Cannery Row (II)

“I was glad when you hit me,” Mack went on. “I thought to myself – ‘Maybe this will teach me. Maybe I’ll remember this.’ But, hell, I won’t remember nothin’. I won’t learn nothin’. Doc,” (..)
J. Steinbeck, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Penguin Books 2009, Cannery Row, p. 496.

But he did learn. He was made to learn. Somehow learning is a sad thing because learning is leaving something behind and speeding away from it and that is why it is so common not to want to learn. Learning is picking up speed without knowing where you are getting to faster. There is a deep universal melancholy for a state of innocence which is a state of non-learning: the status quo.

“In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition & nervousness & covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.”

Says the educated, scientific and methodical man and what he expresses is not a kind of love of the uneducated but rather a kind of deep self-hatred. What’s most salient in progress is the hypocrisy of claiming progress for specific individuals – and the denial of progress as a common good. We see the winners and the losers, the have’s and the have-not’s as if there was a time without losers and where all of us were defined rather by what they had instead of what they had not.

The error here is taking the most salient for the most relevant; mistaking some by-product for the product; a phenomenon for a characteristic. Because what is really unavoidable is that it takes a learned man to appreciate and protect all this innocence. It takes learning to avoid merely preying on innocence and denying it any of the freedom Mack and the boys have. It takes Doc.

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness and honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

But it is not strange given that the uneducated reflex is that of preying on others, and learning provides more sophisticated means of preying so whatever we learn will be abused as long as we did not learn not to prey on others. The issue is with those who promote individual success as something that cannot be unlearned, as something that is so basic to us that it is beyond progressing beyond it.

We all know who these promoters are: they are the successful, looking for a way to rationalize their success and still remain with the fuzzy feeling towards being open and honest and all that (after all they have loved ones and children too). So they create the conservative ideology which wants to keep everybody restricted in innocence except for those, who like them, need to take care of the ruling reflex.

As we progress we create enlightened tyrants as in everyday life we create waste when we are having some fun in freedom.

The reality of learning and of progress though is that we provide more freedom to people regardless of their talents to be ruthless when needed. The reality is we create Doc’s and Mack’s and The Boy’s more than we create enlightened tyrants.

The fact of the matter is that the United States is, in this, the last battleground. It is to be hoped that the US can progress without first having to regress. Odds are, unfortunately, not looking very good for this at this moment in time.


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