There were two takes on Shel Silverstein’s simultaneously beloved and derided The Giving Tree in the Times recently, one from Anna Holmes and one from Rivka Galchen. Holmes, though characteristically well-expressed, joins a recent history of “provocative” takes on the book that misunderstand not only its text but its purpose. Galchen is closer to the mark, but suffers from the same misunderstanding: The Giving Tree’s relationship can’t be explained in the language or thought processes we might deploy to debate the earned income tax credit because the story is not meant to be explained. The book is irrational, by design, and its irrationality is the best kind: the kind that challenges the human pretense of understanding.
The takes are, conventionally, that the book is actually acutely disturbing, a portrayal of a parasitic, unhealthy relationship that calls to mind abuse and codependence. In that, they aren’t exactly wrong, but they are wrong to think that this is unintentional, that it is wrong, or that we are meant to judge it as some arch critique. Holmes blames the book for its abusive relationship, Galchen praises it, but both misunderstand in the attempt to bend it into a form that pleases adult conceptions of meaning and sense. The Giving Tree is a children’s book, and its incredible power lies in its refusal to adopt the parent’s efforts to render primal and inhuman feelings into parables that can be understood with the thinking mind. Children, particularly young children, live with the intensity of their emotions in full flower, and have not yet erected the intricate structures of phony reason to render those emotions more psychically palatable. Silverstein understood what Freud understood: what we want from our parents is unreasonable; how much we’ll take from our parents is irrational; our relationship to our parents is indefensible. The tree isn’t the boy’s mother, nothing so dull. But the tree is a symbol of the fundamental irrationality of generosity. It is the giving tree; giving is what the tree is and does. You can never come up with an intellectually satisfying answer to why the tree gives as much as it does and to why we should find pleasure in such a thing because the book is targeting a part of you that is far older and wilder and more powerful than your thinking mind.
While I don’t offer it as an explicit Christian allegory or anything so crude, particularly given that Silverstein was Jewish, there’s a clear parallel between the book’s story (not its “message,” whatever that could be) and the best versions of Christian love. It’s hard to imagine a historical figure who has been more thoroughly abused by the distortions of rational minds than Jesus, whose message was resolutely, intensely, and combatitively irrational. They built a vast church founded on precisely the opposite kind of rigid, antiseptic didacticism not in spite of who Jesus was but because of who he was: it took an edifice as vast and self-important as the Catholic church to squeeze that wildly unreasonable man into something that might be called a philosophy. After all, human beings cannot live with the kind of challenge that Jesus presents us with. So we create theology and philosophy and we end up with Joel Osteen. As an agnostic teenager reading the Christian bible, and as an atheist now, what I admired and admire about Christianity and Jesus was the supreme irrationality of his boundless love. Does he give again and again? Yes. Does he give to the good and the bad alike? Yes. Does he love evil people? yes. Does Hitler get into heaven? Yes. Yes, he does. For now, that kind of love can live only in the pages of that bible, and it should come as a surprise to no one that here on earth there is no such thing as a Christian church.
The rational mind is the way we make progress as a species. But the direction we have to go, to reach the next stage of human enlightenment, is away from the rational mind, not towards it. For now the task is to insist, sometimes, on the unreasonable, the irrational, and indefensible, and this is the guiding light for me as a political creature. As a society, we should give what is asked for to whoever asks for it. Even if we can’t afford to give? Yes. Even if they don’t need it? Yes. Even if they’ve lied and cheated in asking before? Yes. Even if we know they’re lying and cheating now? Yes. And so Galchen’s take, that we are meant only to witness this relationship and not to bless or replicate it, is flawed too: the relationship portrayed in the book is indeed indefensible, but contrary to Galchen, it is precisely exemplary.
We’ve seen, in the age of the internet, a vast explosion in the analysis and examination of the art around us, and as frustrated as we might become with the opinions of others, it’s hard for me to see this expansion as anything else but a massive good. I am challenged and moved by other people’s thoughts about art every day, and it’s a blessing. But analysis and examination are methods of the mind, and I fear that efforts to feel with each other are far rarer than efforts to think with each other, or at each other. These efforts to cast the brute emotional power of art into the conventions of thinking are necessary, natural, and fun. But they can result in, for example, the deep hatred for ambiguity in art, the effort to tease out of every creator what really happened. More, so many takes on art today, straining for political relevance, misunderstand that it is precisely the ability of art to express the indefensible and the disturbing that lends it enduring power. If you are yet another person online to point out that the lyrics of “Run For Your Life” off of Rubber Soul are disturbing and misogynist, you are yet another to fail to understand that John Lennon didn’t kill anybody. He wrote a song about his impulses to kill — his scary, ugly, unmentionable impulse to kill, driven by the frightening irrationality at the heart of love and desire. He put those impulses into his art because that is where they could be acknowledged without danger. His music was where the unforgivable monster of his feelings could live and do no harm.
I am thinking with you, here, not feeling. I’m just saying, in my thinking, that there are things in this book which cannot be thought through. You can get a lot from thinking about The Giving Tree, but not understanding. There are all kinds of ways of thinking about this book and all books and I appreciate them all. But there are some readings that we must reject because they are contrary to the one part of a book we all have to honor, the text itself. So the common argument that the tree is unhappy, that its stated happiness is satirical or ironic or paradoxical, cannot withstand scrutiny. What do we know for sure, at the end? We know that the tree is happy. The boy deserved nothing and took everything and left the tree bereft. And the tree was happy. Silverstein leaves us to live in that world.