Rebecca Solnit and the Importance of the Unknown


Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost covers vast swaths of intellectual territory, and while short – my edition clocks in just over two hundred pages – it’s a profound read, a meandering wonderland rich in vivid idiolect and cultural references only Solnit herself can produce.  Solnit, who weaves autobiographical narratives into the manuscript, invites readers to think about art, desire, and the unknown against the sublime conceptual backdrop of getting lost.

The ability to lose oneself is necessary for a fulfilled life.  As Solnit eloquently writes, “never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery” (14).  While Solnit certainly preaches the benefits of physically losing oneself out in the wild, her words hold an even deeper meaning, as she is simultaneously offering readers a meta-defense of her own ambitious project.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost has no easily discernible thesis, at least not one a reader can easily reduce to a tidy sentence or two.  Solnit, a master of the philosophical essay, invites us to get lost in her words and encourages us to fail at perfectly understanding her.  If we manage to succeed in this unconventional endeavor, we will, as she promises, discover plenty.  We must not fear terra incognita, which Solnit defines as “what remained unvanquished” (169) in any of our pursuits, including those literary in nature.

Solnit posits that loss is a positive force, one necessary for rebirth and creation.  She writes how one ceases “to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else” (71).  By losing ourselves, our sense of the world and our sense of self will expand exponentially.  The process will invariably change us, as our old selves will not survive the shedding of provincialism and safety.

Solnit invites readers to ask: Who are we, then, if we keep changing, if we keep rerouting?

Ultimately, does the answer matter?

We must be comfortable with the unanswerable, for creation and contentment lie in the “art of being at home in the unknown” (10).  The quest to fully know ourselves or our surroundings is a fool’s errand.  How often are we guilty of mentally constructing worst-case scenarios, even though they rarely, if ever, come to fruition?  Solnit ponders this tendency of ours, which she argues is the result of us incorrectly equating the unknown with fear: “Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t – and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown” (165).

Solnit, a traveler and geographer (who is particularly smitten with the American West, for those unfamiliar with her canon), she makes manifest this idea with the color blue, a hue she weaves into this collection of essays as a symbol of the unknown, the more, and even the infinite.  Blue, she writes, is the color of longing, “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not” (29).

Solnit is so enamored with blue’s connotations that she titles four separate essays in her book “The Blue of Distance.”  Blue is the there, the place we are heading towards but have yet to reach, the place that will cease to be blue as soon as we arrive.  Blue is the journey, blue is the approach, and blue is that intangible thing that distinguishes the promise of the destination from the destination itself.  “In this world we actually live in,” Solnit writes, “distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it.  The far becomes near, and they are not the same place” (35).

A lifelong wanderer, Solnit complements her two-hundred page love letter to the process of getting lost with the color blue, a hue that she argues “represents the spirit, the sky, and water, the immaterial and the remote, so that however tactile and close-up it is, it is always about distance and disembodiment” (159).

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For most of our lives, blue is our reality.  We think we understand our destination, but do we?  We spend our days in one shade of blue or another, for “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation” (5).

We will find contentment in the blue, in that color that only exists in the unknown.

Solnit’s subtle and beautiful writing often raises more questions than it answers.  If blue represents our desire, what is desire itself?  Why do we desire, and is the act of desiring something precious we should safeguard at all costs?

On this last point, however, Solnit argues yes: “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire” (30).  The act of desiring has high intrinsic value, because where there is desire there is blue and there is uncertainty.

And where there is uncertainty there is the promise of contentment.

Solnit, who is in her late fifties, juxtaposes the unknown with the remembered as she looks back on decades past.  Readers might see themselves in Solnit’s voyeuristic young adulthood, where she lived in a city but often found herself on the periphery of its chaos and excitement.  For the Solnit devotee, her anecdotes will prove insightful: the years she describes were formative, and in recalling the untimely death of a larger-than-life friend, she relates herself to readers who, more likely than not, can relate to Solnit’s recollection of an acquaintance with “the glamour of a turbulent world I was never quite a part of” (97).

“There is a specific kind of wildness,” Solnit writes, “having to do with the erotic, the intoxicating, the transgressive, that is more easily located in cities than in wilderness.  it has a time too, of youth, and of night” (91).

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Solnit’s plea to lose ourselves is inherently a political one in the late capitalist era.  Readers are all too familiar with the many ways they are expected to produce material goods for consumerist consumption.  After all, we live in an era where phrases such as “I worked sixty hours last week” and “I’m too busy to cultivate any hobbies” are considered accomplishments and sleepless nights are worn as a badge of honor.  Getting lost for its own sake, whether in a book or in a forest, is an act of rebellion.

Solnit words it best: “The fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss” (109).

I Would Recommend To: readers who love to travel abroad, hikers, photographers and lovers of art criticism, armchair philosophers

Published: June 2006 by Penguin Books

Related ReadingsNomadland by Jessica Bruder, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, South and West by Joan Didion, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing, Ansel Adams in the National Parks: Photographs from America’s Wild Places by Ansel Adams

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