The Log from the Sea of Cortez: John Steinbeck’s Forgotten Masterpiece on How to Think and the Art of Seeing the Pattern Beyond the Particular
By Maria Popova
The hardest state for a human being to sustain is that of open-endedness. We may know that uncertainty is the crucible of creativity, we may know that uncertainty is the key to democracy and good science, and yet in our longing for certainty we keep propping ourselves up from the elemental wobbliness of life on the crutch of opinion. Few things are more seductive to us than a ready opinion, and we brandish few things more flagrantly as we move through the world, slicing through its fundamental uncertainty with our insecure certitudes. The trouble with opinion is that it instantly islands us in the stream of life, cutting off its subject — and us along with it — from the interconnected totality of deep truth.
In 1940, as humanity’s most ferocious war was rupturing the world, Steinbeck and his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts decamped to the nonhuman world and its elemental consolations of interdependence, embarking on an exploratory expedition in the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California — “a long, narrow, highly dangerous body of water… subject to sudden and vicious storms of great intensity.”
Wading through the tide pools, his hands callused from collecting specimens, his feet stung by poisonous worms and spiked by urchins, his mind invigorated by the ravishing interconnectedness of life, the 38-year-old writer found himself contemplating the deepest strata of reality and its intercourse with the human imagination. What emerges is a meditation on the nature of knowledge — a kind of prose counterpart to Elizabeth Bishop’s deep-seeing poem “At the Fishhouses” — disguised as an expedition journal: a wanderer’s delight in the adjacent pleasure gardens of science and philosophy of mind, composed two decades before Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for his fiction. Despite his magnificent novels, despite his large-souled letters, I consider this his slender book of nonfiction his finest work.
At its heart is Steinbeck’s passionate refutation of the Western compulsion for teleological thinking — the tendency to explain things in terms of the purpose they serve, antithetical both to science and to the Eastern notion of being: the idea that everything just is and any fragment of it, any one thing examined by itself, is simply because it is. Science — the supreme art of observation without interpretation, of meeting reality on its own acausal and impartial terms, free from the tyranny of why and its tendrils of blame — puts us a leap closer to understanding both particulate and pattern through non-teleological thinking — which, as Steinbeck astutely observes, is an inadequate term to begin with, for it asks of us more than thinking in how we parse any sort of information:
The method extends beyond thinking even to living itself; in fact, by inferred definition it transcends the realm of thinking possibilities, it postulates “living into.”
The greatest fallacy in, or rather the greatest objection to, teleological thinking is in connection with the emotional content, the belief. People get to believing and even to professing the apparent answers thus arrived at, suffering mental constrictions by emotionally closing their minds to any of the further and possibly opposite “answers” which might otherwise be unearthed by honest effort — answers which, if faced realistically, would give rise to a struggle and to a possible rebirth which might place the whole problem in a new and more significant light.
Such rebirth of perspective allows us to move beyond questions of cause in thinking and blame in feeling, which are related reflexes of the teleological mindset. The moment we regard something simply as it is, because it is, we have understood it more fully, for we have shed the narratives layer of why:
The non-teleological picture… goes beyond blame or cause. And the non-causal or non-blaming viewpoint… arises emergently from the union of two opposing viewpoints, such as those of physical and spiritual teleologies, especially if there is conflict as to causation between the two or within either. The new viewpoint very frequently sheds light over a larger picture, providing a key which may unlock levels not accessible to either of the teleological viewpoints. There are interesting parallels here: to the triangle, to the Christian ideas of trinity, to Hegel’s dialectic, and to Swedenborg’s metaphysic of divine love (feeling) and divine wisdom (thinking).
The factors we have been considering as “answers” seem to be merely symbols or indices, relational aspects of things — of which they are integral parts — not to be considered in terms of causes and effects. The truest reason for anything’s being so is that it is. This is actually and truly a reason, more valid and clearer than all the other separate reasons, or than any group of them short of the whole. Anything less than the whole forms part of the picture only, and the infinite whole is unknowable except by being it, by living into it.
A thing may be so “because” of a thousand and one reasons of greater or lesser importance… The separate reasons, no matter how valid, are only fragmentary parts of the picture. And the whole necessarily includes all that it impinges on as object and subject, in ripples fading with distance or depending upon the original intensity of the vortex.
In a passage of exquisite intellectual elegance and emotional truth, Steinbeck considers the continuum that is the essence of reality — the continuum we artificially sever into fragments with our teleological explanations and causally compulsive opinions:
No one thing ever merges gradually into anything else; the steps are discontinuous, but often so very minute as to seem truly continuous. If the investigation is carried deep enough, the factor in question, instead of being graphable as a continuous process, will be seen to function by discrete quanta with gaps or synapses between, as do quanta of energy, undulations of light. The apparently definitive answer occurs when causes and effects both arise on the same large plateau which is bounded a great way off by the steep rise which announces the next plateau. If the investigation is extended sufficiently, that distant rise will, however, inevitably be encountered; the answer which formerly seemed definitive now will be seen to be at least slightly inadequate and the picture will have to be enlarged so as to include the plateau next further out. Everything impinges on everything else, often into radically different systems, although in such cases faintly. We doubt very much if there are any truly “closed systems.”
