What We Look for When We Are Looking: John Steinbeck on Wonder and the Relational Nature of the Universe
Searching for “that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life.”
By Maria Popova
“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” Baudelaire wrote — something Newton embodied in looking back on his life of revolutionary discoveries, only to see himself appearing “like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” What we are really recovering from childhood in those moments of discovery and exaltation is a way of looking at the world — looking for a glimpse of some small truth that illuminates the interconnectedness of all things, looking and being wonder-smitten by what we see.
That is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores in some lovely passages from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his forgotten masterpiece that turns the record of an ordinary marine biology expedition in the Gulf of California into an extraordinary lens on how to think.
On a collecting expedition in the tide pools of coastal Mexico, Steinbeck considers what it is we really look for when we are looking:
As always when one is collecting, we were soon joined by a number of small boys. The very posture of search, the slow movement with the head down, seems to draw people. “What did you lose?” they ask.
“Then what do you search for?” And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another, as this young man searches for a warm light in his wife’s eyes and that one for the hot warmth of fighting. These little boys and young men on the tide flat do not even know that they search for such things too. We say to them, “We are looking for curios, for certain small animals.”
Then the little boys help us to search.
But the children do something more than help the grown men search — they help them see; they help them find the only thing worth looking for. Steinbeck writes:
Small boys have such sharp eyes, and they are quick to notice deviation. Once they know you are generally curious, they bring amazing things. Perhaps we only practice an extension of their urge. It is easy to remember when we were small and lay on our stomachs beside a tide pool and our minds and eyes went so deeply into it that size and identity were lost, and the creeping hermit crab was our size and the tiny octopus a monster. Then the waving algae covered us and we hid under a rock at the bottom and leaped out at fish. It is very possible that we, and even those who probe space with equations, simply extend this wonder.
How reminiscent this last sentiment is of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Being But Men,” how consonant with G.K. Chesterton’s insistence that our task in life is to dig for the “submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Couple this fragment from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — which is a remarkable read in its entirety — with the pioneering neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington on the spirituality of wonder, then revisit Steinbeck on hope, creativity, the art of receiving, and his timeless advice on love.
Published May 16, 2023