When Gertrude Stein wrote what was to become one of the most familiar lines in literature -- "a rose is a rose is a rose" -- she was responding to a dilemma that plagues the 20th century: the ever increasing schism between words and the reality they are meant to represent. She attempted to revitalize worn out nouns by jostling sentences and introducing poetic strangeness. The rose, she contended, is now red for the first time in literature in a hundred years.
John Fowles explores this same schism -- between words and reality -- with an urgency that indicates the problem is not merely literary, but rather a threat to our civilization as well as the natural world. While Gertrude Stein tries to move words closer to the reality they symbolize, Fowles urges that we occasionally set aside the symbols and confront reality directly. These two approaches seem to me ultimately congruous, essential to each other.
Yes, I am referring to that coffee table book -- if $24.95 and large-format, color photographs relegate a book to the coffee table -- entitled "The Tree." John Fowles may want his ideas to be liked for themselves and not merely because they are likably presented (this he mentions in "The Aristos"), but he is a master of style, evident in the ease with which he transforms the abstract into the highly tangible, without sacrificing any of the subtleties. This flair for style is repeated in the photographs of Frank Horvat and in the exquisite design of the book. The only danger is that the reader might casually flip through the pages unaware of the deeper issues, and that would be a tragedy.
Trees are the reality central to this book, and to the life of John Fowles ever since his childhood days in Devon, England. Not trees in the singular state nor trees pruned, lopped, and encouraged to yield bushels of the sweetest fruit, as was his father's passion; but endless reaches of trees in their wildest form, posing the continual question: "What lies next?" Wild, chaotic, untranslatable, this is Fowles' microcosm for reality.
Merely because he is working in the up- front genre of the essay, do not think that he has left behind his ability to lure the reader in the subtlest and most pleasing of ways. Before convincing us intellectually of the disparity between forest and language, he revives our memories of how we, too, once took to the woods, either climbing trees or rambling through them, in an effort to escape school and the abstractions of language, for one, forced upon us. Suddenly we understand viscerally what he is about to unravel rationally.
Language is not only disparate from the world of the forest, it is dangerous to it and to our ability to perceive. Identifying a tree, or merely describing it, we isolate the tree from its context, freeze one aspect of a continually changing organism, and -- here lies the great mistake -- we often confuse that aspect with the whole. Identifying slowly becomes a game, its own anthropocentric reality, separate from the object identified. Thus begins the rift between language and nature, between words and reality, and the inaccuracies of all that utilize language: science, knowledge, art, etc.
But the strength of the essay lies in Fowles' willingness to live with paradoxes. Though a competent naturalist and co-curator of a natural history museum, he raises suspicious about the process of identifying. As a novelist ("Daniel Martin," "The French Lieutenant's Woman" etc.) with enormous verbal capacities, he points out the liabilities of language. And although he says of the woods, "Nowhere are the two great contemporary modes of reproducing reality, the word and the camera, more at a loss," he combines his writing with photographs stemming from a different philosophy concerning trees.
One must also admire the courage of Frank Horvat, not only for photographing a subject as elusive as trees, but for allowing his work to rest next to such probing text. Boldly he ignores preconceived notions of what a photograph should be in order to bring us closer to the essence of trees. And the result is immensely pleasing.
For Fowles though, simply livingm with paradoxes is not enough; each element of the paradox must feed the other. For example, it is his wanderings through tree-filled combes, experiencing what Gertrude Stein calls "the excitingness of pure being," which ultimately shape his writing, both the process and the final product. He seems to say that language and reality are inevitably different, but they can sustain rather than destroy each other.
"It [nature] can be known and entered only by each, and in its now, not by you through me, by any you through any me, only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and nonhuman, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption." When we no longer force language against this truth, the split will still be there -- between language and reality -- but the danger will be removed.