The Giving Tree is not rational

GivingTreeThere 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.

24 Comments

  1. Next up: Who could possibly defend Willy Wonka’s irresponsible behavior? It goes against everything we now believe about ethical treatment of children, good corporate citizenship, and workplace safety.

  2. Freddie, I think your writing is often intriguingly paradoxical (as demonstrated by your penchant for criticizing the way other people waste people’s time when they criticize the way other people natter on about something inconsequential). (FTR, I generally enjoy reading those posts, even if I sense they’re self-defeating.)

    I take no issue with your engaging thoughts about The Giving Tree. However, I do have to push back against this (which may or may not be central to your overall point, it’s hard to tell):

    “But the direction we have to go, to reach the next stage of human enlightenment, is away from the rational mind, not towards it.”

    If instead you had said something like, “But the direction I have to go, to reach my next stage of enlightenment, is away from my rational mind, not towards it,” it would have been above reproach. But your statement implies a prescriptive mandate for humanity as a whole, and frankly it’s indefensible.

    An appreciation for the irreducible mysteriousness of existence is something that artists, mystics, and spiritualists may help point the way towards, but it is a kind of enlightenment which is ultimately something each individual can only come to on their own. A humanity-wide enlightenment, OTOH, must incorporate morality, and reason with empathy are absolute requisites for any functioning moral code. Reason (along with its cousin, science) is the only interpersonally verifiable way of knowing.

    If the course of civilized history is any guide, the sovereignty of reason over human affairs is more tenuous than we would all like to believe. The challenges that will confront humanity over the coming decades may very well exceed anything we as a society have dealt with in the past, and the temptation to abandon reason’s frustrating requirement that we deal with things ‘as they are’ will be very great. There will be a desire among many to follow instead a ‘mystical path’ and/or ‘mystical leader,’ and I think you know your history well enough to understand that those approaches tend not to work out very well.

    1. Agreed, wholeheartedly. I think this post involves two basic confusions. One is implicit in the phase “the fundamental irrationality of generosity”, which assumes rationality is the same thing as stingy selfishness. But this is incorrect; in a social species, altruism and reciprocity are completely rational behaviors, as they encourage individuals to cooperate and mutually benefit.

      The other involves the statement “As a society, we should give what is asked for to whoever asks for it.” That may good advice on an individual level, or at least a decent heuristic starting point for moral behavior, but as large-scale social policy it stinks. Like it or not, society’s resources are finite, and doing the most good possible with limited resources means having to say “no” sometimes. We need to be more rational, not less.

  3. Real thinking is capable of discovering its own limits. These discoveries, too, are a form of “understanding,” even self-knowledge.

  4. “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. ”

    I’m struggling to think of good outcomes to this approach.

    1. Of course you are; as I said, it’s not rational, presently. It’s just good. If you catch my drift.

      1. No, I don’t. Is there a previous post on this blog in which you elaborate on this approach and demonstrate why it’s good?

          1. Do you want things to be like the Soviet Union, where they got rid of private property and anyone could come up and you’d have to give him your bike if he wanted it? That kind of utopia has already been tested and it failed.

          2. Freddie, would you please provide a spreadsheet containing the full cost-benefit analysis irrefutably proving that this approach yields a positive net present value?

    2. This is exactly how the federal government already treats Wall Street. I think what Freddie’s advocating, and what I want too, is for the principle of unconditional love (or regard, if you like) to be much more broadly applied.

  5. Thank you so much. Your description of Jesus captured concisely why I am a Christian. What a great post!

  6. “…what I admired and admire about Christianity and Jesus was the supreme irrationality of his boundless love.”

    What you most admire about Jesus is what I as a Christian also most admire about Jesus, even as I struggle with Jesus’ example and fail utterly to live up to it.

    “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.”

    Exactly. (In fairness, we also end up with other things than Joel Osteen, e.g. Dr. King.)

    Some stories in the Gospel seem to present Jesus as irrational in another way. Today I and many other mainline Protestants (and I think Roman Catholics) will hear read in church and preached on. Traditionally, this parable has been interpreted in such a way that God is a king who lays waste to a city in an avenging rage, invites the terrified survivors to a wedding banquet, and throws out a guest who comes in without a wedding garment. This past week I’ve heard it interpreted along other lines, where who is thrown out and the king is just a tyrant, not God. The is another one that we liberal Christian types really struggle with (and again are wont to reinterpret as a critique of empire rather than as a description of the kingdom of God).

    I don’t have an overarching point here; I would much rather affirm everything you say about Jesus and the Bible. But alongside the irrational love lives what looks and sounds to us like irrational hatred. The Bible, an extensive and diverse library, always pushes against the categories we try to put it in.

  7. Why make this the “guiding light” of your politics? At the risk of parroting the Dish, a key aspect of the Jesus was in a key sense anti-political and he emphatically rejected mixing radical love with politics.

  8. This is really lovely, Freddie.

    I’m not necessarily on board with your expansion of the irrationality idea in to global prescription, but in the context of the text you’re looking at, it’s beautiful.

    The key point to me is this:

    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.

    The key inside that key is the word “intellectually,” because there *is* a satisfying answer: love. The tee does it because he loves the boys. That’s not intellctuall satisfying, because naturally it will lead to the question, “Well, does that mean if you’re not willing to sacrifice so much for someone, you don’t love them?” I actually think, “Of course not” is a perfectly intellectually satisfying answer to that question, but I can see thinking it isn’t. And let’s be clear, many who have a problem with this answer, and with the book generally, have their problem because they have a pre-existing problem with existing expectations about love for people playing a particular role in society.

    But that doesn;t make “Because the tree loves the boy” not the satisfying and correct, notwithstanding intellectualization, answer to the question. It was always clear to me that this was a parable of love. And it never seemed to me that this was the boy’s parent, certainly not his mother. The tree doesn’t raise the boy; it simply is there and gives to him. It’s more a kind of cosmic friend, or perhaps simply the Earth(-Father?). It’s also a parable of environmental destruction.

    But the Earth and its environment don’t in fact love us, except on the Christian account. So is that love a mere figment, something the boy projects onto his rapacious destruction of his natural life-giver? Or does the tree (God) truly love the boy even as, and after, he busily destroys it? It seems to me that is the question Silverstein is asking.

  9. …I guess I had forgotten that the tee was given to be female in the text. That certainly buttresses some of the objections more than I was inclined to say. I remembered the tree’s gender as being ambiguous or nonexistent. I wonder how the reception would have been different over all these years if it had been.

  10. “Jesus, whose message was resolutely, intensely, and combatitively irrational.”

    I’m afraid this must be one of those rare occasions where I completely disagree with you. The message of putative Jesus was utterly rational, given its premises.

    The premises of that message were that (1) the earthly order is irresistible, (2) but it is unimportant, (3) because it won’t last long, (4) whereas the heavenly order is eternal and predestined. Given all that, radical pacifism in service to an omni-Deity makes sense.

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