Rebecca Solnit’s Swan Song to San Francisco
by Jonah Raskin
Does the world have a center? The innovative French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, believes it does with all the conviction of a true believer. “It has to be said,” he writes in America, “that New York and Los Angeles are at the center of the world.” San Francisco doesn’t even appear as a dot on Baudrillard’s cultural map, but perhaps that’s because, as he also explains, he’s not interested “in the deep America of mores and mentalities” but only “surfaces.”
Perhaps San Francisco only has depth and no surface, and, perhaps, as a French intellectual Baudrillard can’t bear to admit that America boasts a city that at times – as Jack Kerouac and others noted - rivals Paris. Then, too, San Francisco may not appear to be a central American place because it sits on the eastern edge of the Pacific and looks to East Coasters as though it’s at the end of the continent and a as a kind of island unto itself within its own gestalt. Of course, to Latin Americans, San Francisco isn’t the West but El Norte, much as Japanese and Chinese immigrants regard it as the beginning of the America continent.
The view of San Francisco as the quintessential anti-America city is perhaps the most striking notion advanced by San Francisco’s Rebecca Solnit. In Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas – her most recent book - she calls San Francisco “the un-American place.” Then, with characteristic aplomb, she adds that San Francisco is also the “place where America invents itself” – a view that San Franciscans have for the most part embraced and broadcast globally. Or, so it seems to me after listening to them for more than three decades, and also after carrying on a long love-hate relationship with “The City,” as we’re want to call it in Northern California.
I love San Francisco because it strikes me as an outpost of America on the Pacific, and because it’s at a crossroads where Asian, European, and Latin American languages and cultures meet, mix, merge, and go their separate ways. The Indians who lived around the Bay for eons thought of themselves as “dancing on the brink of the world,” and that’s the way I often feel in S.F. At the same time, I hate The City’s incessant need to advertise and promote itself as the best, and the first in a very competitive American way. Sadly, Solnit shares in the regional chauvinism. She puffs up the place, aggrandizes it, and turns to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to buttress her argument – though she’s a one-woman PR agency for S.F. and doesn’t really need outside sources.
Her chest-beating we’re-best-approach isn’t, of course, the only available approach to writing about San Francisco. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Guide to San Francisco in the 1930s, first published in 1940 and just reissued with an introduction by David Kipen, shows that a guidebook can exude local pride without patriotic flag-waving. Elements of the WPA book are obviously outdated; the waterfront isn’t the bustling port it once was. But the WPA guidebook’s two-dozen authors – including literary luminaries such as Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason and Dorothy Van Ghent - aim to explore The City’s “elusive identity” rather than nail it down and they never descend into regional drum beating. The book’s many maps and illustrations also explore the elusiveness.
Not surprisingly, Solnit doesn’t see herself as a chauvinist or as a public relations agent for the city that Herb Caen, The S.F. Chronicle’s famed columnist, dubbed “Baghdad By the Bay” – a moniker that everyone wants to forget including Solnit, who is perhaps the city’s foremost intellectual. Chauvinists usually aren’t aware of their chauvinism, even intellectuals like Solnit and Baudrillard, who do share common ground.
Indeed, one might think of Solnit as a Jean Baudrillard of San Francisco and like him preoccupied with the politics, the philosophy and the aesthetic of landscape. In her books, she comes back again and again to San Francisco as a place with multiple personalities, and sees it from multiple points of view. For Solnit, The City is an archeological site, a labyrinth, a movie set, a kind of space ship, and a state of mind. No contemporary America author and intellectual has written about San Francisco with more enduring passion and focused energy than she has, and no one has more exhaustively mined its hidden treasures, and showcased its exemplary exiles and natives for all the world to see.
Ever since she began to write and to publish books, beginning in 1990, Solnit has been writing extended love letters to San Francisco and the whole Bay Area. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas is her most ardent and unabashed paean to The City in which she resides. In fact, she calls it “a valentine of sorts to a complex place.” Her previously published books have won awards, but Infinite City might well be her signature San Francisco work. Granted, the ideas in her new book aren’t exactly new, but the tone and attitude are. Over time, Solnit has mellowed; a sense of nostalgia for a lost world of hippies in Golden Gate Park and African American jazz clubs in the Fillmore have replaced anger and even bitterness about an ominous future that she once insisted was hatched in San Francisco.
The basic arguments in Infinite City are reiterations and refinements that are almost all expressed in previous books, such as Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American urbanism, (2000), and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. For more than a decade, she has massaged S. F.’s history, culture, and identity and worked out most of the knots in her cosmology. Sometimes, too, she has even turned her ideas inside out.
