It is amazing how in a matter of minutes somebody’s thinking and choice of words can start to play an important role in your life. During the past years I have devoured historical writers who all seemed to capture their respective time periods in words so well, but I had not been able to identify somebody that could convince me about some of the subtleties of western society. And then there was a conversation with Rebecca Solnit in ‘Bomb Magazine’. It was like coming home. Since then, for the first time in my life, I count myself as a groupie-of-sorts.
Rebecca was born in the Bay Area in 1961, and has since the late eighties made her living as an independent writer; or perhaps better said, as a contemporary cultural omnivore who doesn’t shy away from topics such as disaster, human rights, gender and social issues, and ecology. While enveloped in extensive historical and cultural research, her writing is often strangely direct, and most importantly, infused with an incredible sense of poetry. As a true artist, Rebecca helps us see everyday life differently.
I finally had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca in person in New York City. Rebecca spoke as she wrote: with an amazing choice of words and a capacity to make intricate connections in a matter of seconds.
So much of Rebecca’s writing is about getting lost; about metaphors; about meandering; about labyrinths; about the non-direct and the direct, that it made me want to speak to her about eroticism. The following is a conversation between San Francisco and New York City over email.
David: For me, eroticism goes beyond our bodies, and is often much more of a spatial experience. I wonder what erotic means to you?
Rebecca: I think you can think of eroticism as having many facets. One is sensuality – and that has a prehistory in children’s romance with gravity as they swing, spin, jump. Children are curious sensualists in that they’re fairly indifferent to temperature and adult notions of comfort – soft seats, a lot of the nuances of food. For adults sensuality can be everywhere and anywhere, in all the pleasures of the body, including the rhythms of walking. Another facet of eroticism is encounter, and maybe surrender to the moment, and that suggests there’s an eros of street revolts and of getting lost in discovery in the streets (or the hills) as well as in bed. Then there is beauty, which can be of spaces, places, light, celestial phenomena, and the built and made world as well as bodies.
So yeah, I’m for defining eroticism widely – and for remembering that ancient courtship custom of going out walking, which is often even a euphemism for more. But just matching your stride to someone and maybe walking arm and arm with them is sensual. And in some writing, the world itself becomes a body, as it does in metaphor, with shoulders of roads, foothills, headlands, Fitzgerald’s fresh green breast of the new world, and the rest.
David: I like that notion of courtship. There is something incredibly erotic about it, but that may be because most of the courtship we sometimes seem to be getting is in the form of short text messages. What to you is an erotic courtship? And could you think of a courtship for the future that is more inspiring?
Rebecca: Spending time together, negotiating the distance between bodies and eventually eliminating it, while talking and laughing and playing: that’s my idea and ideal: a voyage of discovery by two people. Many of us still operate this way.
It’s aggravating that people nowadays seem to think every social occasion must require consumption – of coffee, drinks, food. An earlier generation, up through the 1940s at least, conversed and flirted and courted and philosophized while walking. I still try to have some of my conversations on foot – as recently as last night when my friend Adriana and I circumambulated Bernal Hill while talking about the fate of our city at the hands or maybe robot paws of Silicon Valley. We looked out over that city gleaming at night with a hundred thousands of lights, and the arteries of the freeways with their red taillights and white headlights streaming along.
David: In Wanderlust you write beautifully in the chapter on ‘The Solitary Stroller and the City’ about the 19th century poet Walt Whitman who preferred walking and the act of flirting outside, to the orgies that were taking place behind closed doors. There are still many orgies in the city, and there is a lot of time spent flirting on websites and apps, but in the past years New York City has become increasingly hostile to flirting on the streets. Now a common way to make eye contact seems to be an intense angry stare, without even the blink of an eye or a slight raising of the corners of the mouth. I was in New Orleans a few weeks back and did a long walk along Magazine Street from the city center all the way to Audubon Park. I was amazed that several guys looked me up and down in the most friendly, inviting ways. They would smile, wink, and one even turned his head. It was incredibly sexy. It makes me wonder what is it that makes an urban encounter erotic to you?
