a startling gesture, a toast to unsuicide
April 15, 2018 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands. A new interview with novelist Richard Powers touches on the uses of fiction, the importance of awe, the relationship between technology and nature, and the resistance to Trump, among others. (via)
posted by doctornemo (11 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I started this book this weekend and it's wonderful so far. I also loved the Echo Maker, but haven't enjoyed other works by Powers nearly as much. Looking forward to reading this interview.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:16 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Near the climax of my book, my dendrologist Patricia Westerford (whose personal history qualifies her as a Walker Percy “non-suicide”) must stand in front of an auditorium of technocrats who share something of that fantasy of control and human dominance, while answering the question, “What is the single best thing a person can do for a sustainable future?” Her lecture-demonstration on one very plausible answer — kill yourself — takes a turn toward a startling gesture, a toast to unsuicide. That is the gesture behind the entire novel: the active, even violent effort to oppose a way of life that would gladly bring itself and all else down with it, rather than capitulate to even the mildest forms of reconciliation to the rest of the living world.

I find it interesting to take this analogy of “suicide” literally. If the most common causes of individual suicide are depression and psychic isolation, the cause of our accelerating and collectively willed suicide may be despair over the failed system of capitalism and commodity-driven meaning, as well as the crippling condition that psychologists call “species loneliness.”

We will always be parasites on plants. But that parasitism can be turned into something better — a mutualism. One of my radicalized activists makes this proposal: We should cut trees like they are a gift, not like they are something we a priori deserve. Such a shift in consciousness might have the effect of slowing down deforestation, since we tend to care for gifts better than we do for freebies. But it would also go a long way toward treating the suicidal impulse in people caused by species loneliness. Many indigenous people knew this for millennia: thanking a living thing and asking for its pardon before using it goes a long way toward exonerating the guilt that leads to violence against the self and others.

As a friend of mine likes to put it: How little we would need if we knew how much we already had.

I'm looking forward to reading this book.
posted by aniola at 8:22 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting this. It's a great interview that illuminates a lot of things that have been on my mind lately. I look forward to reading the book, and I'm interested in exploring other "level three" books like it. "Committing unsuicide" is a shock of a phrase that captures a lot about how we ought to live, I think.
posted by rollick at 3:45 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Very thoughtful, and my interest was further piqued when he cited "the great Le Guin" (arguably another great maker of "level three" books - e.g. Always Coming Home ) so onto my Kindle it goes!
posted by domdib at 5:09 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I read the book last week. It's astonishingly good. Powers is one of my favorite authors and he's just so good at creating characters - even trees! - that I really care about what happens to them.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:13 AM on April 16, 2018

“Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance” and “The Gold-Bug Variations” are two of my very favorite novels. They probably aren’t his best books, but I read them at just the right moment in my own life when they had the most impact. He’s one of those writers who probably sweats over every phrase and the result seems effortless. Now I guess I should read the link, huh?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:11 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Meanwhile, back in real life, lawyer and activist David Buckel immolated himself in Prospect Park over the weekend in an attempt to bring attention to what we're doing to the planet.

posted by whuppy at 8:33 AM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]


for David Buckel.

I can't wait to read the Powers novel.

posted by allthinky at 6:17 PM on April 16, 2018

Thanks much for this interview. Wonderful. I didn't know about the new book--very, very much looking forward to reading it (although there are 46 people ahead of me at my library ... ;)

We should cut trees like they are a gift, not like they are something we a priori deserve.

Interesting. I was just thinking about this today. Even primitive nature-loving societies ended up despoiling their natural resources because of ignorance. (We don't have that excuse anymore.)

Richard Powers is a literary GOD. The one that first blew me away was Time of Our Singing, just because the main subjects (racism, particularly late '60s race riots, and music) are very close to me.

My favorite, though, is one no one ever mentions: Generosity. It's a slight novel, but it's the most philosophically interesting to me, and the warmest. AND the best ending (most of the others are bit depressing, esp. Operation Wandering Soul). :D
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 PM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Two chapters in, each one contains a sucker punch. Be careful if you're reading in public is all I'm saying.
posted by whuppy at 4:59 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Current status: "68 holds on first copy returned of 6 copies"

High time to practice my patience tool.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:06 PM on May 2, 2018

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