Tag: John Steinbeck

Books of the Year: 2013

When you finish reading a book and you know that it was one of the three greatest you’ve ever read, it is what I would, in my perpetually-single state, relate to the meeting of a soulmate. Likely better, because though the belief in soulmates is silly bit of fatalism, that book will remain in the library for at least a decade until libraries are shut down after the potash, oil, and uranium resources dry up and revenues can no longer sustain the economy and public services begin to close like Blockbuster movie rental stores after the plague of the internet. That’s love. Very rarely will a book make me cry, not out of despair or an emotional plot, but out of basic human discovery presented perfectly through dialogue. For me, this was East of Eden.

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is a great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.
At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?
Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
And now the forces marshalled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And This I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 13.1, p130-1

My discovery of Leanne Simpson has also begun a personal interest in Indigenous thought and storytelling. Her aptitude in both fiction and non-fiction is stimulating, and a genre-blurring project that presents the tone of a piece of work unlike I have ever experienced, specifically through the songs of Islands of Decolonial Love, is a remarkably refreshing experience.

“Reconciliation” is being promoted by the federal government as a “new” way for Canada to relate to Indigenous Peoples, and it isn’t just government officials that are promoting the idea. I have heard heads of universities talk about reconciliation; I have read journalists’ op-ed pieces; I have heard mayors talk about reconciliation as they open local Aboriginal events. But the idea of reconciliation is not new. Indigenous Peoples attempted to reconcile our differences in countless treaty negotiations, which categorically have not produced the kinds of relationships Indigenous Peoples intended. I wonder how we can reconcile when the majority of Canadians do not understand the historic or contemporary injustice of dispossession and occupation, particularly when the state has expressed its unwillingness to make any adjustments to the unjust relationship. Haudenosanee scholar and orator Dan Longboat recently reminded me of this, when he said that treaties are not just for governments, they are for the citizens as well. The people also have to act in a manner that is consistent with the relationships set out in the treaty negotiation process. If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her, we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing; he doesn’t want to stop the abuse. Collectively, what are the implications of participating in reconciliation processes when there is an overwhelming body of evidence that in action, the Canadian state does not want to take responsibility and stop the abuse? What are the consequences for Indigenous Peoples of participating in a process that attempts to absolve Canada of past wrong doings, while they continue to engage with our nations in a less than honourable way?

Leanne Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back, chapter 1, p21

Thou Mayest

I sat at the Housing Strategy Public Forum at noon on Thursday. I listened as four city representatives justified a plan to fix a city, scrambling to answer questions from dozens of disgruntled citizens about housing in various forms. Providing housing for the masses is a priority, they said. Just not as serious of a priority as making a lot of money, they neglected to say. The citizens’ sole chance to have their say in a hotel lobby with free cookies and Fruitopia. Democracy works.

I wondered whether it counts as having a voice if you are speaking to those do not have ears.

So mom said this, “I think sometimes for your own sanity you have to believe that people will eventually do the right thing.” I genuinely do not believe that people will eventually do the right thing. I only have so many years of life to impatiently wait. What I do believe, for my own sanity, is that people can do the right thing. They have the choice and this puts me at greater ease. Because I expect nothing. Because I am not waiting with fried nerves for the sun to explode. I’ve got to believe at least this or I will give up, and giving up is a cardinal sin in anyone that matters. I’ve got to believe this or I might kill myself. I’ve got to believe it whether it is true or not. My cynicisms no longer reach as far as believing in an inherently evil humanity. I have passed that point in my perpetual anger. If that were the case, we would have starved long ago.

“Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.”

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 51.2, p568

Though we may not be an evil people, we are still not inherently good. We are inherently selfish, and this to me seems concrete. As animals we instincually make decisions to ensure our personal survival. This is not news. Humans can, however, break this conditioning. There is still a choice.

In East of Eden, Lee studies the story of Cain and Abel.

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in the sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interefere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph…

“…This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that gilttering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed because ‘Thou mayest.’”

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 24.2, p301-302

I still question the effectiveness of a political process that is so inane as a public relations exercise with five different types of cookies. I question the point in trying to penetrate the infinitely-layered inclined mountain of bureaucracy. But possibilities arise. Thou mayest triumph over sin. Thou mayest triumph over ignorance. Thou mayest triumph over selfishness. This, Steinbeck says, is what makes man great. He still has “the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

It doesn’t matter what others do—I must remind myself of this. Letting the poor decisions and monumental mistakes of others disrupt your progress along the line of choice is foolish. Thou mayest. Or thou mayest not, and it doesn’t fucking matter to me what the innumerable morons of the world decide to do. As long as I remember that both they and I had a choice.

Because ‘Thou mayest.’

Four Years of Life

I have now been alive for four years. I have learned nothing.

What I have feared when I began writing is potentially coming true. I don’t believe that there is a limit to discovery or knowledge, however there might be a limit to the ways a man can express new knowledge in a certain medium. And although there is no limit to discovery or knowledge, a man can indeed stop learning. I am running out of things to say, because I am only so good at recycling. There are only a few ways to write the same sentence.

There are perhaps two ways to stop gaining knowledge. Either you eventually come to know absolutely everything, or you come to a point where you give up. Each year, once or twice or sometimes thrice, I come to a point where I contemplate giving up. To stop treading, stop kicking, exhale completely, and sink to the bottom. To retain nothing new because it seems that there is no purpose to do so. Birthdays, and Near-Death Birthdays are sometimes the cause. Just another year since I have seemingly learned nothing, and another year where I contemplate giving up, if I haven’t done so already without even knowing it yet.

I still climb rockfaces I know might kill me, which suggests I haven’t given up, because it takes a grand effort to even choose a rockface to climb. I still climb rockfaces, which seems to suggest that I haven’t learnt a damn thing since April 17, 2009. By these very facts, I must hold all the knowledge that exists in the world.

Or my hypothesis is wrong.

I guess I’ll keep writing.

“It’s one of the great fallacies, it seems to me,” said Lee, “that time gives much of anything but years and sadness to a man.”

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 30.2, p373