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July 4, 2014

John Steinbeck's Manself

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John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is one of the books I am currently reading, and I am sad to admit that it feels a bit of a trudge for me. I don't think it's because there's anything wrong with the book - far be it for me to slam an iconic classic of American fiction - but I just don't feel as though I'm in the right mind to read a book so much about change, progress, and loss as this one.

Still, I am, as I say, trudging, and came across this passage which struck a chord with me last night:
The last clear definite function of man - muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need - this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man - when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market-place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live - for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live - for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know - fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe

If you haven't read the novel, I'm certain you possibly don't have a clue what Steinbeck is trying to say here, so I'll help you along a little. The novel, so far, appears to be a diatribe on how corporate America ruined man. Farmers were thrown off the land they couldn't afford to buy, land that they had worked and sweated into, and tried to make better lives for themselves elsewhere.

On the surface, the quotation seems to be glorifying man's aspirational nature - that he lives for progress, that we should fear a lack of progress because it would mean man's spirit has died.

But I think it is more pessimistic about that progress - that though mankind is evolving and making the world a better place - it is only a few Manselves who are progressing, while the others form part of the beaten strike, are the ones having their throats cut.

Do you believe my interpretation is incorrect?

{Image source: Wikimedia Commons\defenseimagery.mil}

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