Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom: The Epimenides Paradox

The liar’s paradox, as it is often called, is a fitting subject for our time. For those not familiar with the paradox, it was introduced to me by the historian Gordon Prange when I was a young Navy enlisted man attending the University of Maryland. He introduced the paradox to me as a comedic rejoinder to the charge of a certain bias in history that he considered to be without merit. He stated it this way: “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans are liars.”

The origin of this form of the liar’s paradox has many roots. It is discussed as a philosophical conundrum by Aristotle in ancient Greece as well as by Cicero in Rome. A version of it appears in the Christian New Testament and it was a source of study in Europe during the Middle Ages.

When I have introduced the paradox in a social setting and asked for a resolution to it by the uninitiated, usually a long conversation ensues. The usual approach is as a bi-polar proposition, accepting certain assumptions from the construction of the sentence, that is, if the Cretan is lying then all Cretans tell the truth which cannot be the case, but if the Cretan is telling the truth then he is lying, but he could not be telling the truth since all Cretans lie…and the circular contradiction goes on ad infinitum.

But there is a solution to the paradox and what it requires is thinking about the Cretan and breaking free of bi-polar thinking, which we often call, colloquially, “thinking in black and white.”

The solution.

The assumption in the paradox is that the Cretan in question can speak for all Cretans. This assumption could be false. Thus not all Cretans are liars and, thus, the Cretan in question is making a false statement. Furthermore, the Cretan making the assertion is not necessarily a liar–the individual could just be mistaken. We can test the “truthiness” of what the Cretan has said by testing other Cretans on a number of topics and seeing if they are simply ignorant, uninformed, or truly liars on all things.

Furthermore, there is a difference between something being a lie and a not-lie. Baked into our thinking by absolutist philosophies, ideologies, and religions is black and white thinking that clouds our judgement. A lie must have intent and be directed to misinform, misdirect, or to cloud a discussion. There are all kinds of lies and many forms of not-lies. Thus, the opposite of “all Cretans are liars” is not that “all Cretans are honest” but that “some Cretans are honest and some are not.”

If we only assume the original conclusion as being true, then this is truly a paradox, but it is not. If we show that Cretans do not lie all of the time then we are not required to reach the high bar that “all Cretans are honest”, simply that the Cretan making the assertion has made a false statement or is, instead, the liar.

In sum, our solution in avoiding falling into the thinking of the faulty or dishonest Cretan is not to accept the premises as they have been presented to us, but to use our ability to reason out the premises and to look at the world as it is as a “reality check.” The paradox is not truly a paradox, and the assertion is false.

(Note that I have explained this resolution without going into the philosophical details of the original syllogism, the mathematics, and an inquiry on the detailed assumptions. For a fuller discussion of liar’s paradoxes I recommend this link.)

Why Care About the Paradox?

We see versions of the paradox used all of the time. This includes the use of ad hominem attacks on people, that is, charges of guilt by association with an idea, a place, an ethnic group, or another person. “Person X is a liar (or his/her actions are suspect or cannot be trusted) because they adhere to Y idea, group, or place.” Oftentimes these attacks are joined with insulting or demeaning catchphrases and (especially racial or ethnic) slurs.

What we attribute to partisanship or prejudice or bias often uses this underlying type of thinking. It is a simplification born of ignorance and all simplifications are a form of evil in the world. This assertion was best articulated by Albert Camus in his book The Plague.

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Our own times are not much different in its challenges than what Camus faced during the rise of fascism in Europe, for fascism’s offspring have given rise to a new generation that has insinuated itself into people’s minds.

Aside from my expertise in technology and the military arts and sciences, the bulk of my formal academic education is as an historian and political scientist. The world is currently in the grip of a plague that eschews education and Camus’ clear-sightedness in favor of materialism, ethnic hatred, nativisim, anti-intellectualism, and ideological propaganda.

History is replete with similar examples, both large and small, of this type of thinking which should teach us that this is an aspect of human character wired into our brains that requires eternal vigilance to guard against. Such examples as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the French Revolution, the defense of slavery in the American Civil War and the subsequent terror of Jim Crow, 18th and 19th century imperialism, apartheid after the Boer War, the disaster of the First World War, the Russian Revolutions, the history of anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, McCarthyism in the United States, Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba, Pinochet’s Chile, the Pathet Lao, the current violence and intolerance borne of religious fundamentalism–and the list can go on–teaches us that our only salvation and survival as a species lies in our ability to overcome ignorance and self-delusion.

We come upon more pedestrian examples of this thinking all of the time. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

We must perform this vigilance first on ourselves–and it is a painful process because it shatters the self-image that is necessary for us to continue from day-to-day: that narrative thread that connects the events of our existence and that guides our actions as best and in as limited ways that they can be guided, without falling into the abyss of nihilism. Only knowledge, and the attendant realization of the necessary components of human love, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, and community–that is understanding–the essential connections that make us human–can overcome the darkness that constantly threatens to envelope us. But there is something more.

The birth of the United States was born on the premise that the practical experiences of history and its excesses could be guarded against and such “checks and balances” would be woven, first, into the thread of its structure, and then, into the thinking of its people. This is the ideal, and it need not be said that, given that it was a construction of flawed men, despite their best efforts at education and enlightenment compared to the broad ignorance of their time, these ideals for many continued to be only that. This ideal is known as the democratic ideal.

