Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Sequel to Moby Dick

Indeed, the text’s evasive strategies and perplexing characters suggest Steinbeck’s profound unease with Cold War America, where his real fear for his country centered not on Sputnik and Russian armament but on “a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental.”
            - from Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to The Winter of Our Discontent (2008 Penguin Classics edition). Quote is from 1959 letter to Adlai Stevenson – see full letter at

I was planning on writing about my impending surgery - a double mastectomy instead of the single one I wrote about in my deleted February post (recent tests found that I have cancer on both sides of me). But I would rather talk about it after the fact and for now I want to present this book report.

The book is John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. I picked the book out at the library because of its title – for me it’s been a winter of discontent and spring has yet to arrive. I can identify with the restlessness of Ishmael in Moby Dick and see the similarity to Steinbeck’s character, Ethan Allen Hawley. But where Ishmael can escape the landlubber’s stifling workaday world by joining a whaling crew, Ethan feels the only way to escape his humdrum life is to strike it rich by means of cheating and betrayal. He probably would’ve been better off – able to hold on to his integrity – by going off to hunt whales as his ancestors did, but the story continually makes the point that the whaling business was long dead, made irrelevant by the switch to petroleum for industrial and consumer use.

[cover of the 2008 edition]
Not just me, but maybe we all could use an escape to the high seas, doing something that doesn’t involve the slaughter of intelligent beings as whaling did. Without that escape valve, we all end up cheaters and betrayers – the current corporate and government world is full of people devoting their energies into getting more money and power by stomping on and casting aside other people. As worse as it seems these days, people all though history have been “liars and the dirty, dirty cheats in the world” to varying degrees.

Early Jodo Shinshu followers who were part of the growing merchant class in Tokugawa-era Japan were said to be guided by the principle of san-po yoshi (“good in three directions”). All business transactions were to be win-win-win situations: I (merchant) benefit, you (supplier, customer etc.) benefit and the whole community benefits. There may be people even today who conduct their business according to san-po yoshi but like Ethan and the characters in Steinbeck’s book, most of us are primarily concerned with looking out for just the one direction (“number one”) and not the other two. What makes san-po yoshi possible is the perspective of nembutsu.

Those with that perspective don’t have to be Shin Buddhists. In Moby Dick, there are examples of those who do look out for others. Queequeg often shows his warm-hearted willingness to help his shipmates and Starbuck courageously defies Captain Ahab in arguing for the safety of the whole crew. They are literally in the same boat with everyone else but most of us forget that our planet is the boat we all share and our survival depends on how we interact with each other. The nembutsu perspective reminds us of the reality of oneness – that our individual karmas are all intertwined.

The awareness of “namu” – the deep realization of our limitedness – is what is lacking in the characters in The Winter of Our Discontent. Just like the people I’ve been protesting against with ONE-Northside, those lacking in “namu” seem to believe in “development” – that for them there are endless riches to be reaped by building up businesses and housing to attract people with money to burn. As Steinbeck’s book shows, this development comes at a human cost – the weak and needy have to be pushed aside and if possible, eliminated. But we can never have endless streams of money coming at us – for one thing, our life itself is limited and the quality of that life deteriorates without the support of a diverse population of other lives.

Sorry to write this rather incoherent post. Since it may be the last I write in a while, I wanted it to be a stunning piece, but right now my mind is too full of apprehension about undergoing a major medical procedure. Although I may not have the mental concentration to write for a while, I look forward to spending my convalescence reading some great prose artists.

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