Solnit has often been at her best as a writer when she’s not spewing facts but rather waxing metaphorical, poetical, and lyrical, as for example in Hollow City when she observes about herself and about citizens of cities the world over: “For those who spend years in a place, their own autobiography becomes embedded so that the place becomes a text they can read to remember themselves.” Invisible City takes the poetry and lyricism of Hollow City to new dimensions. Its 22 maps make S.F. more tangible and more real than it is in Hollow City, and also more whimsical and playful, as befitting a city that from 1928 to 1972 boasted a huge amusement park on the Pacific known as Playland and that provides a final setting for Orson Welles’s 1947 film noir classic Lady from Shanghai.
Solnit’s new book has more maps by far than any other book she’s written, though it’s not the first to feature maps. It isn’t the first work, either, that she’s written in collaboration with others, though it has more co-creators, including artists, photographers, researchers, and cartographers than any other book she’s published. Thirty collaborators worked on the book with her. Tall and slim – 12” x 7” - it’s the most eye-catching and visually seductive of all her works, and a reflection of the reality that more than ever before readers, editors, and publishers cry out for books with colorful images and bold pictures, not just text. Infinite City is a beautifully rendered version of one of the ways that the book as a work of art and as an artifact will probably be reinvented and repackaged in the future: as a visually stunning collaboration between makers of words, images, symbols, and signs.
In Infinite City, Solnit mostly tells the truth about San Francisco, or more precisely its truths - plural - though she doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In her eagerness to define San Francisco as the quintessential American place she sometimes blows up certain aspects of the city and tones down others, which means that her writing is provocative if not always truly convincing when one stops to think about it. So, for example, she insists that S.F. was “the center of global hippiedom.” All too conveniently, she ignores New York’s Lower East Side, home to Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and tens of thousands of runaway kids – and grown-ups too - who poured into the ranks of the counterculture, swelled communes, launched rock bands like the Fugs, and wiled into existence anarchist groups like the “Motherfuckers.”
Other American cities shrink when Solnit compares then to S.F., while her own home territory grows bigger and increasingly important. New York is merely a tiny dot somewhere in the distance on her invisible map of the U.S.A.. Granted, Solnit offers a telling quotation from The New York Times about the demographics of San Franciscans; the youth population is apparently decreasing. She also describes New Yorkers as urbanites blind to the world of nature around them. But she never casts her eye on New York itself, and so New York feels like the elephant in her book of maps. Not to mention it, not even as a foil, seems perverse because San Franciscans and New Yorkers habitually tell rival tales of their two cities. But perhaps New York is beyond her ken.
To her credit, Solnit sees her beloved San Francisco as a cityscape of dualities and contradictions – a Janus-faced metropolis that’s utopia and dystopia, and that generates bipolar responses that range from despair to hope. In Hollow City she describes San Francisco as “the capital of the 21st century,” and doesn’t mean the phrase to be laudatory. Indeed, Solnit argues in Hollow City that San Francisco offers a preview of the ugly, corporate, capitalist future that faces the nation.
Page after page, trivia piles up. Herman Melville appears though he only spent a brief amount of time in S.F. Lists of names go on and on – the names of jazz clubs on Fillmore Street, for example, as though the names themselves tell the story. (They don’t.) Then, too, overarching statements can leave one feeling flabbergasted. “No two people live in the same city,” Solnit writes of San Francisco. None? Not even a small corner? Not even briefly? Moreover, she insists that maps are superior to novels. “A map is a ticket to actual territory, while a novel is only a ticket to emotion and imagination,” she explains. If that’s the case, many of us will take War and Peace, Alice in Wonderland or To the Lighthouse rather than a map of San Francisco’s streets.
Rebecca Solnit has traveled a long way on the back of San Francisco’s fabulous hills and radiant valleys. She has also retained much of the youthful exuberance she brought with her to The City when she arrived there as a young woman from provincial Marin. It’s understandable and laudable that she would want to defend the place. For decades, New Yorkers arrogantly kicked sand in the face of San Franciscans. Solnit arrived on the scene in the nick of time to rescue The City and show the world that it’s far more than a crazy place on the brink of the continent where crazy people live on an existential edge. In fact, as she has clearly shown in her work, it’s inhabited by pioneering bohemians, idealistic working class organizers, and ardent environmentalists. Two cheers for San Francisco!!
Of course, San Francisco isn’t the only place that Solnit has written about. Iceland, New Orleans, and Detroit are also significant places in her world, but San Francisco has occupied an immense space in her memory and her imagination, and her work has begun to sound like an echo chamber. Surely it’s time to move on; surely, she knows that Infinite City is not only her Valentine, but also her swan song to San Francisco. When she decides to write about Los Angeles, New York, Cairo, or Paris - a city she’s always adored – or elsewhere, she might put Baudrillard in her backpack, and then wander off the map, which is precisely what she suggests readers do in her lyrical 2005 book A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
© 2012 Jonah Raskin