Semantics Matter

It is one that is under attack as well. We often hear the argument against it dressed up in academic clothing as being “only semantics” on the difference between a republic and a democracy. But as I have illustrated  regarding the Epimenides Paradox, semantics matter.

For the democratic ideal is about self-government, which was a revolutionary concept in the 18th century and remains one today, which is why it has been and continues to be under attack by authoritarians, oligarchs, dictators, and factions pushing their version of the truth as they define it. But it goes further than than a mechanical process of government.

The best articulation of democracy in its American incarnation probably was written by the philosopher and educator John Dewey in his essay On Democracy. Democracy, says Dewey, is more than a special political form: it is a way of life, social and individual, that allows for the participation of every mature human being in forming the values that regulate society toward the twin goals of ensuring the general social welfare and full development of human beings as individuals.

While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all. Every authoritarian scheme, on the contrary, assumes that its value may be assessed by some prior principle, if not of family and birth or race and color or possession of material wealth, then by the position and rank a person occupies in the existing social scheme. The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions, not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.

In such a society there is no place for “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans lie.” For democracy to work, however, requires not only vigilance but a dedication to education that is further dedicated to finding knowledge, however inconvenient or unpopular that knowledge may turn out to be. The danger has always been in lying to ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be seduced by good liars.

Note: This post has been updated for grammar and for purposes of clarity from the original.

Finding Wisdom for Friday — Umberto Eco on Fascism

Blogging has been somewhat sparse of late because of, well, life.  But I seem to be approaching a patch that will allow me to once again explore subjects of interest.

While I was busy the world lost one of its leading lights on February 19th, 2016, as Umberto Eco passed away at the age of 84.  His voice will be sorely missed.  It will be missed in particular because his best writing reflected his main concerns regarding human communication.  As such, he is acknowledged as one of the founders of what has come to be known as interpretive semiotics.  Semiotics is the study of signs and processes in human communication such as analogy, metaphor, symbolism, among other forms.  What separates it from linguistics is that it takes into account all of the means of human interpretation and communications that exist and, in Eco’s synthesis, how each receiver interprets, incorporates, and processes such signs and sign processes.

Aside from his significant academic pursuits, he was best known in our own country for his popular novel The Name of the Rose (1980), which also was made into a very good and popular film.  But in surveying his seven novels, for me his best writing focused on the question of fascism and how it appealed to the people of his native Italy.  His knowledge of the subject was very personal, having been inculcated into the cult of personality centered around Mussolini when he was a youth.  At the age of 10 he describes how he was proud of his young fascist uniform, writing paeans to the fascist cause.  As such, in novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), he reveals to the reader the sub-textual signs that continue to communicate fascist messages in many forms of popular media, life, and culture.

Thus I find his writing, which uses multiple devices to approach obliquely what otherwise was and is a tragic and horrific chapter of Italian and European history, to be very similar to the devices used by the contemporary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro in film.  In the case of del Toro, who was born in 1964–well after the events of his concern–he approaches the subject of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Spanish fascism.  This has only recently been a subject of critical processing in Hispanic society, especially since the death of the Spanish dictator Franco, and the subsequent rejection of other neo-fascist regimes in South America and elsewhere in favor of liberal democracy.  Still, it is a very painful and sensitive subject, and so del Toro uses the devices of fantasy and gothic horror to approach and record the horrors and cruelty of those times in movies such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)–probably two among the best films of our young 21st century.

To Americans, however, fascism is a confusing, esoteric, and fungible political term.  For the generations that lived during the 1920s and 1930s, the meaning was more immediate and its dangers best exemplified in the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935).  But the term has been appropriated over the years, and misused recently, most notably by the fact-challenged Jonah Goldberg, whose silly and frivolous mental gymnastics in Liberal Fascism (2008) contributed greatly to obfuscating the term in uniquely Orwellian ways which, of course, was the book’s intent.

Our times seem to suggest that it is time to end the silliness where it exists in throwing around the name.  So I think it is important to revisit what Eco had to say about the topic.  He had, after all, actually lived life from his most impressionable years as a fascist, embraced it and all that it stood for, articulated its meaning, and then was able–upon liberation–to free himself from its grip, reflect upon it, and identify what it is and its core characteristics.

The article in which he most effectively dealt with this subject was in the June 22, 1995 edition of the New York Review of Books.  Note that many of these characteristics by themselves or in some combination can be found in other political movements, ideologies, and social movements, but none contain all of these characteristics applied quite in the same manner and combination to society.

I have listed the characteristics below, and flesh out one.  Note that fascism as he describes it, and has discussed it, isn’t identified as being on the right or left of what in the modern U.S. is identified as the political spectrum.  Fascism can appropriate many of the agenda items and disguise itself using the raiment of the conventional political parties and ideologies, as well as the more mundane imagery of contemporary life.  They are:

