Does anyone else feel like this? Caught between an optimism for a new year, a newish start after two Covid-riddled years and generally being just plain tired of negativity, and a realisation the 21st century is shaping up to be one of enormous upheaval in world affairs and possibly in the way we live as a culture (let alone as a species)? It seems to be getting harder to maintain a timely knowledge of world affairs while not losing a sense of hope for the future.
At least I know Rebecca Solnit has grasped this. The American writer and researcher, with a seemingly unending curiosity about everything, recently published a book titled Orwell’s Roses. It only came to my attention last week after reading an article on Radio National: How George Orwell’s love of roses can help you lead a happier life.
I’ll leave it to you to read up on the details, and I haven’t read the book myself yet (I mean, just look at what’s waiting on my bedside table at any one time), but essentially it talks about how Orwell balanced the gravity of his work with the ostensibly incongruous practice of gardening: vegetables and roses (while also investigating the similar acts of others).
Her theory maintains that far from being a dour, pessimistic individual, Orwell’s enjoyment of rose husbandry actually got him through the ghastliness of his subject matter. He used it as a way of steadying himself, refilling his cup if you will, so he could complete the work he believed in.
I learned a lot from writing the book. I didn’t understand—few of us do—what “bread and roses” really means, and that has been such a wonderful piece of equipment for my thinking and arguing.
We all know what “bread” is: food, clothing, shelter, the bodily necessities, which can be more or less homogenized and administered from above. But “roses” was this radical cry, in a way, for individualism, for private life, for freedom of choice—because my roses and your roses won’t be the same roses, you know? It’s saying that people are subtle, complex, subjective creatures who need culture, need nature, need beauty, need leisure.
This is not something the left has always been good at defending or even recognizing. We’re also in a really difficult time, and it’s not going to stop being difficult for the foreseeable future, with the climate chaos and the new authoritarianism, etc. We all have a lot of work to do.
The bit that really stands out for me from this passage is:
…“roses” was this radical cry, in a way, for individualism, for private life, for freedom of choice—because my roses and your roses won’t be the same roses, you know? It’s saying that people are subtle, complex, subjective creatures who need culture, need nature, need beauty, need leisure.
This just screams to me that art has more relevance in our lives than ever. To escape into. To hide in. To think about. To question. To unravel. To obtain perspective. To marvel at. To lose ourselves.
While I can’t claim to be much of a gardener I do love being in the bush and in beautiful, wild gardens. Finding respite in an absorbing book, a peaceful walk, filling my head with the works of an amazing artist, getting sucked into my own work, special times with loved ones, cooking something new, exploring new ideas – these are things that keep hope alive, make life worth living.
Just as Orwell maintained hope, worldly things to brighten us up when we need them are there for the finding. We are creative, intelligent, adaptable beings. And these imaginative, beautiful, inquisitive acts are our forms of resistance. Indeed, smelling the roses has never been more essential.