The Tree of Life

I have just finished reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory (Norton, 2018).  Powers is his own distinctive cross between a sci-fi writer and a realist.  His novels (of which I have read three or four) almost always center around an issue or a problem—and that problem is usually connected to a fairly new technological or scientific presence in our lives: DNA, computers, advanced “financial instruments.”  As with many sci-fi writers, his characters and his dialogue are often stilted, lacking the kind of psychological depth or witty interchanges (“witty” in the sense of clever, off-beat, unexpected rather than funny) that tend to hold my interest as a reader.  I find most sci-fi unreadable because too “thin” in character and language, while too wrapped up in elaborate explanations (that barely interest me) of the scientific/technological “set-up.” David Mitchell’s novels have the same downside for me as Powers’: too much scene setting and explanation, although Mitchell is a better stylist than Powers by far.

So is The Overstory Powers’ best novel?  Who knows?  It actually borrows its structure (somewhat) from Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while the characters feel a tad less mechanical to me.  But I suspect that’s because the “big theme” (always the driving force of Powers’s novels) was much more compelling to me in this novel, with only Gain of the earlier ones holding my interest so successfully.

The big theme: how forests think (the title of a book that is clearly situated behind Powers’s work even though he does not acknowledge it, or any other sources.)  We are treated to a quasi-mystical panegyric to trees, while being given the recent scientific discoveries that trees communicate with one another; they do not live in accordance with the individualistic struggle for existence imagined by a certain version of Darwinian evolution, but (rather) exist within much larger eco-systems on which their survival and flourishing depend.  The novel’s overall message—hammered home repeatedly—is that humans are also part of that same eco-system—and that competition for the resources to sustain life as contrasted to cooperation to produce and maintain those resources can only lead to disaster.  Those disasters are not just ecological (climate change and depletion of things necessary to life), but also psychological.  The competitive, each against each, mentality is no way to live.

I am only fitfully susceptible to mystical calls to experience some kind of unity with nature.  I am perfectly willing to embrace rationalistic arguments that cooperation, rather than competition, is the golden road to flourishing.  And, given Powers’s deficiencies as a writer, I would not have predicted that the mysticism of his book would move me.  But it did.  That we—the human race, the prosperous West and its imitators, the American rugged individualists—are living crazy and crazy-making lives comes through loud and clear in the novel.  That the alternative is some kind of tree-hugging is less obvious to me most days—but seems a much more attractive way to go when reading this novel.

I have said Powers is a realist.  So his tree-huggers in the novel ultimately fail in their efforts to protect forests from logging.  The forces of the crazy world are too strong for the small minority who uphold the holistic vision.  But he does have an ace up his sleeve; after all, it is “life” itself that is dependent on interlocking systems of dependency. So he does seem to believe that, in the long run, the crazies will be defeated, that the forces of life will overwhelm the death-dealers.  Of course, how long that long run will be, and what the life of the planet will look like when the Anthropocene comes to an end (and human life with it?) is impossible to picture.

Life will prevail.  That is Powers’ faith—or assertion.  Is that enough?  I have also read recently an excellent book by Peter J. Woodford: The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Woodford makes the convincing argument that Nietzsche takes from Darwin the idea that “life” is a force that motivates and compels.  Human behavior is driven by “life,” by what life needs.  Humans, like other living creatures, are puppets of life, blindly driven to meet its demands.  “When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optic of life; life itself forces us to establish values; when we establish values, life itself values through us” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

 

Here is Woodford’s fullest explanation of Nietzsche’s viewpoint:

“The concept that allows for the connection between the biological world, ethics, aesthetics, and religion is the concept of a teleological drive that defines living activity.  This drive is aimed at its own satisfaction and at obtaining the external conditions of its satisfaction. . . . Tragic drama reenacts the unrestricted, unsuppressed expression of [the] inexhaustible natural eros of life for itself. . . . Nietzsche conceived life as autotelic—that is, directed at itself as the source of its own satisfaction.  It was this autotelic nature of life that allowed Nietzsche to make the key move from description of a natural drive to discussion of the sources and criteria of ethical value and, further, to the project of a ‘revaluation of value’ that characterized his final writings.  Life desires itself, and only life itself is able to satisfy this desire.  So the affirmation of life captures what constitutes the genuine fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing of a biological entity.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism transformed his recovery of tragedy into a project of recovering nature’s own basic affirmation of itself in a contemporary culture in which this affirmation appeared, to him at least, to be absent.  His project was thus inherently evaluative at the same time that it was a description of a principle that explained the nature and behavior of organic forms” (38).

Here’s my takeaway.  Both Powers and Nietzsche believe that they are describing the way that “life” operates.  Needless to say, they have very different visions of how life does its thing, with Powers seeing human competitiveness as a perverted deviation from the way life really works, while Nietzsche (at least at times) sees life as competition, as the struggle for power, all the way down.  (Cooperative schemes for Nietzsche are just subtle mechanisms to establish dominance—and submission to such schemes generates the sickness of ressentiment.)

What Wofford highlights is that this merger of the descriptive with the evaluative doesn’t really work.  How are we to prove that life is really this way when there are life forms that don’t act in the described way?  Competition and cooperation are both in play in the world.  What makes one “real life,” and the other some form of “perversion”?  Life, in other words, is a normative term, not a descriptive one.  Or, at the very least, there is no clean fact/value divide here; our biological descriptions are shot through and through with evaluation right from the start.  We could say that the most basic evaluative statement is that it is better to be alive than to be dead.  Which in Powers quickly morphs into the statement that it is better to be connected to other living beings within a system that generates a flourishing life, while in Nietzsche it becomes the statement that it is better to assume a way of living that gives fullest expression to life’s vital energies.

[An aside: the Nazis, arguably, were a death cult–and managed to get lots and lots of people to value death over life.  What started with dealing out death to the other guy fairly quickly moved into embracing one’s own death, not–it seems to me–in the mode of sacrifice but in the mode of universal destruction for its own sake.  A general auto de fe.]

In short, to say that life will always win out says nothing about how long “perversions” can persist or about what life actually looks like.  And the answer to the second question—what life looks like—will always be infected by evaluative wishes, with what the describer wants life to look like.

That conclusion leaves me with two issues.  The first is pushed hard by Wofford in his book.  “Life” (it would seem) cannot be the determiner of values; we humans (and Powers’ book makes a strong case that other living beings besides humans are in on this game) evaluate different forms of life in terms of other goods: flourishing, pleasure, equality/justice.  This is an argument against “naturalism.”  Life (or nature) is not going to dictate our values; we are going to reserve the right/ability to evaluate what life/nature throws at us.  Cancer and death are, apparently, natural, but that doesn’t mean we have to value them positively.

The second issue is my pragmatist, Promethean one.  To what extent can human activity shape what life is.  Nietzsche has always struck me as a borderline masochist.  For all his hysterical rhetoric of activity, he positions himself to accept whatever life dishes out.  Amor fati and all that.  But humans and other living creatures alter the natural environment all the time to better suit their needs and desires.  So “life” is plastic—and, hence, a moving target.  It may speak with a certain voice, but it is only one voice in an ensemble.  I have no doubt that it is a voice to which humans currently pay too little heed. But it is not a dictator, not a voice to which we owe blind submission.  That’s because 1) we evaluate what life/nature dishes out and 2) because we have powers on our side to shape the forms life takes.

Finally, all of this means that if humans are currently shaping life/nature in destructive, life-threatening ways, we cannot expect life itself to set us on a better course.  The trees may win in the long run—but we all remember what Keynes said about the long run.  In the meantime, the trees are dying and we may not be very far behind them.

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