Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays in Call Them by Their True Names does not overtly convey a Buddhist perspective. Along with one or two brief references, there is also the book’s title, which evokes the well-known poem by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh “Call Me by My True Names.” For the most part, however, the essays are thoroughly secular in nature—and yet, as I read them, I kept envisioning Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Although sometimes she or he is represented as wholly graceful and as mild as Mother Mary, at other times she appears as many-armed and many-headed, capable of looking in all directions and of summoning the widest possible range of responses to what she sees: from tender mercy to fierce rage.

It is this multifaceted version of the bodhisattva that these essays awakened for me. In their very subject matter, they encompass a range of issues, from recent political campaigns to climate change, gentrification, police shootings, and more. The range is so wide that the book is organized in four sections: “Electoral Catastrophes,” “American Emotions,” “American Edges,” and “Possibilities.” Yet one thread runs through the entire collection: differentials in power, and how these differentials shape human lives.

If you’re lucky enough to live toward the privileged end of the power spectrum, then you have the luxury of not paying much attention to the devastating weight of circumstance that crushes those at the other end. This is a luxury that Solnit, who is white and well-educated, rejects again and again. And for those who are committed to seeing the world around them clearly, it’s a luxury that must be rejected again and again. Why? Because as the essays, taken together, reveal, each situation requires a new head, a new pair of eyes.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays).

Haymarket Books, September 2018, 177 pages, $21.95.

And this is what’s most remarkable about these essays. Though their author is clearly motivated by certain unifying principles (the need for economic justice, environmental protection, preservation of diversity within communities), she doesn’t content herself with a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, she takes us inside each situation and—with her swiveling perspective—helps us see through the eyes of people whose lives may be radically different from our own. For those looking on from the outside, it’s as though each situation comes with its own particular pair of blinkers. In each case she sets about identifying these blinkers as the first and crucial step in the process of dismantling them.

Sometimes this dismantling occurs via a flash of illumination that moves from the surface level of appearances to their deep cause and/or consequence. One such example occurs in No Way In, No Way Out,” which explores the twinned yet inverse connection between homelessness and mass incarceration. Though the essay provides factual information to argue that both conditions are a direct consequence of certain political and economic decisions, it doesn’t stop at this level of investigative journalism. It goes deeper, articulating for those who have never been without shelter or locked in a cell what it’s like for people who can’t rely on the fundamental distinction between inside and outside. Solnit writes:

This is almost a definition of quality of life, the balance of public and private, the confidence that you have a place in the world—or a place and the world.
In the years since the Reagan Revolution, this basic condition of well-being has become unavailable to millions in the United States: the unhoused and the imprisoned. The former live in an outside without access to the inside that is shelter, home, and stability; the latter live in an inside without access to the outside that is liberty. Both suffer a chronic lack of privacy and agency.

And then, revealing the most tangible implications of such deprivation, Solnit observes that in San Francisco “local laws ban sitting or lying down on sidewalks and sleeping in public parks, as well as public urination or defecation—doing the things you do inside your house, the things biology requires that we all do.” Doubtless most of us would agree with the statement “I feel deeply disturbed by the suffering of the homeless on our city streets.” But how often, in the moment of rounding another urine-soaked corner, do we remember to direct our sense of revulsion to where it properly belongs: the public policies that have forced so many people to eke out a fragile and humiliating existence on the streets?

Similarly, in her essay on climate change, Solnit explores its relation to violence. Not surprisingly, when there is a scarcity of vital resources—as in certain drought-struck regions of Africa— already existing conflicts between neighboring peoples intensify. It’s easy to see the violence of these conflicts: the bombing raids, burned-out villages, rapes, throngs of refugees. But Solnit dives below the level of observable data to a deeper truth: that climate change itself is violence. It’s a form of violence that is impelled and sustained by decisions made by powerful and wealthy people who don’t have to see the bloodstains on their own hands. Though such decisions are usually made out of sight, Solnit’s gaze pierces through closed doors. Again and again, it’s as though having first dismantled our blinkers, Solnit then hands us a pair of 3-D glasses, so that we’re able to see directly through blighted surfaces and tragic circumstances to the deeper chain of cause and effect.

This is where Avalokiteshvara’s merciful head and wrathful head converge. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Call Me by My True Names” is an act of identification with the widest possible range of living beings, from tiny bugs to violent thugs to people cowering in detention. But as her title “Call Them by Their True Names” conveys, Solnit does not shy away from making a distinction between “us” and “them.” As she writes in her foreword, “Naming what politicians and other powerful leaders have done in secret often leads to resignations and shifts in power.” For her these are two inseparable tasks: perceiving the suffering of the powerless and exposing those who are most directly responsible for their suffering. 

Among my favorite essays was “The Loneliness of Donald Trump.” Partly, I confess, there was the sheer pleasure of seeing someone with Solnit’s laser vision and lush precision of language take on the man whose chaotic and aggressive style of leadership leaves many of us dumbfounded. Yet even in her unflinching excoriation of Trump and his politics, her analysis transcends the level of ad hominem attack. At its core, the essay explores a particular mode of being: that of supreme self-centeredness and obliviousness to the needs of others. “It’s like going mad on a desert island,” she writes, “only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is wherever you want it to be.” In this passage, it seemed to me significant that the pronouns shifted from “he” to “you.” Even here, describing a man she regards as “a pustule of ego,” she makes the effort to get inside his state of mind, encouraging each of us to succumb, at least for a moment, to the terrible allure of a lying compass.

rebecca solnit call them by their true names
A contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, Solnit has written numerous books on the environment, politics, and art. They include Men Explain Things to Me, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. (Portrait Illustration by Yann Legendre.)

In another essay, the particularly powerful “Bird in a Cage: Visiting Jarvis Masters on Death Row,” Solnit uses the metaphor of rowing against the current to imagine what it’s like when, from the start, there are such powerful opposing forces in a man’s life that he can find himself in a dingy jail cell awaiting execution, based on the flimsiest evidence. “We are all rowing past one another, and it behooves us to know how the tides move and who’s being floated along and who’s being dragged down and who might not even be allowed in the water.”

Not all the pieces have the same degree of writerly complexity, the intricate interweaving of factual information with pragmatic analysis, philosophical reflection, and poetic vision. Some read more like editorials, designed to share insight and encouragement with fellow progressives. In this context, I found the essay “Preaching to the Choir” illuminating. The prevailing model, Solnit says, is that “political work should be primarily evangelical, even missionary; . . . that talking to those with whom we agree achieves nothing.” And yet, she continues, “much evidence suggests that political organizations benefit most from motivating those who already agree with them.”

If one unifying theme of this collection is the devastating impact of disparities of power, a second theme is the importance of waking up to our own potential power to influence the course of history. Here, too, Solnit’s ability to see through layers and look in multiple directions comes to the fore, and she reminds us that some forms of protest that once seemed futile or tentative have actually created momentum to bring about significant change at a later point. Evoking the title of her previous book, I can testify that this book gave me “hope in the dark.” Rousing me out of my most recent attack of political despair, it got me off my duff and ready to engage again, remembering that the most important thing is to keep working for the world we long for, even when the odds seem overwhelming. After all, isn’t this the essence of the bodhisattva’s vow that many of us have recited again and again? All beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

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