The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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

“Everything impinges on everything else… Everything is potentially everywhere.”

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

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.

A mighty antidote to that very human and very life-limiting impulse comes from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) by John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

John Steinbeck

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.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

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.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

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.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

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.

Pyrosoma giganteum

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.

Art by Arthur Rackham from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, 1920. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

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.

BP

The Boltzmann Brain Paradox: An Animated Thought Experiment About the Hallucination of Reality

A pleasingly disorienting foray into the fundamental perplexity of life.

You look at a tree. That tree is reality — part of some external reality, and partial to some internal reality of its own. But the tree you see is entirely your mind’s rendition of reality. Consciousness is both the projector and the screen, rendering something you comprehend as a tree. In an absolute sense, then, you can never be sure that the tree exists outside your mind — there can be no evidence of it, for you are both the evidence-gatherer and the evidence.

That is what a thought experiment known as the Boltzmann Brain Paradox explores, inspired by the work of the brilliant and tragic Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann (February 20, 1844–September 5, 1906).

Although his theories are now central to modern physics — Boltzmann developed one of its pillars, statistical mechanics, threw an epochal gauntlet to the second law of thermodynamics, provided the current definition of entropy, and mentored the great Lise Meitner — he was so severely criticized for them that his already biochemically precarious mental health (he was afflicted by what we now term bipolar disorder) careened toward the tragic. One late-summer day in his early sixties, while vacationing with his wife and daughter, he died by the breakage of the mind we call suicide, having lived believing that, as mortals, our “destiny is the joy of watching the evershifting battle” and that even though we are each “an individual struggling weakly against the stream of time,” it is in our power to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge and reverie of reality.

With a mind this extraordinary — literally, beyond the ordinary in both its brilliance and its brokenness — Boltzmann reckoned wildly with the nature of reality, the battle for reality, laying the foundation for later questions that eventually took shape in the Boltzmann Brain Paradox:

Complement with the little loophole in the Big Bang and an animated thought experiment about the limits of knowledge and the mystery of consciousness, then revisit the story of the forgotten prodigy William James Sidis, who built on Boltzmann’s legacy to dismantle the dogmas of life and death with his challenge to the second law of thermodynamics.

BP

Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.”

Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” the poet May Sarton wrote in her ravishing ode to solitude. “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote a generation before her as he reckoned with the heart of a healthy relationship. It may be that our relationship with ourselves — the extent to which we are able to be intimate with our own spirit and make of that intimacy a sanctuary — is a matter of learning to stand guard over our own solitude.

That is what Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) explores in some passages from his relentlessly insightful meditations predating psychology by centuries, rendered in a new translation by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his altogether wonderful book The Art of Solitude.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for the essays of Montaigne

Montaigne spent much of his own life in solitude — the crucible of his enduringly insightful meditations on the fundaments of life. With life-tested surety, he allays the three great fears haunting solitude — boredom, the loss of social rewards, and self-confrontation. He writes:

We have a soul that can turn in on itself; it can keep itself company. It has the means to attack and defend, to give and receive. Don’t worry that solitude will find you hunched up in boredom.

Rather than boredom, such inner stillness leads us to what Bertrand Russell so memorably termed “fruitful monotony” — an inner quieting that becomes fertile compost for creativity. But even at its most generative, solitude succumbs to the basic binary of life: being any one place means not being another — an equivalence that metastasizes in the classic fear of missing out. Montaigne cautions against such preoccupation with the external world and calls for the vital self-mastery of learning to govern the internal:

It should no longer be your concern that the world speaks of you; your sole concern should be with how you speak to yourself. Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

To succeed in solitude, he argues, is to learn to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation,” so that you can begin to observe the mind as it happens unto itself — the happening that is our entire experience of life. He writes:

It is a tricky business to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.

[…]

Others study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lie it down to rest.

Complement with Emerson — Montaigne’s Transcendentalist inheritor — on how to trust yourself and what solitude really means and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, sex, and creativity, then revisit Montaigne’s cumulative wisdom on how to live.

BP

Trees, Rivers, and the Exquisite Interdependence of Life: Artist Meredith Nemirov’s Consummate Map Paintings

“To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”

When the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in 1866 after the Greek words for “house” and “study” to denote the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life, he had no idea just how intricate this relationship would be revealed to be by the science of the following century.

Imagine how astonished he would have been to know that one day we would find salmon in trees and trees in plankton.

Long after Haeckel had returned his borrowed atoms to the ecosystem, scientists discovered that nitrogen-15 — an isotope of nitrogen found almost exclusively in the oceans — is the reason some trees grow thrice as fast as others. This improbable fertilizer ends up in their root systems thanks to salmon, which carry it in their fatty bodies from the Pacific Ocean as they migrate upstream to spawn. Black bears fishing in the rivers ingest the salmon and metabolize the nitrogen, depositing it into the forest, where it seeps into the soil to be taken up by the hungry trees.

But this relationship between ocean and forest is reciprocal, flowing both ways across the conduits of river and tree: In turn, trees shed their leaves into the river, which carries the acids in them to the ocean to feed plankton — the first link in Earth’s food chain, in turn feeding the salmon and all other creatures uplink, including us.

This exquisite interdependence comes alive in artist Meredith Nemirov’s series Rivers Feed the Trees — consummate paintings of aspens atop historic topographic maps of the Colorado river.

Created in the wake of the region’s devastating wildfires, while a global pandemic was illuminating afresh the profound ecological interbeing of our Pale Blue Dot, this conceptual “rewatering” of the landscape is intended as a kind of visual rain dance — a prayerful invocation of water in acrylagouache and cartography.

The artist reflects:

The linear elements and patterns assigned by map makers to the various aspects of the geology of the land are visual elements in the landscape and the form of the tree. The idea of connectivity in nature has been a recurrent theme in my work and is expressed in this particular series and in this quote by Barry Lopez, “To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”

Couple with Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė’s illustrated love letter to rivers, then revisit Olivia Laing’s magnificent meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

HT Orion Magazine

BP

Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth.”

Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” Rachel Carson reflected in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Carson saw the sea as a microcosm of all life, and indeed, there is native poetry in the wonder of reality that we access whenever we step beyond our habitual frames of reference and simply pay attention to what is other than ourselves. Her hero Henry Beston undrestood this when he observed that non-human animals move through the world “finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear” — the voices of poets in the deepest and widest sense of poetry as an instrument of living with wonder.

Ursula K. Le Guin

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores in her short story The Author of the Acacia Seeds: And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, included in her 1982 collection The Compass Rose (public library) — the story of a group of scientists studying non-human languages, one of whom sets out “to approach the sea literature of the penguin with understanding.”

That Le Guin was writing before we had decoded the sonic hieroglyphics of dolphins or discerned the dance-language of bees only attests to her extraordinary foresight and penetrating wisdom into the more-than-human world.

The King Penguin by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1871. (Available as a print.)

Le Guin — who was a poet and believed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe” — writes of the kinetic poetics of penguins:

The beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth… Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.

Complement with a neuroscientist on the pengin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, and the magic of real human conversation.

BP

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