Solnit Offers a Framework for Living During Disaster and Beyond

The author of A Paradise Built in Hell finds utopian possibilities during times of great crisis.

san francisco earthquake, halifax boats, new orleans flooding

Of the many grim moments in the Trump presidency, one in particular represents a loss of almost unimaginable scale. And that is the degree to which the Trump administration played down the coming pandemic, all while knowing how bad it’d get. “You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told reporter Bob Woodward privately over the phone on February 7, 2020, adding it was much more dangerous than a regular flu. Meantime, before microphones, Trump was telling the nation just the opposite. Trump later explained to Woodward the rationale behind such duplicity. “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

The casual cruelty and duplicity on display in this moment are breathtaking, but the assumptions behind Trump’s thinking are hardly new. In fact, if you read Rebecca Solnit’s remarkable 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, this notion that people panic in a crisis (and need to be treated like children) has been around a very long time. It can be traced back to the 1640s, as Solnit points out, when Thomas Hobbes fled England to Paris and began to work on developing a theory of strong central government. “The condition of man,” he’d write in Leviathan, published in 1651, “is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.” And without strong authority, the thinking goes, we are in chaos.

One of the great problems of this theory of humanity Solnit writes in this immensely absorbing book is not just how wrong it may be, but how it has obscured our ability to see the utopian possibilities during times of disruption, particularly disasters. What if we are better than these notions? she wants to ask. What could we possibly build? Or better yet: What have we begun to build, only to be stymied by a desire for control?

To answer her question, A Paradise Built in Hell is three things at once: a historical salvage job, a work of political philosophy, and a group biography of the people who have dedicated their lives to unlocking the possibilities of humankind, particularly in times of crisis. It is a huge, sprawling, arresting book. It draws on Solnit’s formidable skill of gumshoe research and her less obvious skills at synthesis to create one of the most revolutionary works of social history.

It’s particularly powerful because you hear it first in the voices of people who were there. Drawing on diaries, newspaper reports, and eyewitness accounts, Solnit has essentially written a people’s history of five major disasters of the 20th and early 21st centuries, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans nearly a century later. Along the way she conjures the lives of activists from Dorothy Day, who was just eight and a half when the trembler struck, to Felipe Chavez of Welcome Home Kitchen in New Orleans, showing how disaster was a catalyst for meaning for them.

This is a massive project, greatly aided by Solnit’s qualities as a writer. As a psycho-geographist, Californian, and cultural historian, Solnit has always found ways to map experience onto places, and spaces back onto people. It seems hardly an accident that her largest project prior to this one was Wanderlust, a wide-ranging study of the possibilities inherent in walking, and her most significant project to immediately follow it was a series of atlases (three-dimensional anthologies, really) of the cities of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York.

What’s remarkable to read is how virtually everyone chipped in.

A Paradise Built in Hell begins in San Francisco in April 1906. Solnit introduces us to the firefighters, short-order cooks, washerwomen, and people who—rather than panic or grab every last roll of toilet paper—turn and help one another as fire bears down on them, and survive. On the morning of the quake, for instance, a police officer named H.C. Schmitt was on patrol downtown. After stopping a few thieves from stealing some cigars and helping others, he made his way home and—using two huge pots normally dedicated to boiling laundry—set up an impromptu kitchen.

This pop-up soup kitchen is just one of many organizations to emerge almost immediately after the quake. To which one could add a whole host of other services. Mail was delivered without postage; speakeasies bloomed; local firefighter brigades began putting out fires with what water they had left and, when that ran out, with blankets soaked in vinegar.

What’s remarkable to read here, even now, freshly reminded of how generous some people have been during the COVID-19 pandemic, is how virtually everyone chipped in. As Solnit writes, all but two butchers in the city began to donate every last cut of meat. Cattle, sheep, hogs, beef. “None of this meat was lost or destroyed,” a slaughterhouse manager remembered. “Every bit of it was distributed to the people, and the supply lasted seven days. We started distributing at five o’clock the afternoon of the earthquake.... The two firms that did not open up their warehouses had all their meat rot on their hands.”