Okay. Enough abstraction. Let us land this into the loveliness of the concrete:
The ocean, with reference to waves of water, might be considered as a closed system. But anyone who has lived in Pacific Grove or Carmel during the winter storms will have felt the house tremble at the impact of waves half a mile or more away impinging on a totally different “closed” system.
This interconnectedness, this indivisibility, is the raw antidote to teleological thinking — something Steinbeck illustrates with a living wonder observed from the deck of his expedition vessel:
Seeing a school of fish lying quietly in still water, all the heads pointing in one direction, one says, “It is unusual that this is so” — but it isn’t unusual at all. We begin at the wrong end. They simply lie that way, and it is remarkable only because with our blunt tool we cannot carve out a human reason. Everything is potentially everywhere — the body is potentially cancerous, phthisic, strong to resist or weak to receive. In one swing of the balance the waiting life pounces in and takes possession and grows strong while our own individual chemistry is distorted past the point where it can maintain its balance. This we call dying, and by the process we do not give nor offer but are taken by a multiform life and used for its proliferation. These things are balanced. A man is potentially all things too, greedy and cruel, capable of great love or great hatred, of balanced or unbalanced so-called emotions. This is the way he is — one factor in a surge of striving. And he continues to ask “why” without first admitting to himself his cosmic identity.
Leaning once again on a living metaphor from the world of marine biology, he illustrates how our multitudes compose our totality in something beyond pure equivalence:
There are colonies of pelagic tunicates [Pyrosoma giganteum] which have taken a shape like the finger of a glove. Each member of the colony is an individual animal, but the colony is another individual animal, not at all like the sum of its individuals. Some of the colonists, girdling the open end, have developed the ability, one against the other, of making a pulsing movement very like muscular action. Others of the colonists collect the food and distribute it, and the outside of the glove is hardened and protected against contact. Here are two animals, and yet the same thing—something the early Church would have been forced to call a mystery. When the early Church called some matter “a mystery” it accepted that thing fully and deeply as so, but simply not accessible to reason because reason had no business with it. So a man of individualistic reason, if he must ask, “Which is the animal, the colony or the individual?”’ must abandon his particular kind of reason and say, “Why, it’s two animals and they aren’t alike any more than the cells of my body are like me. I am much more than the sum of my cells and, for all I know, they are much more than the division of me.” There is no quietism in such acceptance, but rather the basis for a far deeper understanding of us and our world. And now this is ready for the taboo-box.
Composing a sort of modern Aesopian fable of our faulty sensemaking, he adds:
It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones. The tree-frog in the high pool in the mountain cleft, had he been endowed with human reason, on finding a cigarette butt in the water might have said, “Here is an impossibility. There is no tobacco hereabouts nor any paper. Here is evidence of fire and there has been no fire. This thing cannot fly nor crawl nor blow in the wind. In fact, this thing cannot be and I will deny it, for if I admit that this thing is here the whole world of frogs is in danger, and from there it is only one step to anti-frogicentricism.” And so that frog will for the rest of his life try to forget that something that is, is.
There is, Steinbeck cautions, nothing mystical about this recognition of an underlying pattern — it is where all science ultimately points and where all knowledge, once freed from the clutch of causality, leads. Echoing the great naturalist John Muir’s observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” he adds:
The whole is necessarily everything, the whole world of fact and fancy, body and psyche, physical fact and spiritual truth, individual and collective, life and death, macrocosm and microcosm (the greatest quanta here, the greatest synapse between these two), conscious and unconscious, subject and object. The whole picture is portrayed by is, the deepest word of deep ultimate reality, not shallow or partial as reasons are, but deeper and participating… And all this against the hot beach on an Easter Sunday, with the passing day and the passing time. This little trip of ours was becoming a thing and a dual thing, with collecting and eating and sleeping merging with the thinking-speculating activity. Quality of sunlight, blueness and smoothness of water, boat engines, and ourselves were all parts of a larger whole and we could begin to feel its nature but not its size.
No excerpt or annotation can do justice to the indivisible wonder that is The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Complement these fragments from it with Hannah Arendt on the life of the mind, Thoreau on how to see reality unblinded by our preconceptions, and Ursula K. Le Guin on apprehending reality through the dual lens of poetry and science, then revisit Steinbeck love and the key to good writing.
Published November 9, 2022