Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Immanent Fiction

[** There are several 'spoilers' here for those who care **]

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath offers what I would call an immanent fiction. The guiding narrative exists entirely within the sphere of a 'natural order'. The Joad family is forced off there farm during the Great Depression and head west to California in search work. They are accompanied by an ex-preacher named Casey. For much of the story Casey constructs this immanent reality. He is insistent that he is no longer a preacher and throughout their journey gives insight into the world as he now understands it. When first asked if we was going to continue to preach and baptize he responds,

I ain't gonna preach. . . . I ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna be near folks. I ain't gonna try to teach 'em nothin'. I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin' mush. Gonna hear husban' an' wife a-poudnin' the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with 'em an' learn. . . . Gonna cuss an' swear an' hear the poetry of folks talkin'. All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understand'. All them things is good."

The journey of the Joad's across the southwestern U.S. is largely a litany of woe and disappoint as they begin to experience the severity of conditions both for themselves and for so many around them as food become scarce and jobs more so. In Casey' new posture new revelation is received. Casey reflects on this with Tom Joad,

[I] listen all the time. That's why I been thinkin'. Listen to people a-talkin', an purty soon I hear the way folks are feelin'. Goin' on all the time. I hear 'em and feel 'em; an' they're beating their wings like a bird in a attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin' to get out. . . . They's an army without a harness. . . . All along I seen it. . . . Ever' place we stopped I seen it. Folks hungry for side-mear, an' when they get it, they ain't fed. An' when they'd get do hungry they couldn't stan' it no more, why, they'd ast me to pray for 'em, an sometimes I done it. . . . I used to think that'd cut 'er, used to rip off a prayer an' all the troubles stick to that prayer like like flies on flypaper, an' that prayer'd go a-sailin' off, a-takin' them troubles along. But it don' work no more.

At this point Tom chimes in adding, "Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork." Casey also comes to recognize sin deriving from want, "It's need that makes all the trouble."
It is actually quite early in the book that Casey lays out the framework in which his developing worldview emerges. Tom Joad just got out of prison as was walking back to his family's farm when he encounters Casey under the shade of a tree. They begin to talk and Tom realizes that Casey is no longer the preacher he remembers from his youth. Casey begins to talk about the Holy Spirit as love and says that he honestly can't say that he loves Jesus because he doesn't know anyone names Jesus. He does, however, love people so much that at times he is "fit to bust." Then he admits that he can no longer be a preacher because of "one more thing" that he thought out. And he says, "I can't be a preacher no more because I thought it an' believe it."

"I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered,'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit- the human sperit- the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent- I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it. . . . You can't hold no church with idears like that."

This is quite an unnerving passage . . . as preacher (pastor). There are many ways to 'poke holes' in Casey's theoretical framework. His view of sin as deriving from lack is itself certainly lacking. However, what convicts me is his honesty and fidelity to the reality of his experience. If faith, hope and love are to emerge or exist I suspect they must emerge in intimate relationship with the lived world around us. Steinbeck's work continues to push on my thinking of the relationship between transcendence and immanence and I suspect within my tradition also the notion of the miraculous. In contemporary culture it is Hollywood that has the market on the miraculous. They depend on it to resolve crisis and bring order to conflict. This functions in contrast to Jesus' use of the miraculous. The miraculous was not the resolving of conflict in the human condition. In Hollywood miracles function as an 'invisible hand' that will always stabilize the desired economic balance. In the Gospels the miraculous encouraged the marginalized to know that there is another economy that is not grounded in the injustices of their current situation . . . they did not affirm and stabilize they priorities of health and acquisition of their present context as the Hollywood miracles do.
And so in The Grapes of Wrath there are no miracles. As this narrative began to take shape in my mind I was wondering how this book would end. As the pages in my right hand thinned there fewer and fewer opportunities for a 'happy' ending. The Joads were not finding work or rest in their travels. Towards the end Casey is killed for attempting to organize workers into a type of union. Another plot line is Tom's sister Rose of Sharon who is pregnant during their travels and births a stillborn child near the end. It was after her birth that their shelter in train car is beginning to be flooded out by the rains that finally came. What they waited for back home is now proving to be the final threat to their family's survival. One final act of desperation the remaining family sets out in the rain on foot to find shelter. They eventually come across a barn where the find a boy and his father who is almost dead. They recognize that only something warm and nourishing will possibly sustain him. As the closing the lines of the book unfold Rose of Sharon's mother speaks to her and then ushers everyone out from Rose of Sharon and the dying man. Then the book concludes,

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. "There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

The possibility of hope and healing lie within the plane of the human body. There is no guarantee of health or happiness but the possibility of those things cannot come from a vending machine in the sky, to do so would be to utterly disrespect the reality of life and humanity as God created them. These final words also unnerve me and I am not entirely sure how to appropriate them . . . or whether I can or should. I do feel like I should respect them and that in them there may be a beauty and truth and I have not fully acknowledged.

1 comment:

Heidi the Hick said...

I really seriously have to read this book. I read East of Eden a couple of months ago and it blew my mind. First of all, that it took me this long to pick up Steinbeck. Shame! These are stories that need to be re-read. I don't think we can grasp all the symbolism in one go. A preacher who can't preach anymore... maybe that's why I never took it up in the first place?