  1. The cult of tradition.  In giving his example Eco points out that the cult of tradition has existed in many forms over the course of human history.  But in attributing this characteristic to fascism he points to its assertion that “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”
  2. Traditionalism implies a rejection of modernism.  According to Eco’s analysis, the Nazis and Fascists embraced technology, but not the modern systems and processes that made it possible.  “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.  In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. Irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.  To the fascist, “thinking is a form of emasculation.”  Action without reflection is valued above all other things.  Anti-intellectualism rules. Where there are fascist intellectuals, their role is to attack modern culture for betraying traditional values.
  4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernity.  Science encourages disagreement to advance learning.  For fascism, disagreement and discerning distinctions are emblematic of treason.
  5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.  Fascism exploits the fear of difference–targeting intruders as the Other.  It is inherently racist.
  6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.  In Italy as in all cases, Fascism appealed to the fears of a frustrated middle class: “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.  Note to Birthers.
  8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.  To fascists, the targeted groups are both weak and easily overcome, but also powerful and sinister, plotting to take away the rights and privileges that is the select group’s birthright.  This contradiction is key to stoking fear and provides motivation for further action.
  9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.  Life is a constant battle against the enemy at every level of society and thought, which will only be resolved with a great final battle.
  10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.  Fascism depends on the belief in, and allegiance to, the strong, especially a strong ruler.  The weak deserve their lot.
  11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.  Fascist societies are obsessed with hero worship, especially in the martial professions and the vanguard of the movement, where the heroic death for the cause is idolized, especially when someone else is doing the dying.
  12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.  Control of sexual mores and procreation is central to fascist movements.  Demonization of non-compliance is essential.
  13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.  Democratic processes are illegitimate and the targeted groups are excluded from participation in the political process.  An effort to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elected leaders and democratic elective processes and republican institutions, even from within, are part and parcel of the fascist cause.
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.  Intentions are obscured by language that is nonsensical or simplistic.  The purpose of Newspeak is to undermine critical thinking and disagreement.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — John Steinbeck (Part 2)

later steinbeck

 

In my last post regarding John Steinbeck, I left off with the great novels of the 1930s, ending with the Grapes of Wrath.  For most novelists his achievements up to this point would be regarded as considerable.  What I am most impressed with is that his own history as a novelist proves how ephemeral such achievements can be.  He was a writer and good one.  His many jobs, especially the occasional newspaper job that he took, seemed to inspire him to his best work.  For more than anything he was a realist.  With his realist eye for detail, and his natural sympathy for people, he enraged both power and privilege through his precise and occasionally remonstrative prose.  I don’t think a better thing can be said of any writer.

With the controversy that followed the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck found solace in spending time collecting marine specimens with his friend and mentor Ed (Doc) Ricketts.  For six weeks the two men rented a Monterey fishing boat with a four man crew named the Western Flyer to travel down the Pacific Coast to Baja California and into the Gulf of California, recording and collecting marine species along the coast.  Ricketts had achieved some success with his book Between Pacific Tides, which became the definitive handbook for the study of intertidal species along the west coast, and which is still considered a seminal work.  The men had planned on co-writing a book about the species found within the tides in the San Francisco Bay area, but the project had come to nothing.  But even Ricketts was eager to get away from his beloved Monterey, suffering from a breakup with a married lover.

The end result of the journey was the book The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), though the trip was anything but leisurely.  The expedition was an exhausting, though fulfilling and happy, one for the men, who concentrated their energies on collecting and cataloguing.  Steinbeck and Ricketts had hoped the sale of the book would at least be sufficient to pay for the expenses of the trip, aside from the sale of specimens to laboratories and public aquaria across the country that they brought back.  It proved to be, however, a commercial disappointment.  Soon the events of the Second World War would overtake any interest in the book.  Furthermore, the notes that underlay the book were those of Ricketts, while the prose to give the notes a narrative structure contributed by Steinbeck.  For the time it was considered an odd book: an uneven read, combining as it did scientific knowledge, storytelling, and contemplations on ecology and humankind’s connection to nature.  With the advantage of time, though, it can be seen that the book made a significant contribution to the science of marine invertebrate identification and distribution along Baja and within the Gulf of California.  The species list, which accompanied the initial editions of the book, is impressive and indicative of the dedication of the two men to their task.  But it also anticipated what later in the century and in our own time has become a common device among science popularizers such as Jacques Cousteau, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Jared Diamond, among others.  But it goes further than that, for the environmental message in the book anticipates such groundbreaking works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

For Steinbeck, the Second World War would change his life and transform his writing until the end of his life, as it did for Hemingway, Dos Passos, Salinger, Ballard, Heller, Jones, Mailer, Vonnegut, and others.  But unlike the younger writers on that list that would emerge in the post-war period, who could find a new language–oftentimes oblique–to deal with the industrial slaughter of that great catastrophe, the writers from the ’30s–oftentimes also veterans of the Great War–seemed to be struck dumb, horrified by the depths of human cruelty, altering their subjects by finding solace where they could.

A man of action, Steinbeck contributed his writing, at first, to the war effort in the book The Moon Is Down, about a village in an unnamed northern European occupied country (presumed to be Norway) that works to overthrow their invaders through a resistance movement, and Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team.  For the former he received the Norwegian King Haakon VII Freedom Cross.  It was translated into several European languages and distributed secretly to underground organizations across the continent to bolster the morale of similar resistance movements elsewhere, especially in France.  The latter work was done with the cooperation of the U.S. Army Air Corps to increase recruitment.