Rebecca: New Orleans is magic in that people live in public and talk to strangers as Americans mostly don’t do elsewhere – sometimes because they’re not even mingling and walking, let alone drinking in the streets, dancing and parading in them. It’s a very sexual, erotic town, with its steamy heat, its position as what my collaborator Rebecca Snedeker [co-author of Unfathomable City. A New Orleans Atlas] calls the ‘cloaca of the continent’ and I called ‘the genitals of the USA just below the tightly buckled bible belt.’ Being female I’m not so big on public erotic encounters, since I’ve also spent the last 35 years or so navigating the freedom of the city without being raped, which means being alert and strategic and keeping an eye on the guys. Once women no longer face such widespread danger in the American city, we can talk about erotic urban encounters, perhaps.
…sensuality can be everywhere and anywhere, in all the pleasures of the body, including the rhythms of walking…
David: In the chapter on Paris in Wanderlust, you describe how you can feel love for a city and lust for the people on its streets. I like this notion and am trying to imagine to what city that would currently apply. I feel it may not be in Europe or the US: would there be a city in which this is still, or again, a mode of operation?
Rebecca: Well, I think I described how surrealist men did this. Not me, not Djuna Barnes’s characters also wandering the streets of Paris in Nightwood (well, maybe Dr. Matthew O’Connor does). The surrealist men imagined Paris itself as a woman, which made walking a form of making love or taking possession. But there are still so many beautiful cities eminently suited for wandering on foot: Guanajuato, Edinburgh, Rome, Montevideo come to mind.
David: You have written about how we have created the right ways to walk – and how this relates to eroticism. From Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle and so on, I never found those walks very sexy, nor did I get aroused by the crazy long leg that came out of Angelina Jolie’s dress a few years back at the Oscars.
What I can get incredibly attracted by is the light relaxed walk of especially men in southern Europe or South America. They have a confidence that is not yet arrogance: and are unaware of their sex appeal. What walk or walker do you find erotic?
Rebecca: I adore Angelina Jolie, but the way she kept sticking her leg out at that awards ceremony was so over the top that a few guys made fun of it when it was their turn in the limelight. She was probably thinking about something more important and absentmindedly trying to do her job as a siren. Marilyn Monroe was doing straight female drag straight-up. As for walks and walkers – let me just quote David Bowie: ‘And they moved like tigers on vaseline.’ The man I’m involved with – I remember admiring his lupine grace when I first met him. I still admire it. Or maybe it’s vulpine grace, on boats, on mountains, on sidewalks.
David: When I first moved to the US I was shocked at how prudish the country was and somehow let myself believe it had always been this way. That was until I started watching older movies and TV shows: I realized that this conservatism was actually rather recent. Do you think a different exploration of a topic as eroticism could break open this sometimes claustrophobic mold?
Rebecca: Growing up in the Bay Area in the 1970s I got the downside of the sexual revolution; creepy adult men pursuing and pressuring very, very, very young girls to have sex. There were various kinds of sensuality in the arts and film before the postwar censorship, but I don’t think we left any Golden Ages behind unless it’s pre-Columbian or something. Nor do I think we entered a golden age, though there was some genuine liberation over the past half-century.
We now have a superabundance in many media of a kind of lurid, pornographized sex that is strangely unerotic; the female body refashioned as an anti-biological tool subservient to male pleasure and fantasy (and really dim, grim, unpleasant fantasies, often of degradation and punishment) – and social activities imitating that media (Fifty Shades of Grey theme parties, for example). Maybe that’s what sex looks like to Puritans, what happens when the repression, shame, resentment, punitive fury is naked and frantic in public. But the US is at its best the whole world: nearly everything goes on here, from Tantric experiments to dancing in the streets of New Orleans to queer revolution, so I’m always reluctant to summarize it…
David: I never realized that was how it was to grow up in the Bay Area. I know the region from relatively short trips over the past eight years and have been happily surprised with the liberating feeling some of the progressive scenes in the Bay Area create by defying, or better, bending gender norms. There is something so erotic about the blending of gender, but I realize that to many others this may not be the case. Why do you think eroticism is so compartmentalized?
Rebecca: I do love the way that airtight categories of gender – whether what qualities men and women may embody or whether people even need categories or must be born into them to inhabit them – are dissipating. At least they are indeed in my part of the country, which generates the revolts more than the backlashes.
David: Interesting! Let’s jump back for a moment to the experience of being a woman out on the streets. In ‘Walking after Midnight’ in Wanderlust, you describe how ‘narrow skirts, easily damaged fabrics, veils that obscure vision – are part of the social mores that have handicapped women as effectively as laws and fears.’ It is interesting that these are also the elements that so many men find erotic, and that mass media also leads us believe women would need to find erotic for that reason. The few times we met, you struck me as an incredibly no-nonsense woman. Do you ever fall for the stereotypical points of masculinity we are trained to find erotic?
