Book Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

There are a number of important and interesting themes that run throughout Steinbeck’s classic work. While each deserves a great deal of attention, I will, in this review, provide just a few meditations upon one element which stood out to me as predominant.

This element is the theme of the desire to establish existence through procuring a permanent identity. Curly’s wife, for example, is consistently referred to merely as “Curly’s wife” rather than by her actual name, thereby denying her an existent independent of Curly through an individual identity. Her dreams of establishing such an identity, making a name for herself so to speak, through becoming a movie star, are dashed by her marriage to Curly. The result is that she is a figure of the devil. She has become one without existence properly speaking who seeks to lure others into the realm of non-existence.

The same theme is present in the association between the dog, who will leave no legacy, and the various men, each of whom will leave behind nothing of lasting significance in this world. The only one who does, who has a letter published in a magazine, does not himself appear in the novel and may be altogether unaware of his lasting significance, thereby himself being denied the ability to establish a permanent identity.

The pairing of George and Lennie, of course, is the example of inability to establish identity par excellence. Their ultimate desire is to own a piece of land, to have a piece of the earth which is theirs, a permanent establishment through which to derive selfhood. Lennie, however, may be the exception to the rule in his driving desire for passing pleasures which lead inevitably to the destruction of each thing from which he derives pleasure.

As I said, this, as well as many other themes in this short novel, deserve a great deal more attention. I share my thoughts because I desire them to act as an impetus to others who have not yet read this classic novel to take it up for themselves and enjoy it as much as I have.

None is more wonderful than man

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.

And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the best whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.

And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ’tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

Sophocles, “Antigone”

 

 

Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” http://cervantes.tamu.edu/english/ctxt/DonQ-JohnOrmsby/DonQ-JohnOrmsby.html (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.

Christianity’s ethical transformation of antiquity

Christianity bequeathed to its members a pervasive sense of a personal God’s direct interest in human affairs and vital concern for every human soul, no matter what level of intelligence or culture was brought to the spiritual enterprise, and without regard to physical strength or beauty or social status. In contrast to the Hellenic focus on great heroes and rare philosophers, Christianity universalized salvation, asserting its availability to slaves as well as kings, to simple souls as well as profound thinkers, to the ugly as well as the beautiful, to the sick and suffering as well as the strong and fortunate, even tending to reverse the former hierarchies. In Christ, all divisions of humanity were overcome — barbarian and Greek, Jew and Gentile, master and slave, male and female — all were now as one. The ultimate wisdom and heroism of Christ made redemption possible for all, not just the few: Christ was the Sun, who shone alike on all mankind. Christianity therefore placed high value on each individual soul as one of God’s children, but in this new context the Greek ideal of the self-determining individual and the heroic genius was diminished in favor of a collective Christian identity. This elevation of the communal self, the human reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven, founded on the shared love of God and faith in Christ’s redemption, encouraged an altruistic sublimation, and at times subjugation, of the individual self in favor of a greater allegiance to the good of others and the will of God. Yet on the other hand, by granting immortality and value to the individual soul, Christianity encouraged the growth of the individual conscience, self-responsibility, and personal autonomy relative to temporal powers — all decisive traits for the formation of the Western character.

In its moral teachings, Christianity brought to the pagan world a new sense of the sanctity of all human life, the spiritual value of the family, the spiritual superiority of self-denial over egoistic fulfillment, of unworldly holiness over worldly ambition, of gentleness and forgiveness over violence and retribution; a condemnation of murder, suicide, the killing of infants, the massacre of prisoners, the degradation of slaves, sexual licentiousness and prostitution, bloody circus spectacles — all in the new awareness of God’s love for humanity, and the moral purity that love required in the human soul. Christian love, whether divine or human, was not so much the realm of Aphrodite, nor even primarily the Eros of the philosophers, but was the love, epitomized in Christ, that expressed itself through sacrifice, suffering, and universal compassion. This Christian ethical ideal of goodness and charity was strongly promulgated and at times widely observed, an ideal certainly not lacking in the moral imperatives of Greek philosophy — particularly in Stoicism, which in several ways anticipated Christian ethics — but now having a more pervasive influence on the mass culture in the Christian era than had Greek philosophical ethics in the classical world.

Robert Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, pp. 116-7

All men are mortal?

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, ch. VI

Panentheism and the Incarnation

That Deity should be born in our nature, ought not reasonably to present any strangeness to the minds of those who do not take too narrow a view of things. For who, when he takes a survey of the universe, is so simple as not to believe that there is Deity in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it? For all things depend on Him Who is, nor can there be anything which has not its being in Him Who is. If, therefore, all things are in Him, and He in all things, why are they scandalized at the plan of Revelation when it teaches that God was born among men, that same God Whom we are convinced is even now not outside mankind? For although this last form of God’s presence amongst us is not the same as that former presence, still His existence amongst us equally both then and now is evidenced; only now He Who holds together Nature in existence is transfused in us; while at that other time He was transfused throughout our nature, in order that our nature might by this transfusion of the Divine become itself divine, rescued as it was from death, and put beyond the reach of the caprice of the antagonist. For His return from death becomes to our mortal race the commencement of our return to the immortal life.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, ch. 25

A Monument to Daniel E. Sickles

Sitting in the saddle near the Abraham Trostle House, north of Stony Hill, [Daniel E.] Sickles was hit in the right knee by a low-velocity round shot. The knee was mangled and Sickles was placed on a stretcher next to Trostle’s Barn, where despite loss of blood and the onset of shock, he continued talking in rather good spirits with various officers, asked to have himself propped high enough so that his men could see that he was alive, and then requested and smoked a cigar. Taken to a makeshift field hospital at the Daniel Sheaffer Farm in the rear, Sickles had his right leg amputated, wrapped and place inside a small coffin, and eventually sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, where he visited it each year. In some measure the unruly 3d Corps commander had the last laugh: Effectively taken out of the war at his most controversial moment, he continued to aid the Lincoln administration in valuable ways and by losing his leg made himself into an instant hero in his mind and the minds of many others. After the war he served as minister to Spain and used the position as an opportunity to have an affair with Queen Isabella, the former ruler of the country. This only added to his prewar notoriety, which came from his having shot and killed on a Washington street his wife’s paramour, Washington District Attorney Philip Barton Key, the son of the author of “The Star Spangled Banner.” In a sensational murder trial prosecuted by Robert Ould (who would flee under a cloud of treason to become an assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy) and defended by Edwin M. Stanton (who became Lincoln’s secretary of war), Sickles was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity — the first such successful defense in America. Even more shockingly to Victorian morals, he took his unfaithful wife back. Sickles outmaneuvered his detractors. He lived until 1914 and presided over many Gettysburg reunions. When asked why no monument was erected to him, he claimed “the whole damn battlefield is my monument.”

David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, p. 553