Solnit, Rebecca. “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. Print. 79-99.
Solnit’s essay on Virginia Woolf “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” from her 2014 Men Explain Things to Me argues for depth, uncertainty, good stories, and good criticism. As one of her primary interlocutors, Woolf’s persona and writing have featured in five of Solnit’s books. The two key Woolfian quotes that inspire this essay are “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” from her 1915 journal. The second is a favourite quote of mine from To the Lighthouse, “Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.” Solnit praises Woolf’s insistence on both darkness and uncertainty. Solnit sees the job of “writers and explorers” to “go into the dark with their eyes open” (81) as opposed to trusting the safety of our “memory of the future” (81), that is, the safety of our expectations or of oblivion. She is distrustful of many published narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, because many authors are afraid of the darkness of people’s stories, and demonstrate their need to “fill in the blanks” of unknown truths. Perhaps they do this because the “language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance, ambiguity and speculation” (82). Solnit views Woolf as the champion of the latter. Solnit also praises the “counter-criticism” movement in “literary criticism and academic scholarship” (93): “This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end” (94). Solnit’s essay has a lot to give. I will return to it consistently throughout my graduate training to remind myself to pursue the darkness and uncertainty of stories, in order to produce good writing and good criticism.