Not content with continuing work on the home front, he accepted a position with the New York Herald Tribune, traveling with the units in the European theater.  As with his writing during the 1930s, his keen eye for reality informs his stories, telling the story of the life of the common soldier.   He was also recruited as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the precursor for the CIA.  The actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had organized U.S. Navy special warfare units to engage in psychological, diversionary, and deception operations known as the Beach Jumpers.  He participated with Fairbanks in some of these raids, helping to capture a small island off the coast of Italy.  During his service he was wounded several times by shrapnel and suffered from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Part Two:  The Pearl through The Winter of Our Discontent

One familiar with Steinbeck’s writing wants to follow him into his sojourn in the reminiscences of his time with Ed Ricketts.  The novels, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are guilty pleasures–escapism of the highest caliber.  One cannot visit the town of Monterey without the imprimatur of Ricketts and Steinbeck being noted everywhere, so great is the influence of these works.  Yet they are fantasies–idealized escapes from a tormented man who was reaching back to a simpler time, to the friend and mentor before the fire that engulfed the world.  The man of simple prose recording life as it is abandons reality in these works.  And who can blame him?  He had certainly contributed enough words to what had actually happened, having been there.  He did not possess the desire, as most men of that generation did not, to relive it.  He certainly did not seem to have the vocabulary to transform it into fiction.  Hemingway took a similar course with his writings of Cuba, Africa, anti-heroes running nightclubs or fishing boats, finally recapturing part of his voice with The Old Man and the Sea.

For Steinbeck the book that combined the return of his voice with his desire to look to the past was through the novella The Pearl (1947).  As with many of his stories, it is based on a folk tale, in this case one that he heard when visiting the region in Baja California in 1940 with Ricketts.  In the story, the child Coyotito is stung by a scorpion.  The parents, Kino and Juana, must find a way to pay for treatment for their young son.  Kino, who is a pearl diver, finds an enormous pearl, which everyone in the village covets.  They find that the local pearl auction is rigged, the buyers attempting to convince Kino that what he found is worthless.  Soon misfortune follows the family as the villagers and trackers attempt to take the pearl from them.  They try to make their way to the capital, where the auctions are not rigged, but are met with tragedy along the way.

The Pearl operates on many levels.  In high school it is often required reading, and most teachers present it as a parable of human greed, materialism, and the actual value of things.  But Steinbeck is not so simple.  For the pearl also represents anything of value that an individual may possess, whether it be tangible or intangible.  It is also something taken from nature, which Kino is convinced by the society in which he lives can be turned into money.  Its beauty disappears the longer it is out of its element so that by the end of the story it is a grotesque object.  Remembering Steinbeck’s influences, when people are separated from their humanity great misfortune follows.  For the village of the pearl its very presence corrupts everything around them, blinding them from acknowledging the humanity, the connections that bind them together as human beings.  As with his earlier stories, great misfortune results, and usually it falls on the most vulnerable.

Recovering from his depression from the war, the breakup of his marriage, and the death of Ed Ricketts, we find what Steinbeck intended to be his magnum opus, East of Eden (1952).  On the surface this is a novel about the Hamilton and Trask family in the Salinas Valley of California.  In reality, though, the novel moves away from the story of the Samuel Hamilton, the family patriarch, who Steinbeck modeled on his maternal grandfather, and toward the Trasks.  This is because the Hamiltons become the bedrock of the Salinas Valley, representing stability and good, as opposed to the Trasks, who want the same thing that binds the Hamiltons together, but which alludes them because of their poor decisions, despite the great wealth (though possibly misbegotten) that bought them the best farm in the valley.

It is also this characteristic that makes the Trasks more interesting.  Steinbeck apparently saw this himself as he transforms the second half of the novel into a parable based on the biblical account of Cain and Abel.  Adam Trask, who has had a difficult growing up back east, inherits money from his father’s estate, though he suspects that the fortune was dishonestly obtained.  He takes pity on Cathy Ames, who seems to be the victim of violence, and marries her, not knowing that she is cruel and a murderess.  Having deluded himself into domestic bliss, Adam soon finds out about Cathy’s true character.  She shoots and wounds him after giving birth to twin boys, Caleb and Aron, in making her escape from the boredom of domestic life.  Finding her way to the town of Salinas, she changes her name and takes over as the madam of the most notorious whorehouse in the county.

Adam tries to raise his boys with the help of his Cantonese cook, Lee, and the Hamiltons on the adjacent farm.  Adam is inspired to copy the success of Samuel Hamilton, but loses the family fortune in a badly conceived business venture.  As he nears maturity Caleb, the troubled son, is determined to redeem his father’s shame at losing the family fortune and goes into farming himself.  Aron, the “good” son, decides to attend Stanford and become an Episcopal priest.  The brothers vie for the affections of the beautiful daughter named Abra from one of the most well-to-do families in the valley.

Moody and always testing limits, Caleb discovers that his mother, who his father had said had died, was the notorious Madam Kate in the town of Salinas.  He keeps this knowledge a secret from both his father and his brother, but it fuels his skepticism of both his father’s sanctimoniousness, and his brother’s goodness.  Soon the First World War breaks out and Caleb enters into a business venture with Will Hamilton, the son of Samuel, to sell beans from the valley to European buyers at a premium.  He is wildly successful at this scheme and cannot wait to present the money to his father, seeking his father’s love and approval which always seemed to allude him.

When Aron returns from school, hoping not to be upstaged by his brother, Caleb presents the money to his father.  Adam rejects the money, characterizing it as tainted, compared to the pure motives of his brother.  In retaliation Caleb brings Aron to meet their mother, destroying the boy’s illusions.  The ties between father and sons, and between brothers, are now cut (the ties between the mother and her children long since severed), and in typical Steinbeck fashion tragedy ensues, though there is a sort of redemption at the end.

