Hope in The Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

About Rebecca Solnit:

Rebecca Solnit is an American writer. She has written on a variety of subjects, including feminism, the environment, politics, place, and art. Solnit is the author of eighteen books as well as essays in numerous museum catalogs and anthologies. She has also worked on environmental and human rights campaigns since the 1980s. (Source: Wiki)

Hope in the Dark – A Summary

“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.” – with these words, Rebecca Solnit opens her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. The book was first written around 2003-04 and has since been republished. Solnit has also followed it up with an essay contextualized to more recent times in 2016. The book gets its title from the words Virginia Woolf jotted down six months into the first World War: “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think”. Woolf, she explains, anticipated that the darkness was ‘as much of the womb as the grave’.

She brings out the idea of hope further in contrast to the feeling of despair and of doubt – which are all pervasive when we are faced with uncertainty and difficult situations that feel seemingly insurmountable. She outlines here how hope “is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair, and in a way, more frightening and immeasurably more rewarding”. Solnit writes, “To hope is to gamble, it’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety”. One can be hopeful, she says, even while acknowledging the difficulty of the task at hand. She underscores the need for an education in hope by this quote from Paulo Freire: “Without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness. And hopelessness can turn into tragic despair. Hence the need for a kind of education in hope.” She goes on to point out how ‘inside the word emergency is emerge, from an emergency new things come forth’. “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed”. She adds, “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it.”

Yet she also warns of the dangers of false or fraudulent hope, the kind that tells us ‘everything is fine, go back to sleep’, often using our fears against us. “Authentic hope”, she writes, “requires clarity – seeing the troubles in this world – and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable”. In the face of such politics that aspires ‘to make you fearful, alienated and isolated’, she reminds us how the joy of learning, responding and growing then ‘is a fine initial act of insurrection.’

Solnit highlights how any revolt or desire for change begins first in the imagination and often in the margins, in the minds and hearts of those not on the center-stage. “The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict ridden – which is to say that revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution”, she says. She goes on to highlight how often non-violent constant toil and action is at the fore of such movements and how change can be meandering, indirect and non-linear in nature; and even though individual action may seem futile to us sometimes, change has a way of surprising us with sudden silent momentum and swell: “Individual hearts and minds change; those who have been changed become aware of one another; still others are emboldened, in a contagion of boldness; the “impossible” becomes possible; immediately it is done, surprising the actors almost as much as their opponents; suddenly, almost with the swiftness of thought – whose transformation has in fact set the whole process in motion – the old regime, a moment ago so impressive, vanishes like a mirage.”

She points out in a later chapter the vital difference between ‘saving’ and constant ‘doing’. She outlines how the idea of ‘saving’ encourages the view of taking action only in a particular situation versus living the change constantly. She writes: “We tend to think of political engagement as something for emergencies rather than, as people in many other countries have imagined it, as a part and even a pleasure of everyday life.” In a later chapter she sets up the concept of utopia from this lens and quotes Eduardo Galeano: “Utopia is on the horizon. When i walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking.”, implying how the work of imagining utopia meets its function by inspiring action in the present in a world which is ‘always being made and is never finished’. “Activism, in this model”, she says, “is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if its a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made”.

Solnit also takes up the issues that have stymied change in recent times. She speaks of ideological divides which have often come in the way of deep political action and change and addresses them through examples of activists and movements who have learnt to challenge polarities and have found and created common grounds for conversations and actions, people who make ‘connections not just between issues but between sides’. She adds how mature movements have learnt that to build solidarity: “you don’t question where somebody is from or what kind of hat he or she wears, you focus on where that person is willing to go and whether he or she is willing to work constructively on matters of mutual interest”. She points out that at the heart is the idea that “we are trying to build a politics of process, where the only certainty is doing what feels right at the right time and in the right place – a politics that doesn’t wait but acts in the moment, not to create something in the future but to build in the present, it’s the politics of here and now. When we are asked how are we going to build a new world, our answer is, “we don’t know, but lets build it together”.” In order to do this, in later chapters, Solnit points to the growing possibility of movements functioning in decentralized ways and by using direct democracy – to be truly inclusive and pluralistic, to be “this politic in which people are producers, possessed of power and vision, in an unfinished world”.

To argue her case for ‘hope in the dark’, Solnit knits through all the chapters a rich tapestry of often untold histories of struggles and victories carried out by individuals and movements from around the world. She emphasizes how often ‘victories’ are forgotten because they have ensured the continuity of an eco-system or culture instead of visible change – there is need to acknowledge and remember these she says. She outlines how “this is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen”, yet she adds, “It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both”. In the afterword she explains that the intent of the book is to “give aid and comfort to people who feel overwhelmed by the defeatist perspective”, and, “to encourage people to stand up and participate, to look forward at what we can do and back at what we have done”. She achieves both of these goals marvelously. As John Berger writes of Solnit and summarises so succinctly: “Time and again she comes running towards you with a bunch of hopes she has found and picked in the undergrowth of the times we are living in. And you remember that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow but a detonator of energy for action today.”

Further readings:

Discussion themes and questions:

  • How important is it to feel hopeful when faced with challenges.
  • What is our personal definition of hope and how is it similar and different to what the author outlines.
  • What are the challenges of our current times and how do we understand hope from that context.
  • How do hope and action collide – in our personal lives; in envisioning the change required currently in our communities and in our world with regard to holistic well-being for all.