William Kittredge’s latest book, The Nature of Generosity, is the rambling thesis of an educated, experienced, cultured and sensitive Westerner. It is a kind of mid-life dissertation that eschews the formal point-and-counterpoint of academic exposition, relying instead on anecdote, personal experience, history, popular science and quotes culled from voluminous reading. The cumulative effect of the book is that the reader feels as though he has spent the day floating and fishing the Blackfoot with Kittredge, the evening grilling steaks, and the later parts of the night propped on elbows drinking scotch and talking philosophy in some appropriate downtown dive. Reading this book is akin to being exposed to his mind, and all you can do is listen and marvel as he ranges through his experiences in the Warner Valley of Eastern Oregon, the caves at Lascaux, Machu Picchu, Venice and Eddie’s Club.
The central argument is sketched out in the introduction: “The point of this book can be suggested by pairing metaphors and examining how they resonate against one another: … walled cites against wilderness, and island empires that evolve into commodified carnivals, freedom against containment. … My topic is ordinary yearning to take physical and emotional care, and thus help ourselves along the road toward a ration of freedom and even happiness.” What Kittredge finally allows is that “Extreme long loop altruism is what I mean to advocate: generosity towards strangers and ways of life we never expect to encounter as a method of preserving both biological and cultural multiplicity and possibility. Acting generously helps many of us feel increasingly purposeful and coherent.”
This is his project, which he will prove over the course of 276 pages by taking on enormous topics such as “The Old Animal,” “Agriculture,” “Commodification” and “Generosity.” Although digressive (and a good lecturer’s tangents are always worth following), the belief that this kind of altruism is somehow absolutely necessary to our survival as intelligent, rational beings seeking the good life runs throughout the work. The problem as Kittredge sees it is that our will to altruism has fallen by the wayside in our rush to make a religion of science, subdue the earth and commodify our existence by purchasing our happiness.
Throughout, the book is practically a blackboard and the text an extended if heartfelt lecture. Although there are times—such as during the tales of youth in Oregon, the origins of the alphabet (and its consequences) or reflections on Paleolithic man—when you may find yourself counting ceiling tiles, Kittredge also knows when to punctuate his own words with the mot just chosen from others. For example, in the middle of his reflection on the origins of consumerism these two quotes are nicely juxtaposed:
“I attach too little value to the things I possess, just because I possess them and overvalue anything that is strange, absent and not mine.”—Montaigne
“The dynamic of deprivation is at the heart of expanding consumption: purchase brought momentary satisfaction, followed by dissatisfaction and renewed longing.”—Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance
Although basically preaching to the choir, Kittredge does seem to want to inspire action and so assays to demonstrate his thesis from all sides. Articulating an idea that would have been anathema in Warner Valley, Kittredge says: “It’s inevitable that our planet is mostly going to be a vast garden, tended by humans. But in order for that garden to be a truly functional place for our kind to live, it will have to include enormous tracts of wilderness where various species can go on evolving without supervision or scrutiny, areas where we have given up all possibility of manipulation.” After having summarized the scientist’s point, Kittredge goes on to the “spiritual argument” for wilderness.
What is great about this book is that it does not aim for the mark of enduring classic, “to be read and reread by countless generations.” Rather it is its immediacy—its concern with issues like global warming, Frankenfoods, big business, the environment, and the way that we live in community with one another—that makes it important.
As a conclusion, Kittredge offers “Jitterbugging at Parties” the last chapter in his articles of faith. While not exactly advocating fiddling while Rome burns, Kittredge does take inspiration from artists like Piet Mondrian and Glenn Gould who gave their art freely despite odds against them. He says: “There’s nothing to do but make peace with the rising flames while the house is burning, a try at joyousness.”
And as a teacher of writing, he does, of course, believe in the power of stories and narrative. “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 to ever encompass for long.” And having reached the end of the book, you get the feeling that according to Kittredge there is much more to be said on the matter. “Generosity,” he says, “is the endless project.”