As a Californian used to moving freely in a lot of open (but contested and often stolen) space, Solnit is extremely well equipped to describe the conditions that made this generosity possible. Twenty-eight thousand buildings were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake, she reminds us, and there was no place to hide. Suddenly in close proximity to one another, their horizons reduced to the present day, the citizens of the city were overwhelmingly generous to one another. “Self-interest is more often about amassing future benefit than protecting present comfort,” Solnit writes, and so people gave, often regardless of color or creed. Because a future beyond the very moment was inconceivable.

Solnit creates a portrait of how quickly a utopian social flattening can be brought to a brutal end.

As a political theorist and activist, Solnit is especially good at showing the way various minds are shaped by interactions with disaster. In the opening segments of the book, she traces how both Dorothy Day and William James developed ideas that were crucial to their understanding of human nature in the San Francisco earthquake. Day, the future founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, experienced the call to help as a kind of love. James emerged from his walks around the city, talking to survivors with a sense that the human self was far more resilient to suffering than he’d previously thought: “Suffering and loss are transformed when they are shared experiences,” he’d conclude.

Threading these accounts with some of the destruction that followed, Solnit creates a rousing portrait of how quickly a utopian social flattening—however built from disaster—can be brought to a brutal end. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, the commanding officer at the Presidio military base in San Francisco, “perceived his job as saving the city from the people, rather than saving the people from the material city of cracked and crumbling buildings, fallen power lines, and towering flames.” In essence, he was protecting the elite during their panic—indeed, of the many terms introduced here, elite panic is an especially helpful one in times of great disparity.

Were this book to stop here, it’d already be a significant rewriting of how disaster has informed the California imaginary. But Solnit moves on to reimagine four other disasters to tease out other lessons. From California she brings us to Halifax, where on December 6, 1917, a Norwegian ship, the Imo, collided with a munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, which was loaded with 3,000 tons of explosive power, setting off the most powerful explosion the world had seen prior to the dropping of an atomic bomb. She writes, “An air blast rolled over the city, knocking down buildings, tearing through doors, windows, and walls, crushing the bodies of those who were hit head-on nearby, exploding eardrums and lungs, lifting people and hurling them into whatever was nearby or carrying them away, snapping trees and telegraph poles like twigs, reducing whole neighborhoods to splinters and rubble.”

Solnit’s account of this devastation is grisly, forensic, and some of the best writing about disaster alongside Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire and many works by Leslie Marmon Silko. It could have been much worse, she points out. Vincent Coleman, for one, rushed back into the telegraph office to send a warning to a train coming into town. “Guess this will be my last message,” he said signing off. He died in the explosion, along with several other men and women who’d sent out crucial messages for help.

What motivated such people? And why, as opposed to those in San Francisco, were soldiers in Halifax less trigger-happy when conducting rescues? Out of the Halifax explosion, Solnit writes, the field of disaster studies grew, and from this point forward she takes readers on a guided tour of some of its early and key texts, such as Samuel Henry Prince’s Catastrophe and Social Change, which he wrote after studying what unfolded in Halifax. In the course of his dissertation, Prince referenced a revolutionary Russian book called Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin’s study that took issue with the notion that life was, by nature, fundamentally competitive. “If animal life itself and earlier and simpler forms of human society were not ruthlessly competitive,” Solnit summarizes, “then the justification for the selfish side of contemporary human society as natural or inevitable would crumble.”

Dazzling in its reach and profoundly well reported, A Paradise Built in Hell sometimes feels like a continuation of Kropotkin’s project. In the course of writing it, Solnit steers away from simply attacking power, and instead, time and again, finds in the reporting around one disaster or another, stories of resilience, belief in civil society, and the ability of people, from Mexico City to London to the suburbs of New Orleans, to form what is essentially a government of people. This in no way plays down the suffering of those who have lived through such disasters, but instead pays tribute to their knowledge. Drawing out the fine difference between altruism (which is that love channeled freely) and charity (which is that love directed with a price of return regard), Solnit has created a possible framework for how we might need to live all the time, if recent times are to be judged.•

Be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss A Paradise Built in Hell with Solnit on September 23 at 5 p.m. Pacific. To join the California Book Club, click here.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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