By Paul Wilner
Special to The Examiner
Everyone — well, almost everyone — knows of George Orwell, whose classic dystopian parable, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is regularly summoned upon as commentary on the political climate of the day.
Leave it to Rebecca Solnit to cast new light on our understanding of the British author. Solnit’s new book, “Orwell’s Roses,” takes a seemingly quotidian but little-known aspect of his life — the great pleasure he took in gardening at his country home in Wallington — as a way of deepening our view of the nature of activism, and of writing.
Written with her signature combination of deep scholarship, pointed politics and poetically precise prose, the work is arguably her best — no small achievement from the writer who brought the term “mansplaining” into the modern vocabulary and whose 20 books span everything from memoir to environmental journalism and the arts. She was awarded the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West,” which combined a portrait of photographer/ inventor Muybridge, with the important changes his work presaged in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
In “Orwell’s Roses,” she once again helps us see outwardly familiar sights in different, eye-opening ways. With deceptive simplicity she begins: “In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” She goes on to trace Orwell’s journey into British coal mines to bear witness to the dangerous conditions there; his decision to join the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War; and his fierce opposition, illustrated in both “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm,” to shibboleths of the left — Stalin and Soviet authoritarianism — as well as the right.
While clearly allied with progressive values, Solnit has a bone to pick with the dogmatism that often accompanies the fight for abstract “justice.” Citing Orwell’s sardonic response to a letter writer who complained that he was “a defender of roses,” she writes:
“The left has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy yourself while others are suffering… It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.”
By way of illustration, she cites the early 20th-century suffragist cry, “Bread for all, and Roses, too,” bringing us back into the present (the Marin County-based rights organization, Bread & Roses, founded in 1974 by singer-activist Mimi Fariña is still going strong) and enlarging our understanding of the past.
In doing so, Solnit reclaims Orwell’s legacy from advocates like the late British polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who wrapped themselves in his political mantle without noticing his larger concerns. (Hitchens goes unmentioned in “Orwell’s Roses,” and one doubts the absence is unintentional.)
Solnit’s passion for justice burns through as she travels — audaciously — to Colombia, to see firsthand the operations of a huge rose factory outside Bogotá where employees have the slogan, “The lovers get the roses, but we workers get the thorns.”
The greenhouse sends 6 million roses to the United States for Valentine’s Day and another 6 million for Mother’s Day, but it’s a joyless undertaking for the workers at these “invisible factories of visual pleasure,” as she describes them. (She recalls Orwell’s observation that his countrymen enjoyed the heat and coal brought to their homes with no thought of the miners breaking their backs to deliver them.)
It’s the range and force of such far-reaching connections that make Solnit’s work a delight even when her subjects are outwardly grim. The San Francisco-based writer has a deeper, more humanistic perspective than former Californians like Susan Sontag, who seemed more comfortable with theories than people or, for that matter, Joan Didion, known for her acerbic wit.
Solnit is an American original; Orwell could not have asked for a more eloquent interlocutor. As she writes: “Rereading a significant book is like revisiting an old friend; you find out how you’ve changed when you encounter them again; you see differently because you’re different… What struck me this time around was how much lushness and beauty and pleasure are in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” They’re endangered, furtive, corrupted, but they exist.”