A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
By Rebecca Solnit
Through the incessantly open eye of television and the Internet, we all have zoom-lens viewpoints for spectacles of human suffering and devastation. In the still-new 21st century, the horrors of 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have streamed into our rattled collective consciousness.
In her far-reaching and large-spirited new book, San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters are opportunities as well as oppressions, each one a summons to rediscover the powerful engagement and joy of genuine altruism, civic life, grass-roots community and meaningful work. "At stake in disaster is the question of human nature," writes Solnit. And elsewhere: "The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting."
The five chapters of "A Paradise Built in Hell" are devoted in turn to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a huge 1917 Halifax cargo ship explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Solnit, whose previous works include "Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities" and "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West," uses her historical framework as a scaffold to explore the essential experience of disaster and its redemptive, even utopian potential.
"Paradise" documents the spontaneous soup kitchens and encampments for the homeless masses that sprang up around San Francisco after the '06 quake. Accounts by the Mont Blanc explosion survivors in Halifax catalog countless acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, often in the interest of total strangers. A New York school principal was so absorbed in the safety of her students on Sept. 11 that she never thought of her own sister, who was destined to die in the World Trade Center - a fact that the principal later regarded as one of the "miracles" of the day.
Full of moving, transcendent acts by individuals, the book mounts a counter-institutional riposte to the Hobbesian, social Darwinian world view of society as a collection of purely self-interested parties. In fact, as Solnit shows, it "is often the very few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster."
Fearing an unruly mob that needs to be contained and controlled in moments of crisis, government officials exhibit an "elite panic" that can worsen rather than ameliorate a disaster's aftermath. Solnit finds evidence of it in everything from the fires that raged across San Francisco in 1906 to the fixation on - and shooting of - suspected looters in New Orleans. The Iraq war was an elite panic response to 9/11, writ large and tragically sustained.
Left to their own instincts for empathy and mutual preservation, according to "Paradise," everyday citizens may be best equipped to recover from disasters and repair their communities without intervention by bureaucratic and hierarchical agencies. It was the people already there at New York's Ground Zero, leading each other out of the burning towers and pulling strangers out of the rubble, who were the true and finally most effective first responders.
Solnit's thesis reaches its peak in her discussion of the Mexico City earthquake. Impulses that led neighbors to save and protect one another ultimately "reshaped the nation" in movements to expose and reform corrupt building practices and a carelessly complicit government.
Solnit is an indefatigable student of whatever subject she undertakes, blending historical research with boots-on-the-ground journalism (she traveled to Mexico City, Halifax and New Orleans for this book) and cultural criticism. "Paradise" includes keen readings of William James and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, considered references to Chernobyl and the London Blitz and an astute decoding of the embedded messages in most of Hollywood's disaster movies.
At times, Solnit's sense of purpose can lead her astray. "Paradise" both redundantly restates and sometimes overstates its defining arguments. But impassioned as she may become, Solnit does not shy away from the complexities and ambiguities of her subject. She acknowledges that the effusion of fellow feeling in New York after 9/11 resulted in "no great collective renewal." People largely returned to life as usual rather than entering a sustained transformation.
The book's longest, least disciplined and most ruminative chapter is devoted to Katrina. There, as she ranges from anger about appalling official policies that turned the hurricane's victims into prisoners to a rhapsody on social action to a concession that victims can also behave badly, Solnit builds a nuanced portrait of a city under extreme pressure.
If many opportunities were either rejected or squandered in New Orleans, Solnit remains optimistic about the capacity for light at the darkest hours. "The joy in disaster comes, when it comes," she writes in a characteristic flight of hope, "from that purposefulness, the immersion in service and survival, and from an affection that is not private and personal but civic: the love of strangers for each other, of a citizen for his or her city, of belonging to a greater whole, of doing the work that matters."
Steven Winn is the former arts and culture critic of The Chronicle. His memoir, "Come Back, Como," will be published in October.
This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
'A Paradise Built in Hell,' by Rebecca Solnit