I am of two minds regarding East of Eden.  On the one hand it is an impressive work.  It introduces narrative elements that were extremely unconventional in 1952–anticipating the devices of changing narrative perspectives, and describing the times and places with his usual precision.  On the other hand, however, there is a heavy-handedness to the writing.  He takes the biblical story of Cain and Abel and turns it into a black-and-white assessment of human frailty.  The Trasks are doomed from the start, and one cannot but resent the author for making them so.  As such he not only diminishes the complexity of the human condition, but also dilutes the themes that he had explored in his previous works.  Still, it is a great novel and much wisdom can be found here, for in Steinbeck’s telling Caleb (as Cain) is the son most driven by that most human of all human needs–the need for love–while Aron (as Abel) is driven only by the slender reed of societal respectability.

For most literary critics Steinbeck’s best work usually ends here with East of Eden, with perhaps a mention of the non-fiction book Travels with Charley (1962).  In retrospect, however, while I find Steinbeck’s observations recorded in that volume regarding the changes that were overtaking his beloved California and the racial hatred he witnessed in the American South both interesting and as clear-eyed as usual, I keep coming back to The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) as his last significant work.

The book introduces us to the character Ethan Allen Hawley, whose family once was among the aristocrats of the seaside village of New Baytown somewhere in New England.  Now the Hawleys are common folk, Ethan having to make a living as a grocery clerk.  With so many reminders of the family’s once great past among the artifacts of their sprawling ancestral home, his wife Mary, and their children, Allen and Ellen, are ashamed of their lack of resources.  His friends criticize him for his integrity, suggesting that he take bribes, or be more ruthless in his business dealings, especially with his boss, Alfio Marullo.

Succumbing to the pressure to improve his economic condition he finds out that Marullo is an undocumented immigrant and in the country illegally.  Ethan turns Marullo in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the man is deported.  Before deportation, however, Marullo turns over the store to Ethan because of all of his years of his honest service, believing him deserving.  Having achieved this misbegotten gain, Ethan then seeks to take control of a strip of land owned by his best friend Danny, who is the town drunk, and on which the town plans to build an airfield.  Ethan gives Danny money to get treatment for his alcoholism in exchange for willing the land to him.  Danny, instead of seeking treatment, slips the will under the door of the store and is soon found dead with a bottle of whiskey and sleeping pills.

Thus, almost overnight Ethan has achieved the success that his wife and friends always wished for him.  Soon, however, he is in for a shock as he learns that his son has won an essay contest by plagiarizing the books found in their old home library.  When he confronts his son the boy is not remorseful, and it is this knowledge that wakes him to the corruption inherent in his own actions.  It is at this point that Ethan realizes that he must do something to atone for his greed.

As with so many of Steinbeck’s books, he was ahead of his time with The Winter of Our Discontent.  Some hailed it as his best work since The Grapes of Wrath, but most judged it an inferior work, preachy and cynical.  Given the time–the optimistic years of the early 1960s–Steinbeck’s novel seemed to be an unnecessary downer, misplaced in an era of expanding opportunities.  But with time it has been observed that he identified a sickness in the American character that was soon to overtake the nation in the ensuring years.  As such, the novel explores the same issues explored by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby and Dreiser in An American Tragedy.  What is missing in Winter is the shocking dénouement that characterized his best work of the 1930s, and which is present in both Gatsby and American Tragedy.

In summary, John Steinbeck observed and recorded both the best and worst of the human character.  The wisdom in his books concern the same issues with which we grapple today–how to separate what is important from the material, how to stay true to our natures, and in staying true to our natures how to adhere to the best part of our natures.  He saw people for what they were and wrote of them sympathetically and accurately, even when they behaved badly.  As such we find that expecting to find perfection in the human species is a silly game and a fool’s quest.  We can do nothing but what is right and behave humanely–that the choice is in our hands–and that love is the organizing principle of our species.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — John Steinbeck (Part 1)

 

John Steinbeck

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ”Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” — John Steinbeck, “In Awe of Words”

John Steinbeck was both one of the most influential voices in American arts and letters in the 20th century, and served as America’s conscience.  Every thoughtful and precise in his use of language, he asserted in the same essay quoted above that…”(a) man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.”

Few writers have managed to hone their skills and to discipline their minds to the level of Steinbeck.  His steely-eyed and honest observations expressed in his writing cut through the lies that people told themselves about themselves and their times.  Despite attempts by various ideologues of various stripes, his writing defied easy categorization.  This is, I think, because he was a practical man and, as such, this practicality was revealed in his writing.

There are also two major influences in his life that made him what he was.  The first is the place where he grew up, and which informs his great novel East of Eden and his other major works, which was Salinas, California.  Anyone who has been to Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula cannot but help be impressed with the topography and natural beauty of the land, especially as it must have been during his formative years.  Some of the most productive and verdant farmland is found in the Salinas Valley.  During the time of his growing up California was a progressive frontier much different that the bi-polar thinking of our own times.  People tended to be both practical and, if it could be said that they had an ideology, it was mostly based in what has come to be called American Pragmatism in practice and deed, though perhaps not in conscious affect.

