked path, but these brief but significant negative numbers were still remarkable, foreseeable in the short term, but wild in the long.

When the pandemic began in earnest in this country, and the schools were closed in my region I hoped to aid the parents of my nephews and great-nieces by coming over and doing stuff with the kids. Then the new rules of the game meant that our households could not blend. I began reading fairytales online in part as a way to reach out to them and anyone else who wanted to listen, and also because fairytales felt like the right kind of narrative for the moment.

It turned out a lot of people wanted to hear fairytales for the four weeks I kept the series running, and it was nice for me too, with the various forms of contact—emoticons streaming across the live feed, chat and other responses from people I knew and people I didn’t, the shout-out each time to a long list of kids and a few adults, from Manitoba to New Orleans, and the return to stories I loved, discovery of stories I didn’t, and chance to reframe some that were troubling (I sent the protagonist of “The Little Mermaid” back to her sisters and took a detour from Theseus’s version of the story of the Labyrinth to Jorge Luis Borges’s minotaur-eye view and speculations on Ariadne’s perspective).

Nearly all of us would like to be at the end of the story, because to live in the middle of it is to live in suspense and uncertainty about what will happen.

Reading stories was a way of being with people even while most of us couldn’t be with many people, and because even the most unfamiliar stories (I dug into Italo Calvino’s big compendium of Italian folktales and Greg Sarris’s Native Californian just-so stories) had the familiar rites of Once Upon a Time, when animals and even rivers and stones talked and genies came out of lamps and fishes granted wishes. The fairytale outcomes are more or less foregone at least to the extent that the protagonist will make it out alive, but the route there and the nature of those protagonists is what seemed right for the moment.

Underneath all the trappings of talking animals and magical objects and fairy godmothers are tough stories about people who are marginal, neglected, impoverished, undervalued, and isolated, and their struggle to find their place and their people. Fairytales are distinct from hero tales at their most banal, the stories in which exceptionally powerful usually male figures defend and enlarge their power (and in which the power is often the power to harm that we call violence), which is why I was so impelled to shift over from Theseus to Asterion and Ariadne.

Possessed of no such capacity for superior force, fairytale characters are given tasks that are often unfair verging on impossible, imposed by the more powerful—climb the glass mountain, sort the heap of mixed grain before morning, gather a feather from the tail of the firebird. They are often mastered by alliances with other overlooked and undervalued players—particularly old women (who often turn out to be possessed of supernatural powers) and small animals, the ants who sort the grain, the bees who find the princess who ate the honey, the birds who sing out warnings. Those tasks and ordeals and quests mirror the difficulty of the task of becoming faced by the young in real life and the powers that most of us have, alliance, persistence, resistance, innovation. Or the power to be kind and the power to listen—to name two powers that pertain to storytelling and to the characters these particular stories tell of.

I often told my listeners that we were ourselves in the middle of a fairytale, and that at present our difficult task was to stay home. My project was a way to contextualize the time and to color it with the brightness of these stories. It was an ordeal perhaps made easier at the outset by the way we were told it was for a couple of weeks. It is made harder now by the reality that we don’t know how and when social distancing will end, and whatever normal was, we are never going back to it, but forward into a world that will be radically reorganized and probably at first disorganized. I say that not to gloat, because there is no gloating over the tens of millions in this country alone who have lost their jobs or will lose their small businesses, but to prepare to meet the unexpected and the immense demands of rearranging our economy to meet the needs of the economically dislodged.

We are probably going to venture out of our quarantines to find ourselves in a country that has no absolute shortages of food, clothing, shelter, and other crucial resources but in which the process of distribution is going to have to change, because the wages-for-necessities thing was failing too many people beforehand and will fail a lot more people afterward. But how that will work is beyond me. We are going to have to invent it, and fight the monsters of the right and the elite who see mass sacrifice of human life for the benefit of the few in the name of the market as acceptable and who through underregulated poisons and over-rationed healthcare and unlivable wages were happily sacrificing others all along. But invention may be the harder task.

