Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The killing fields ... and waters ... and ...

John Steinbeck's descriptions are so vivid that it is almost as if I am right there with him.  I am there as they are getting ready for the expedition to the Sea of Cortez.  I am there as they get going. No wonder he is a celebrated author, eh!

A phenomenal thinker and writer like Steinbeck is not one-dimensional.  These are people who easily convey to an idiot like me that they know quite a bit about quite a bit.  Consider the following sentences, for instance:

There is philosophy, literature, music, oceanography, physics, and mathematics.  And, of course, the writing.  Now, that is liberal education at its best, don't you agree?  Nabokov, whose troubling Lolita was the earlier deep-read, was an accomplished multi-dimensional intellectual, and so was Tolstoy.  The deep-reads are mighty humbling experiences.

As I expected the book to be, it is not only about marine biology, but also the backdrop for Steinbeck to muse about life.  He writes about porpoises, who seem to "change course to join us, these curious animals."  Steinbeck writes:
Of our crew, Tiny and Sparky, who loved to catch every manner of fish, to harpoon any swimming thing, would have nothing to do with porpoises.  "They cry so," Sparky said, "when they are hurt, they cry to break your heart." This is rather a difficult thing to understand; a dying cow cries too, and a stuck pig raises his protesting voice piercingly and few hearts are broken by those cries.  But a porpoise cries like a child in sorrow and pain.  And we wonder whether the general seaman's real affection for porpoises might not be more complicated than the simple fear of hearing them cry.
Steinbeck returns to this theme later on when they pull into San Diego where "all about us war bustled" and he talks with "a naval officer who had won a target competition with big naval guns":
"Have you thought about what happens in a little street when one of your shells explodes, of the families torn to pieces, a thousand generations influenced when you signaled Fire?"  "Of course not," he said.  "Those shells travel so far that you couldn't possibly see where they land."
Killing, whether it is a porpoise or a human, is not easy even for those who choose to be in those very professions.  Steinbeck continues about that naval officer:
And he was quite correct.  If he could really see where they land and what they do, if he could really feel the power in his dropped hand and the waves radiating from his gun, he would not be able to perform his function. ... The whole structure of his world would be endangered if he permitted himself to think.
When they pause to think, soldiers could become haunted by the visions, the sounds, the cries the smells, and when they can't stand it anymore, they even kill themselves.  

But, kill we do every single day.  We kill fish.  We kill cows. We kill lions.  We kill humans.  And we even debate about how to kill humanely.  What a strange killing species we are!


Anne in Salem said...

Agreed. It is odd, yet understandable, that we have a harder time killing a cute animal than killing an ugly animal. Killing an enemy at a distance sufficient that he is invisible must be emotionally and mentally easier than waiting until "you can see the whites of his eyes." Somehow the distant enemy isn't real; he is merely a statistic on paper. When he is close enough to see, he is real. He is suddenly a brother, father, son, friend. Much harder to kill. Inconceivable.

Sriram Khé said...

Your comment reminds me about a topic that I have wanted to blog for the longest time ... about Iran ... maybe I will put Cortez on hold till I do that;)

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