The other major influence on his writing occurred through his friendship with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who co-founded Pacific Biological Laboratories in Monterey.  From all contemporaneous accounts “Doc” Ricketts was an extraordinary and largely self-educated man.  He influenced not only Steinbeck but also the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller.  His philosophy combined an advanced sense of ecological thinking and a kind of naturalistic Pragmatism in the collection of knowledge and in determining the essence of truth from that knowledge, which both he and Steinbeck labeled “speculative metaphysics.”  His interests were wide ranging, his knowledge of zoology and biology extraordinary for his time, and his thinking clear and straight.  He never made much money, served his country dutifully in two world wars, experienced long periods of heartbreak, tragedy and disappointment, and from all accounts at the time of his death while driving across a train crossing–was content in his condition, and loved his life.  He was beloved and his influence on Monterey and its environs long-lasting.  So influential was he on Steinbeck as both mentor and alter-ego that one can see a slow decline in the writing of the author after his friend’s death in 1948, though he did manage to complete East of Eden.

Of John Steinbeck’s major and most influential works I would list To A God Unknown (1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), the short story collection The Long Valley (1938), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the autobiographical non-fiction work The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), The Pearl (1947), the non-fiction Log of the Sea of Cortez (1951), East of Eden (1952), and the later undervalued Winter of Our Discontent (1961).  Even the lesser works such as Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), Sweet Thursday (1954), and the non-fiction work Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962) all have something important to say to the reader.  In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature which was roundly condemned by the literary critics at The New York Times in what can only now be seen as an embarrassing bit of vitriol, but it shows that even in their own times great writers are oftentimes undervalued.

This does not mean that we should place Steinbeck beyond criticism.  At his best, when he achieved his own standards for writing, no one could and can touch him for his ability to both tell the story and to both connect and shock the reader.  At his worst he could be preachy and his prose the most purple hue found in the English language.  Still, at its most purple, much of this prose is both beautiful and transcendent; and when he was passionate or angry and wants to make a point he takes you with him.  It was well known that “Doc” Ricketts had a significant library in Monterey that was destroyed during a Cannery fire that also wiped out his laboratories.  Among those works were not only important scientific papers and books, but also a significant library of poetry.  As such, and knowing the connection, we can trace the influence of poetry in Steinbeck’s prose.  Let Faulkner have his due with his obscure prose structure, and Hemingway with his short, clipped sentences.  Reading Steinbeck is like reading a man who knows his place in the vastness of the universe and is still both awed and puzzled by it.

The works after the Second World War and after Rickett’s death, save East of Eden are also, no doubt, lesser ones or are gentle comedies centered on human weakness, and more than a little nostalgia expressed by the author for a Monterey that had long since passed.  One cannot criticize the man so much as criticize the author for taking this path.  There is no doubt that the war that brought us death camps, the unrestrained destruction of entire cities, and suicide attacks affected him greatly.  The later simultaneous loss of both his best friend through death, and his wife through separation and divorce upon his return from Ricketts’ funeral, certainly drove him into a deep depression that lasted for at least a couple of years.  It is no small irony, then, that many of the works which are considered his lesser ones are also among his most beloved, gave him a measure of economic security, and led people to read his earlier, lesser known, and somewhat more controversial works.  At the same time, the lesser works didn’t pander, nor did they compromise his vision.  They are part of the whole.

Part One:  From To A God Unknown through The Grapes of Wrath

At the center of Steinbeck’s novels and writings is the theme of connection.  These connections include the individual’s connection to another, be that “other” family, friend, or stranger, to nature, and to the vastness of the universe.  The struggle with which his characters (and he) grapple are their relationship to the world.  When they do not think and consider these interconnections, acting from a lack of thought and concern, they fail as human beings.  Conflict and tragedy soon follows.

This theme is first encountered in To A God Unknown (1933).  The main character, Joseph Wayne, moves to California as a homesteader after receiving a blessing to strike out on his own from his father, who dies shortly after his departure.  He builds his home in a fertile Nuestra Senora Valley under a giant oak tree.  Mourning his loss and his absence during his father’s death, Joseph comes to feel as if the oak tree has become both the protecting spirit of his father and symbolizes his connection to the land.  He pays homage to the tree and celebrates an annual fiesta at the homestead commemorating its founding.  He soon convinces his brothers to join him in California and they find land adjacent to Joseph’s homestead.  Not long afterward, he convinces a school teacher named Elizabeth from a nearby town to marry him and join him in running the remote homestead and building a family.  The remainder of the story concerns the connections of the characters to one another, and their connection to the legacy of the brothers’ father symbolized in the oak, which also symbolizes their connection to the land.  When one of the brothers destroys the connection to the oak through the intervention of his religious beliefs, the land runs dry and innocents are killed.  Even Joseph fails to understand his unique role in the story until the very end, when only the most extreme measures will restore things to their rightful order.  As such, To A God Unknown is a brave and unflinching book, borrowing heavily from both biblical and Greek mythology.

The next novel Tortilla Flat (1935), presents the life of a group of paisanos (literally countrymen)–people of Mexican-Indian-Caucasian-Spanish background, who reside in a poor neighborhood of Monterey known as Tortilla Flat, about the time just after the First World War.  Both comedic and tragic, the book consists of a series of tests or quests that the protagonists must face in the vein as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  Once again, the theme of connectedness is introduced, but for a group of individuals who become one in the face of a hostile world in which they are poor and a minority, with one goal–to live and enjoy life to the fullest.  In the words of Steinbeck at the beginning of the novel, “This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three become one thing…when you speak of Danny’s house you are to understand to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which comes sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.”  Because they never stray from their connections to one another, the people of Tortilla Flat remain happy and vital, even when one of their own group falls to tragedy.

