Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is now in its third printing. To celebrate its success, the publisher (TomDispatch.com) recently reprinted the 2008 essay from the book: The Archipelago of Arrogance. In the essay Solnit, the author of many books, describes being asked by an imposing, wealthy man at a party what her books were about. She mentioned one on Eadweard Muybridge. The man cut her off to tell her about a very important book that had just been released on the photographer and held forth describing it (from a book review he had read). Solnit’s friend repeated four times, before he listened, that, indeed, the book he was talking about was by Solnit herself! The man quickly moved on to another subject. Solnit is careful to say that her life is full of lovely men who are interested in and encourage her work—it’s the other men, the Mr. Very Important, she is troubled by. In her experience the “confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is gendered”.
Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. . . . Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence. . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, . . .
Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it’s part of the same archipelago of arrogance.
I have illustrated this essay with paintings by Vermeer; as I “listened” to Solnit I was drawn to them. Vermeer understood the dynamic of this relationship between certain men and women, and, I think, that is one of the reasons for his following among women (he is the favorite painter of my favorite art historian, Carol Armstrong, who wrote about Manet and Degas). In the paintings here, men have large and imposing bodies that tower over or envelope the passively seated body of a young woman. She can laugh at his jokes, taste proffered wine (for what purpose?), be interrupted at a lesson, but she does not speak.
–Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate
Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657. The Frick Collection; Girl Interrupted at Her music, 1658-59. The Frick Collection; The Glass of Wine, 1660-61, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin