Thursday, May 15, 2008

Storytelling, Personal Transformation and Community: A How To

Book Review
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

The Nature of Generosity
William Kittredge
Alfred A. Knopf 12/00 Hardcover $25.00
ISBN: 0-679-43752-5

"We ride stories like rafts, or lay them out on the table like maps. They always, eventually, fail and have to be reinvented. The world is too complex for our forms ever to encompass for long. Storytelling requires continuous reimagining," writes William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky, a memoir; Owning It All, a book of essays; and The Van Gogh Field and We Are Not in This Together, two collections of stories. This bold and daring work is a prime example of questing literature.

Kittredge takes a long multidimensional look at the human capacity for selfishness and generosity, for separation and unity, for blindness and visionary insight. The author ponders his travels to Paris and Venice. He wrestles with the complexities and immorality of consumerism and wealth. He salutes the celebratory insights of Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Pablo Neruda into the diversity and lure of the human adventure. As he notes at the outset, the book proceeds "more like a dance than an argument." In these postmodern times, it's the only way to go if you're going to deal with "redefining intentions, obligations, and responsibilities, rediscovering home and acknowledging basic allegiances."

This ambitious and ethically driven book dances its way through an abundance of rich and thought-provoking illustrative material on the loss of 25,000 to 30,000 species a year, the vast potential of the human brain, the wayward trek of modern homo sapiens, the deadly consequences of contemporary xenophobia, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the corporate control of more than 25 percent of the planet's productive assets, the insulation of the wealthy from the rest of society, and the soul sickness of consumerism. Kittredge concludes: "We are presently evolving, certainly, into a culture based on distance. First World societies evolve in the direction of electronic chat rooms. Defining ourselves in purely economic terms, we ignore the necessary role of generosity in our lives. Economic anxiety is killing the mantle of life on earth, and we find ourselves in a double bind, in which consumption promotes peace of mind, which in turn leads us to destroy the basis for our very survival. We despise ourselves for our involvement. Acting out this scenario, we suffer a pervasive sense of powerlessness and alienation from ourselves and thus our societies. . . . We are like those increasingly featureless statues standing in the acid rain outside cathedrals all over Europe, dissolving."

Instead of hostility and distrust of strangers, we can exhibit hospitality. Instead of constricting our hearts and tightening our fists, we can open our souls and reach out to others in mutuality and compassion. Kittredge finds a succinct model of this spiritual practice in the following words by Walt Whitman: "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, and give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God."

The author concludes with a dance of his own ideas and ideals about a transformed world based on diversity; the reimagination of desire and home; and a delight in a pluriverse of meanings. Kittredge ends with: "We must relearn the arts of generosity. We cannot, in any long run, survive by bucking against natural forces, and it is our moral duty to defend all life. It's time to give something back to the systems of order that have supported us: care and tenderness."

William Kittredge's stunning memoir is at once autobiography, a family chronicle, and a Westerner's settling of accounts with the land he grew up in. This is the story of a grandfather whose single-minded hunger for property won him a ranch the size of Delaware but estranged him from his family; of a father who farmed with tractors and drainage ditches but consorted with movie stars; and of Kittredge himself, who was raised by cowboys and saw them become obsolete, who floundered through three marriages, hard drinking, and madness before becoming a writer. Host hauntingly, Hole in the Sky is an honest reckoning of the American myth that drove generations of Americans westward -- and what became of their dream after they reached the edge.

The Nature of Generosity is at once a natural sequel to the acclaimed memoir Hole in the Sky and an entirely unique masterwork from one of the finest writers of the American West.

Taking as his topic the "ordinary yearning to take physical and emotional care," William Kittredge embarks upon a literary and philosophical grand tour that explores the very core of who we are. Whether he's recalling a childhood in Oregon, touring Europe, or studying photographs of Japanese gardens in a bookstore in New York City, Kittredge's connections are as unexpected as they are inspiring. Shattering the myth that survival of the fittest means "survival of the violent, or the cruelest, or the selfish," Kittredge imagines a world in which altruism dominates--and offers ample evidence that this is not an unreachable utopian ideal. (from Random House) (and Wikipedia)


tweetey30 said...

They both sound interesting... Thanks for the reviews. i will have to add them to my list of books i want.

Gardenia said...

I should read these books as I came from a pioneer family who traveled West in a covered wagon. Especially since the conclusion in the second book is that an altruistic dominated world could possibly exist!