Recently Tortilla Flat has been criticized for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.  I think, however, that reading the text itself fails to convince one that this is the case.  Ad hominem attacks on the author’s own ethnicity and background are poorly disguised types of bigotry, separating people of their humanity in favor of ethnic identity.  Much as in the case of Huckleberry Finn, ethnocentric critiques tend to impose on the book interpretations based on a type of prejudice and dogma no less offensive and nonsensical than the type of opinions that attached to the characters by those who did hold such prejudices in his own time.  In the latter case, this reaction caused the author to write a forward in the 1937 Modern Library edition in which he stated: “..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish.  They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat…good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes.  If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry.  It will never happen again.”

In Dubious Battle (1936) was introduced to many readers as Steinbeck’s proletarian novel, with charges in later years that he had been influenced by Communists or Communism in its writing.  Once again, however, the novel and the novelist fail to be successfully categorized by this critique (Steinbeck’s own dislike of Communism and Communists personally is well documented), and it has rightfully been hailed as one of his best and most realistic novels.  The story centers on the poor working conditions of the fruit pickers in the mythical Torgas Valley of California, which he based on a real strike among pickers in Tulare County.  Among this discontent come two organizers, Jim Nolan, a young man whose father had a strong reputation for red organizing, and the more seasoned Mac MacLeod.  Both work for “the Party” which is never identified.  Both Nolan and MacLeod infiltrate the group of pickers, who are attempting to organize a strike for better conditions, with the intention of provoking more direct and violent confrontations with the growers for their own purposes.  Here Steinbeck studies the behavior of the people who are soon transformed from a disorganized and vulnerable group of individuals, into an organized group of self-governing union men and women, and then, through manipulation, whipped into an unthinking mob.  The novel progresses in supporting this transformation through the often familiar action and response: the workers organizing, the owners taking stronger and more violent measures, scabs being hired, vigilantes and police attacking the strikers and organizers, and the strikers fighting back.  The story ends on a note of uncertainty as the actions of the Party bring unnecessary death and suffering–and a shockingly orchestrated murder–as the goals of the Party become paramount and disconnected from the needs of the people.  We are left with hoping for the best for the strikers, and for the worst for both the Party and the growers.

Of Mice and Men (1937) today has the distinction of being one of the most censored books in the country and, thus, appears on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009.  That such a simple and profound story could rouse such ire speaks loudly about the effectiveness of the subject matter and the writing.  What the novel highlights more than anything else is human loneliness and alienation due to the boundaries created by race, class, circumstance, ignorance, and disability.

At its core the story revolves around the friendship between the small, intelligent and self-educated George Milton, and the simple-minded giant Lennie Small.  The men are migrant workers who have found a job at a ranch near Soledad, California, after being run out of Weed due to charges of attempted rape by Lennie’s obsession with stroking soft things.  In this case the soft thing was a dress worn by a young woman, which Lennie refused to let go.  The dream of the two men, which they share, is to earn and save enough money to buy a small farm.  For George the dream will give him a sense of accomplishment and security: to “be someone.”  For Lennie, the farm will provide him countless opportunities to stroke soft animals, especially rabbits.  But we learn very early on in the story that Lennie cannot be trusted not to harm that which he desires.  While they are stopped at a stream just prior to entering the ranch, George, who has become Lennie’s erstwhile guardian, notices that Lennie is holding a dead mouse.  Lennie protests that he just wanted to stroke the mouse and is not responsible for its death.

Upon entering the ranch we meet the rest of the characters–though grotesques may be a more appropriate term to use Sherwood Anderson’s idiom–whom are equally driven by loneliness, but for a plethora of reasons.  The main antagonist is Curley, the boss’ son, a man with an inferiority complex only intensified by the actions of his flirtatious wife who, in the story, has no identity of her own except as “Curley’s wife.”  He takes an instant disliking to Lennie, who he views as an easy foil and target, beating him with impunity at the least provocation.

The other ranch hands mostly keep to themselves except for Candy, a one-handed aging handyman with an aging dog, Slim, the main driver of the mule teams who is a natural leader and befriends both George and Lennie, and Crooks, a black stable-hand.  After Candy’s ailing dog is shot by another, unfeeling ranch hand to put him out of his misery, it is Slim, whose bitch has given birth to a litter, who in an act of kindness gives him one of the puppies.  This act and overhearing George and Lennie’s dream of a farm motivates the men to begin to fight off their loneliness and isolation in forming bonds with one another.  Candy, worried about security in his last years, offers to contribute his life savings toward the purchase of the farm in exchange for living there with them.  Crooks, the black stable hand, offers to hoe a garden for them if he is allowed to join them, seeking a sense of autonomy and self-respect in escaping from his degraded condition.

It is in Lennie, however, that the tragedy, which is the story, eventually returns.  Not knowing his own strength, he has killed the puppy given to him by Slim.  Like clockwork enter Curley’s wife, who seems unaware of Lennie’s mental disability, seeing only innocence.  She confides to the unknowing man-child that she is lonely on the ranch, that Curley is not the supportive man she had hoped he would be, and that she flirts with the men only because of her discontent.  She is preoccupied with her own beauty, seeking to escape her circumstances and seeing the strong man as a possible ticket to her dreams.  It is this one-dimensional factor that leads to death, and a selfless act borne of love that still shocks readers today.

