Book review: ‘The Tree’ by John Fowles

Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.

The Tree

Despite this being a truly infuriating book, I know it’s one I’ll return to again and again, just so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise.

This extended essay by the late John Fowles attempts to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature. Anyone who’s read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will understand I hold the truth to be the exact opposite. To shamelessly quote myself:

When did appreciating the world for what it really is become unromantic—or, as some would have it, soulless? […] Darwin hadn’t belittled Nature by explaining how life evolves; he had revealed its true grandeur.

At a number of points in his essay, Fowles goes out of his way to explain he’s not condemning science. He then immediately spoils the conciliatory gesture by setting up yet another scientific straw-man to knock down.

In the interests of balance, Fowles also has a go at art. He argues it’s completely impossible (so pointless to attempt) to convey, say, the ineffable otherness of a wood in either pictorial or written format. But isn’t a major aim in art to convey what an experience meant to the artist? I might never be able to comprehend and describe or depict a tree’s utter treeness, but I can certainly attempt to describe or depict what standing in the middle of a copse felt like to me. I mean, why stop at trees? I might never be able to comprehend a pencil’s utter pencilness, but there’s absolutely no harm in me having a go at drawing one.

Pencil doodle
In yer face, Mr Fowles!

An infuriating but compelling read.


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