Cannery Row (1)

“It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.”
John Steinbeck, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Penguin Books, 2009, p. 410.

Why quote a crooked sentence out of a book full of exquisitely rounded ones? Because it is the idea that counts. The formulation of the idea helps but is not the essential part of why something resonates. Formulation fetishism is probably the predominant attitude in assessing the value of writing but in the end it is a lot like preferring The Harlem Globetrotters to the Dream Team.

What is the ‘it’ in the quote? What can a friend make unnecessary? Surely not a man’s right to kill himself. It must be the desire to exercise the right. That’s what it is to be a friend: to acknowledge your friend’s autonomy without leaving him or her alone in expressing it. Everything comes back to the Principle of Charity, including applying charity to a sentence with a, let’s assume, unintended twist. It is with language as it is with the main characters of Cannery Row:

“Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.”
ibid. p. 414.

And to crooked sentences and to language not following the established norms and conventions. Sentences without verbs. OMG, even sentences consisting only out of capital letters. Technically these are not even sentences because they are not well formed but there is nothing creative in trying to perfect your writing to the established ideal; it is merely neurotic calligraphy applied not to letters but to sentences and paragraphs and to books.

The Principle of Charity requires us to see the best instead of the worst in those who live in Cannery Row. It also requires us to try to see the best in any attempt to express anything excepting only the expression of a desire to shut everybody else up, the Principle of Charity is charitable but it is not stupid, defenseless nor naive.

Like this:

“Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention. He came out of reform school as innocent of viciousness as he was of fractions and long division.”

There is nothing crooked about these sentences except for the crookedness that it exposes in the prejudices of the vicious people who do not allow themselves to appreciate the value of what is different. These vicious people cannot be friends. They cannot acknowledge somebody’s right to die because it would imply both a responsibility for them in an acquaintance’s suicide and a risk to them of the side effects of such a suicide.

The only thing vicious people can acknowledge is the right to kill.

“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails up in the air – the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying – so maybe they’re praying.”
ibid. p. 429.

Vicious people like praying, especially other people praying. It establishes order and predictability. Vicious people like everything which is well formed not so much because of its wellformedness but because it allows them easily to identify and denounce what is ill formed. This is by the way the reason vicious people are defenseless against progress. The ill formed survives, like Mack and the boys are survivors, and before long it becomes part of the established standard that they need to uphold because, as conservatives, they need to uphold a standard.

This is the way gays and gay marriage get adopted. Gays survive despite all stuff that is thrown at them and gay rights get accepted and once they are accepted it’s impossible for the standard to revert (as long as the living standard keeps going up, there is a definite link between economic progress and growth and cultural progress; the link is the inability of vicious people to deny charity and autonomy to others).

This is a good thing: it means that before long Lee’s kindness and understanding will be the norm and the right to kill yourself will be accepted alongside the duty of your friends to make the act of suicide unnecessary.


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