We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken up residence in not knowing. We are in terra incognita, which is where we always are anyway, but usually we have a milder case of it and can make our pronouncements and stumble along and hope that no one remembers that the winner is the person we said would never win or the catastrophe or victory is the one we said was impossible. (We are where we are, specifically, now, in the USA, in part because a few years ago too many people were confident that Hillary Clinton’s 85 percent chance of winning was the same thing as a 100 percent chance; we are living in the devastating 15 percent.)

Nearly all of us would like to be at the end of the story, because to live in the middle of it is to live in suspense and uncertainty about what will happen. This happens to me when I read suspenseful books, whose interim is so full of exciting anxiety about the outcome that I speed through to reach the end. That journey through uncertainty to certainty is the engine that drives a lot of feature films, so much so that plot spoilers are given when films are reviewed, or the review takes elaborate detours around revealing the outcome. For some of these entertainments, once the outcome is known they lose their magic, because the itch was what drove them.

We are probably going to venture out of our quarantines to find ourselves in a country that has no absolute shortages of food, clothing, shelter, and other crucial resources but in which the process of distribution is going to have to change.

Maybe fairytales are better because you know more or less that the heroine will survive, but how exactly she’ll knit stinging nettles into shirts to transform her eleven brothers back into human form from the swans they were turned into is suspenseful, and so there is between the certainty and uncertainty a pleasurably tingling lingering. The novels I have loved most I have been happy to wander through again and again, already aware that Elizabeth gets Darcy or Pip doesn’t get Estella, and I’m happy the very first sentence tells us that Colonel Aureliano Buendia will die in front of a firing squad. But there’s a kind of throwaway potboiler where plot is an itch that seems irresistible to scratch, and the scratching of that itch is the main pleasure the book offers. Ocean Vuong remarked in his talk earlier this year at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco that plot is a woodchipper into which we throw characters.

Books have plots, because they are finite and authored; the world has an infinite number of authors, of whom you are one, and the surprising outcomes are often due to underestimated agents, such as the nonviolent protestors who toppled the Eastern Bloc regimes in 1989, or to the potential of new viruses that epidemiologists anticipated and most of the rest of us overlooked. Among the stories I read aloud was “Stone Soup,” in which a trio of poor soldiers returning from a war convince the stingy villagers to contribute a little and a little more to a cauldron of boiling water, until a rich soup that feeds them all has been created.

But we pretend that life like art has plots and we know how the story ends, whether it’s an election or a cultural shift or the outcome of any major event, and we often err not on the side of caution but on the side of conventionality: the future will look like the present. This is why the financiers who determine our economic reality have been unable to fully comprehend the extraordinary decline of the fossil fuel industry, leaving them and their clients holding many worthless bags. But the present only looks that way to those who ignore the past, which is full of the strange and unpredictable things that transpired to create the present, reminders of how often destiny hangs by a thread and turns on a dime, how often the unexpected happens anyway.

Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not scripted; it came about because Mahalia Jackson called out to him as he was partway through a more pedestrian, scripted speech, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” and he pushed the paper aside and shifted into the more prophetic voice of that greatest of American speeches. It almost didn’t happen; she was bold enough to call out in a historic moment; he could’ve ignored her; somehow he dared to listen and was nimble enough to improvise in front of that vast crowd in the nation’s capital.

Perhaps the devastation of such a pandemic was too hard to believe in, seemed too improbably unlike recent history, which is why governments that were warned of the possibility and then the inception did so little to prepare for it. When it comes to real life, this state of unknowing is both normal and so wildly uncomfortable that we engage in foolish and delusional imitations of knowing, whether it’s trusting untrustworthy authorities or making pronouncements about outcomes with no particular basis in fact, knowledge, or history. Megan McArdle writes in the Washington Post of the attempt to grab onto a certainty that turned out to be slippery: “At every stage of this pandemic, people have come up with dozens of plausible reasons that the areas overwhelmed by Covid-19 were different from their own, happily still secure neighborhoods: more air pollution or smokers, more mass transit or elevators, more cheek-kissing or multi-generational homes. Then as the virus moved on, they came up with reasons that that new place, too, was full of people who are Not Like Us. Some of those reasons were no doubt true. They just weren’t true enough.”

