“The modern version of hell is purposelessness.”
—John Fowles, The Tree, 53
It is the time of lists. The 5 Hottest Movies of the Year; The 10 Best Novels of the 21st Century; The World’s 15 Most Eligible Bachelors. For years these unsourced, uncommented-on rankings have been more essential to end-of-year celebrations than champagne, but now they’re a year-round phenomenon. They’ve become the go-to style for bloggers and site managers of all descriptions because of the way they mimic “data”—in a way that turns the old, human art of gossip into a set of items an algorithm can read and manipulate. This tendency does disservice to both algorithms and gossip. So why do we love lists so? Because of the crude but accurate (the data shows it!) insight into the psychology of what drives people to click on a link, and the neatly protestant belief that success in increasing Web traffic (our good work) is meaningful evidence of divine selection (or Google’s).
I’m an enthusiast and fully fledged participant in all this. Both out of professional interest as someone who works in marketing and as a social person in the early 21st century, I compile comprehensive “books read” lists on Goodreads, share amazing ninja kitten photos wherever possible, and pimp my favorite current movie on Twitter (by the way, I saw “Hugo” last night, and, no joke, it’s completely magical, entrancing and makes me want to make things like no other movie in recent memory. See it in the theaters! The big screen 3-D is worth it). Beyond reasons of paying career or cultural pull, I love this new world. I really like learning what interesting people are reading, looking at and dreaming of. Yet, for all that, re-reading John Fowles’s 1979 essay The Tree over the holidays left me with two contradictory feelings. It was unquestionably the best thing I’d read in months, and worth every star I could tweet for it, but at the same time it’s a book that wants nothing to do with lists. It’s a book that demands a bigger, weirder, slower, and wilder consideration.
The Tree begins as Fowles’ argument against the central tenet of his father’s life. His father a man with a middling to disappointing business career who poured the better part of his life into the care and nurturing of a few fruit trees in his suburban back yard—pruning, watering, and clearing them relentlessly until they produced the sweetest, fullest fruit. But the trees John Fowles loves are wilder and rougher; they adhere to no man’s touch, only to the chancy exigencies of their own particular non-human nature and condition. This is an argument between father and son that goes beyond aesthetic preference, to the heart of what each man believes: Is it better to shape your world through care, will and steadily applied civilized knowledge, or to tap what Fowles calls “green chaos”? To Fowles credit, he makes clear that his father produces by far the healthier trees with the fuller, more flavorful fruit. He also makes it clear that every naturalist and arborist he knows takes his father’s point of view. It is a position expressed with the force of moral:
“No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hid in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause.” (23)
The patron saint of this worldview is the great naturalist and genius of scientific method, Linnaeus. His system does more than classify our world. It provides a fundamental lens for all ensuing scientific practice. It is the practice of science that has grown to the level of religion—believed in, worshipped, profited by—a religion of which Fowles’ father is an eloquent and passionate adherent.
Against the belief systems of Linnaeus and his father, and in clear-sighted recognition of both men’s accomplishments, Fowles sets his sense of “green chaos” as the essential propagating force of both nature and art. Linnaeus’ classification systems feed the human need to make use of the world. But, for Fowles, “we shall never full understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability.” (39-40)
This is heresy, at least, and no way to make a living, for sure. It goes against the ethos of the start-up culture that surrounds us now, a culture I treasure and feed, and (more to the point) that feeds me and my family. “Our approach to art,” writes Fowles, “as to nature, has become increasingly scientized (and dreadfully serious) during this last century. It sometimes seems now as if it is principally there not for itself but to provide material for labeling, classifying, analysing.” (46) But in all the lists we read and create, all the tags we apply to our blogs and posts, all these ways in which we make ourselves and our every moment traceable, trackable, researchable, usable, are we not responding in fear to the nature of the chaos out of which we’re formed? The exhortation echoes for each of us: “Make something of yourself.” Is there nobility in preferring not to? Beauty even, or even, weirdly, power? Or is it silliness at best, madness at its extremest?
The movie I saw last night (four out of four stars!; seriously: see it on the big screen) ends with a single, useful moral: Each of us needs a purpose. It is a lesson that applies to both people and machines, and it is beautiful to me to think that we are each part of a perfectly engineered system, and that, therefore, each of us fits, with a perfectly designed role. The only tragedy is not knowing what that role is. I’m only halfway through the book, so I don’t know if this sentiment is in the book or was brought out by the filmmakers, but it hardly matters. The movie is a profoundly moving, deeply magical expression of the ethos of our age. It shows the clever, nearly magical workings of the machine that produces magic. At the level of movie makers and magicians, yes, there is a method and a mechanical engineering to the most awe-inducing scenes, as there is a grammar and an expertise to the writing of a novel. But all those cogs and tracks, spindles and discs, hum in the service to something that’s harder to tease apart. “A green chaos,” as Fowles has it. “Or a wood.” (53)