Rebecca: Who doesn’t? Misogyny, like racism, is in everyone’s head. But as a walker, I’ve almost always worn shoes you can go five miles in (or carried them) and been dismayed by the voluntary disability some women assume and some men desire or require. It doesn’t say much for their self-confidence.
The body of a beloved is a landscape… in terms of the embodied encounter with beauty,spaciousness and its invitations to enter and explore, strenuousness, risk, interaction, surprise…
David: I have to admit I did not realize the extent of this issue either, even as, or perhaps I should say, especially as, a gay man. It is shocking that we still have not been able to create cities and social systems that are pleasant, safe, honest, and equal to all.
Lets jump to life outside cities for a moment. Often we consider the erotic to have to do with urban culture, or perhaps we should say even with human culture. Your work often takes us out into landscapes that I think are points of reflection for you. And you have written about the relationship between gender and landscapes (how men document and experience these differently than women). I wonder if you think landscapes can be erotic?
Rebecca: I am sitting on the edge of a marsh; outside the window rain is falling into water above mud; every drop makes a beautiful ring, and the sound of harder rain slashing on the roof is gorgeous, the clouds have made the land across the bay disappear and fog wraps the mountain in shifting veils. Being in water is tremendously sensual (and in cities people only swim in pools, generally); I row now and getting to know water and floating above the unknown that is rowing across murky water. Of course, in terms of the embodied encounter with beauty, spaciousness and its invitations to enter and explore, strenuousness, risk, interaction, surprise….
David: I have the feeling that nature, landscapes, and so on, are your way to release pressure. For many, nature is not always so easily reachable, they need to find release in the urban landscape through festivals, parades and so on. I wonder if that is why sexuality has taken on such a big role in society: as a pressure valve, and if the erotic has suffered from that?
Rebecca: Well, I like revolting in the streets and dancing in the streets, and I wrote a whole book about the joy of civil society and collective engagement (A Paradise Built in Hell). But I like spaciousness, and I like landscape, and I like a certain amount of solitude too.
David: Right! Often your writing is about the solitary experience. Somehow we have gotten so used to thinking that erotic moments need to be non-solitary. Can there be erotic moments that are best experienced alone?
Rebecca: Moments of rapture, of immersion, of transfiguration, of revelation may come best alone, or some varieties of them. I am all for broader, deeper definitions of what our experience can consist of and what matters. Some of my books, such as The Faraway Nearby and A Paradise Built in Hell, maybe all my books even, are an attempt to describe a larger sense of self; one that needs meaning, purpose, community or civil society, place, adventure, engagement, sublimity, beauty. Conventional versions of the self are privatized and domesticated: they propose that all we need is stuff, security, sex and family, and that seems so reductionist, so withered from a sense of self. Those are fine things, but I think of them as synonymous with the home that is only the house: I want more for all of us, maybe for the whole world to be home.
David: I have to think of this in relation to a quote from A Field Guide to Getting Lost: ‘Like ruins, the social can become a wilderness in which the soul too becomes wild, seeking beyond itself, beyond its imagination. And there is a specific kind of wildness, having to do with the erotic, the intoxicating, the transgressive, that is more easily located in cities than in the wilderness. It has a time too, the time of youth, and of night.’ Getting older, would you still think that this is when and how the erotic manifests itself or do you see your idea of eroticism evolve?
Rebecca: For the young, cities are the laboratories in which they invent themselves and find their community and place. I think older people have often done the work to find their place and make their world, and the city offers them less.
David: One of my favorite quotes from you is from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. You write: ‘The body of a beloved is a landscape, but landscape is also a body: each is traveled in terms of the other, and thus the world is knit together with those constellating lines of imagination’. You use this as an introduction to write about metaphors, which made me think about how language can be so inherently erotic. Do you use language as an erotic tool?
Rebecca: Of course!
David: Among my favorite of your writings are the sections on the theme of distance in a Field Guide to Getting Lost. Distance can be an incredible tool to inspire desire, attraction, and dreams. So as a last question I wonder how you create the necessary distance to stimulate these things for the people around you?
Rebecca: I’m going to go ask the guy downstairs. The one with the wolf-like gait.