Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Tree of Knowledge: interlude

Baroja abruptly halts the storyline at Part Four (“Inquiries”) in order to have a brief philosophical interlude. Andrés Hurtado and his uncle Iturrioz discuss different approaches on how to view life. All quotes are from The Tree of Knowledge by Pio Baroja, translated by Aubrey F. G. Bell (Alfred A. Knopf, 1928).

To date, Andrés has shown a curious mixture of concern for the poor and sick in combination with distance or aloofness from their plight. In this section Andrés makes a strong defense for science and knowledge, arguing that “Science is humanity’s one strong edifice.” (172) The two characters discuss The Tree of Knowledge and The Tree of Life, for the most part ignoring the source of this language. Andrés hopes that science will “cure” the need for religion:
”Kant is the great destroyer of the Greco-Semitic lie [essentially religion]. He found those two trees that you mentioned and drew aside the branches of the tree of life which were stifling the tree of knowledge. After Kant there is but one path in the world of ideas, a narrow and difficult one, that of science. After him, although perhaps without his strength and greatness, comes another destroyer, another Northern bear, Schopenhauer, who cut away the pretences which the master had lovingly maintained through lack of courage to destroy them. Kant begs that the mighty tree of life, which is called liberty and responsibility and right, should be allowed to stand next to the tree of knowledge in order to delight man’s eyes. Schopenhauer, more austere and honest in his thought, cuts away those branches, and life appears dark and blind, full of strength and substance, without justice, without goodness, without aim; a current borne along by an unknown force, which he calls will, and which from time to time, in the midst of organic matter, produces a secondary phenomenon, a phosphorescence of the brain, a reflection, which is intelligence. One can now see these two principles clearly, life and truth, will and intelligence.” (177)

What is Andrés looking for? “What is one to do with one’s life, what direction to give it?” (166) Iturrioz’s response to Andrés echoes some of the nagging thoughts Andrés has expressed to this point. I found Andrés’ forcefulness inconsistent with his earlier doubts about science and knowledge. Iturrioz proves to be both a humanist and a pragmatist, echoing Andrés’ earlier belief that science, even with advancements to come, does not provide an approach to life. In blunter terms, science has failed Andrés to date. Because of this, the dialogue feels somewhat contrived but still very enjoyable (except for the racist turns). Iturrioz agrees that when leaving the sphere of science and entering the sphere of life things become confusing, but maintains that both trees, knowledge and life, are necessary. In addition to knowledge, man must have faith, even if it is illusionary.

The two men agree to disagree and Andrés announces he will return to his medical post in the countryside. There are some interesting parallels and differences with the earlier discussion between the two men at the end of Part Two. Both discussions take place on the rooftop of Iturrioz’s house, literally and symbolically removed from the rest of Madrid. At the end of the first discussion, Andrés feels he is divorced from reality. As both men tire of the discussion int this part, though, they sit back and enjoy the setting of the sun and the scent of plants. Even though they are far apart, there seems reason for hope. We'll see if that hope is supported...


madzialena said...

Thank you very much! All the articles about 'The tree of knowledge' were really helpful!

Dwight said...

It's nice to hear they are helpful...thanks!