“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.
“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:
“Men don’t get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I’m scared. Long Island Lightning Company might turn off the lights. My wife needs clothes. My children – shoes and fun. And suppose they don’t get an education? And the monthly bills and the doctor and teeth and a tonsillectomy, and beyond that suppose I get sick and can’t sweep this goddam sidewalk? Course you don’t understand. It’s slow. It rots out your guts. I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator. I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. How could you understand that?” John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, p. 14, Penguin Books, 1961.
I started reading again; luckily I’m not a man to keep with any plan. This is great. Steinbeck is great. American lit is great. As if it feels a responsibility to make up for the lack of American history. When I read this in context I thought this is the kind of stuff capitalism generates. I was wrong: this is the human condition. The problem is not hope but the lack of it. Or, seen from the other angle, the problem is not hope but the omnipresent all-pervasive fear of losing it.
The key word in the above, for me, is ‘refrigerator’. Continue reading