The short story collection The Long Valley (1938) is composed of twelve short stories that, on first reading, do not seem to be completely cohesive or well matched.  But on further reading one can discern a shift in the tone of these stories that were important to his developing themes that were to coalesce in The Grapes of Wrath.  The long valley of the title is the Salinas Valley.  But rather than the somewhat affectionate portrayals of common folk found in works such as Tortilla Flat, we find the darker side to the lives of the people of the valley–if not in always in their actions–in their thoughts and motivations.  Steinbeck, despite the comedy and lack of malice in his writing, was always unblinking in his portrayals of his characters, presenting them without judgment, though the descriptions and consequences of their actions would act as their judgment, sometimes deserved, sometimes not.  The stories of most interest are “The Chrysanthemums”, about a woman who is drawn to an itinerant laborer out of loneliness and insecurity; “The Murder”, about an act of murder committed during an act of infidelity and the consequences, or lack thereof; “The Vigilante”, about the lynching of an accused black man; and the Red Pony stories, about the cruelty of children and the cruelty that is tolerated against animals.

A journal notation during this period probably best summarizes his views up to this point:  “In every bit of honest writing in the world,” he wrote, “there is a base theme.  Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.  Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.  There are shorter means, many of them: there is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme.  Try to understand each other.”  Steinbeck sought to understand these characters, which oftentimes were based on true stories, for he understood that a reprehensible as well as a likeable character must at some level be sympathetic if they are to be successful characters, if their stories are to be told straight and true, and if they are to be seen, unwavering, for what they are.  But, more significantly, his belief was that if people understood their interdependence, the connection and interconnections of everyone and everything in the natural world, that such knowledge would make it hard to commit an act of injustice or aggression against another, would make it hard to destroy the natural environment, to destroy the thing that defines our humanity.  Much like Camus, he saw injustice and cruelty as forms of extreme ignorance.  Like Hannah Arendt, he saw unthinking and unremorseful action in regard to another human being as a form of inhumanity–and of the perpetrator denying their own humanity in the process.  To Steinbeck at this time, it is the application of knowledge, thoughtful reflection, and the acknowledgement of another’s basic humanity that is essential to human society.  His books are not free of seeking justice and atonement, but it a justice and atonement borne of righting the ship, of defending what is good and right, in lieu of some punitive action.

This then leads us to The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  Of all of the “Great American Novels”–and there are several–this one stands in stark contrast to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for it is almost like a bookend of an era.  Where Gatsby chronicled the distorted American drive for wealth and prestige at any cost during a time of perceived plenty, The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the reality of day-to-day survival by the common people in the aftermath of that time of excess.  Where Gatsby showcased the grotesque opulence of the upper classes during the Jazz Age, The Grapes of Wrath revealed the corruption and remorseless greed that left the nation a wasteland of human suffering in their wake.

Steinbeck accomplished this by writing the story of the fictional Joad family of Sallisaw, Oklahoma.  He had been writing a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the plight of migrant workers coming to California for work from the region hit hard by the Dust Bowl.  In doing his research he was given individual case histories and reports from the Farm Security Administration, which was a Depression-era public agency formed to provide relief to farmers hit hard by the depression.  He later came to put this information together in development of the book.

The story follows the travails of the Joad family as they are forced by the bank off of their land.  Seeing a bill offering good paying jobs to pickers in California, the extended Joad family loads up all of their belongings and head to California.  Along the way they are largely treated as pariahs.  Once landing in California they find that the promise of jobs was a bald attempt to flood the state with cheap labor.  As such, people become a commodity like a piece of machinery–in actuality less than a piece of machinery–and all efforts on the part of people to exert their humanity, express their displeasure, or attempt to bargain for fair wages is met with oppression and violence.  Perhaps more than any other novel, The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates that even here, in a nation founded on the principles of human rights and human dignity, can treat its own citizens as an alien entity.

In the end, though, there runs a basic optimism in the book among all of the indignities that are chronicled to have been suffered by the Joads, and the other migrants who were part of that wave of humanity.  It is found in the words of Tom Joad as he is about to leave his family to continue the fight of the dead preacher Casy:  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”  At the end of the book, having lost everything, at the end of their tether, it is Ma Joad’s daughter, Rose of Sharon, who provides the book’s last, shocking end.

The Grapes of Wrath was a controversial book during its time, censored and banned in many parts of the country.  But it was to propel public opinion to continue the New Deal policies which were institutionalized to ensure a more equitable distribution of income that would result in a rising middle class, housing programs that created widespread home ownership, price supports in farming, and other ameliorative measures to address the excesses of economic power.  That we have seen the slow undoing of those brakes to economic power, which resulted in another great economic dislocation, has made The Grapes of Wrath both relevant and a cautionary tale to the issues we face today.

Steinbeck wrote about the common people.  His faith was in the native intelligence of those people to figure things out if given the opportunity to both think and understand.  He was no idealist.  He didn’t believe in ideologies that promised nirvana at some unspecified time in the future given just a little sacrifice and suffering today.  Like Jefferson, he opposed all ideologies, religions, and governments that hindered free inquiry.  He chronicled with a steely eyed gaze and an honest writer’s pen everything there was to put down on paper, regardless of how it reflected on humanity.  In the end, the basic decency of humanity won out.  Let us hope that today we learn the wisdom of seeing our common cause as a people–the basic humanity that we all share.