"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."