The present only looks that way to those who ignore the past, which is full of the strange and unpredictable things that transpired to create the present.

Years ago when I began writing about a variety of hope that is inextricable from uncertainty—a sense that we don’t know what will happen but we might have room to participate in determining what will happen—I ran into this false omniscience again and again, and found that a lot of people liked certainty, even grim certainty, more than the genuine uncertainty of what would happen next. If you pretend the future is preordained, you don’t have to do anything. If you pretend you’re in a small familiar room you don’t have to look up like Prince Andrei does, badly injured and lying on the battlefield in that scene in War and Peace, and wonders why he hadn’t seen the sky before.

He recovers and in a later scene, “he looked up at the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, everlasting sky he had seen while lying on that battlefield; and something that had long been slumbering, something that was best within him, suddenly awoke, joyful and youthful, in his soul. It vanished as soon as he returned to the customary conditions of his life, but he knew that this feeling which he did not know how to develop existed within him. Though outwardly he continued to live in the same old way, inwardly he began a new life.” That sense of vastness, spaciousness, the beyond offers him, and I believe, each of us something and it’s made of nothing you can hang onto.

In the fairytales I chose for this moment, the protagonists are not powerful in any conventional way but they are active participants in their fate, leaving the familiar, taking risks, changing their lives, finding people worth connecting to, reaching out to help others who will help them in turn. It turns out that the powers that matter are attentiveness, innovative thinking, and alliance-building. They change their fate, which is to say it’s not fate or destiny at all, but an unwritten future that they seize authorship over. They don’t know what will happen, but they launch into uncertainty with the energy of participants.

One of the things I returned to again and again in the storytelling is how you find spaciousness when confined to small spaces. I referenced my friend Jarvis Masters, who has during decades in solitary confinement on death row in San Quentin, found ways to reach beyond his cell, to become a Buddhist practitioner connected to lamas and fellow practitioners in the world beyond, to form friendships, a writing life with publishers and readers who write back to him, lives he’s touched and helped.

Sometimes I could see as I read the stories that a thousand people were online with me and I would propose that if we were all inside the same story and the story was being heard in a thousand rooms then we were somehow in a thousand-room palace together, and I would find a spaciousness in the tale and the connection to unseen others that felt a little like Prince Andrei’s sky and hoped that others found it with me. Once Jarvis called while I was gearing up to tell genesis stories by Subcomandante Marcos and Eduardo Galeano, and I put him on speakerphone and he joined us for a while, and those thousand people got to hear his vibrant, joyous laugh at what he considered, once again, my ridiculousness. We were all in that moment in the unexpected together and it was a good place to be.

Familiarity is a life raft or some floating trash we might mistake for a life raft, but the task isn’t to try to bellyflop onto the flotsam; it’s to swim. We are in the ocean and time is fluid and the waves will keep coming and there is a distinct possibility that this is okay. A little like Li Po’s poem about Chuang Tzu dreaming he’s a butterfly dreaming he’s Chuang Tzu, we are maybe dolphins dreaming that the  clarity and dry solidity of the desert is our natural habitat rather than where we’d scorch and wither, are beings under Prince Andrei’s illimitable sky sometimes yearning to be back in the box of the familiar and the predictable, sometimes, or sometimes that’s the house of love and the space we share with those we care about. Sometimes the right story is a bridge between the illimitable sky and the comfort of the intimate and an invitation to travel freely between them.

The business of the man who is the butterfly and the dream that is the life is often cited, but the rest of the poem is not. As one translation has it:

Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,

Was once the Prince of the East Hill.

As I finish this, my friend calls up and shows me on his phone his son, my godson, jumping across a narrow stream that feeds a Texas river overhung with green trees, again and again, absorbed in his task of becoming under a deep blue sky.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit’s first media job was in fact-checking and her last book is the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She’s sent a lot of mail to her nieces and nephews during the pandemic.





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