20 May 2022

Steinbeck, Ricketts, Doyle and the ~algias

I sit on the sofa, gazing out the window at the late afternoon sunlight sifting through the soft foliage hanging over the driveway, thinking about The Log From the Sea of Cortez. I’d first read that book by Steinbeck and Ricketts so long ago it seems like a different life. I’ve read it several times since, and now I’m partway through yet another reading and I still think it’s marvellous even though I’m more conscious of some shortcomings. They’re unimportant shortcomings, though, and some even add to the book’s quality: they’re the imperfections that rescue a work of art from perfection. The Log was written by real human beings: real, flawed, compassionate, crotchety, curious people who took delight in the similarly complex people they encountered and could see them as part of the greater wide wonderful world, including the multifarious, diverse creatures of the intertidal zone that ostensibly justified the journey. Now, more recently, the person who seems to me to most characterise those qualities is the late wonderful one-and-only incomparable Brian Doyle, and I wonder what a meeting between Steinbeck and Ricketts and Brian Doyle would have been like. The energy from that encounter, I imagine, would have been enough to power the great cities of the world; even thinking about it now fills me with such imagined delight and joy that I can hardly stand it and might have to pour another glass of wine.

Not everyone sees The Log like that, though. I’ve seen criticisms of ‘tenth-rate philosophising’, of boring descriptions of the animals the expedition collected, of a repetitiveness that wears thin, and other carpings. Those criticisms, to me, say more about the carpers than the book. Perhaps I’m more receptive to lists of animals because I know, if not the specific creatures, their cousins, and because I have some education in zoology perhaps I appreciate the complexity of those lives and how they’re suited to their environment. But maybe I’ve just always loved animals, and not just the fluffy cute ones. Even hideous things can be beautiful: Steinbeck tells how Ricketts once advertised hagfish — in Steinbeck’s view, ‘a perfect animal horror’ — using the adjectives ‘delightful’ and ‘beautiful’. [1] I don’t find the account repetitive, either; what some critics see as repetition I see as structure, a framework that supports the substance of the book and helps it avoid becoming an aimless ramble.

What most gets my goat, though, is that criticism about the ‘shallowness of the philosophising’. I might be mistaken, but Steinbeck and Ricketts not only never claim to be ‘philosophising’ but explicitly say they’re letting their ideas go wherever they will. Whether that’s philosophising is arguable, but I suspect that if The Log’s authors said it was, the critics would pounce with glee and say it’s not at all what philosophy is. Yet, those critics are happy to say the exploring of ideas in The Log is philosophising and because it doesn’t conform to what they believe philosophy should be, it’s tenth-rate, superficial, facile. But what does that imply? That only people with brains as obviously super-developed as those of the critics should be allowed to publish their thoughts? That rambling explorations of ideas have no worth? That only geniuses — or those who conform to the strictures of formal, academic philosophy — have the right to be published? Attitudes like that smack of intellectual arrogance, and implicit in the criticism is the idea that the only value of those explorations of ideas is as formal arguments.

In addition, the implication that ‘shallow’ philosophising (or the exploring of ideas) has little or no value leads inevitably to the question, ‘ When does shallow philosophising become real, worthwhile philosophising?’ I suspect the critics’ answer (although they’re unlikely to admit it) would be, ‘When it’s difficult enough to challenge my own superior intellect.’ But, someone, somewhere, will always understand an idea better than everyone else, so everyone else’s thoughts will, by definition, be shallow. (We can discount those who, like a certain ‘stable genius’, believe they’re more intelligent than everyone else even when all the evidence suggests the opposite.)

Exploring ideas has value even if it goes wildly off track. A reader, recognising that something’s not right, thinks about the idea and, with effort and a little luck, might work out where the exploration went astray. That’s useful; the reader has learned something. Even if they don’t identify the missteps, they understand more about the idea. Besides, it’s not always necessary to decide whether something’s right or wrong; often, it’s more valuable to let the uncertainty remain, perhaps to incubate and maybe eventually to hatch a related idea more interesting or useful than the original. Often, accepting that the truth of an idea depends on the perspective from which it’s viewed is more important than deciding which of those perspectives should have priority (this is an assertion about the value of pluralism, not a defence of relativism). My guess is that one sign of a highly developed intellect rather than a self-claimed superior one is the ability to understand that making a judgement is less important than understanding the idea, and accepting that ideas always generate more ideas and exploring those is generally more fruitful than sitting back smugly and dismissing the original idea because it contains some kind of logical flaw.

What I’m doing, of course is exploring an idea without even the supposedly small degree of intellectual rigour Steinbeck and Ricketts applied to their explorations. What they did, however, was to incorporate their musings into a narrative replete with gorgeous, evocative writing: often generously and compassionately humorous; occasionally sardonic; frequently with that ineffable quality that might be characterised as wabi-sabi; almost always suffused with the kind of nostalgia that some see as debilitating [2] but others (including me) see as not simply a longing for what we’ve lost or never had but a connection with the history that makes us who we are, or who we’d like to be, or who we’re glad we’re not. Perhaps it’s not even nostalgia but more closely related to ‘solastalgia’: that feeling you have ‘when your endemic sense of place is being violated’, to use the words of Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher who coined the term. In that sense, the Sea of Cortez has already been lost; the place Steinbeck and Ricketts and their companions visited on the expedition and which gave rise to the book no longer exists, and even when the Western Flyer sailed that sea, the signs were evident that supposed civilisation had begun to encroach. If one were to visit now, one would at best experience intimations of what the Western Flyer’s crew experienced. The people they encountered have gone, too. No doubt new, interesting, complex characters live there, but the sense of remoteness, of strangeness, of other-worldliness that weaves through the narrative must inevitably be greatly diminished by technologies like GPS and Google Earth that make the Gulf of California so much safer to navigate, so much more accessible, so much less mysterious.


Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Juhl, J. (2013). Nostalgia as a resource for psychological health and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 808–818. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12070

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding meaning in nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000109


1. On p. 18 of my Pan Books (1960) edition

2. Nostalgia used to be considered as mental illness but a more recent, evidence-based perspective considers it an important way to foster psychological well-being including a heightened sense that one’s life has meaning (Routledge et al., 2013; Sedikides & Wildschut, 2018).


1. Purple shore crab (Leptograpsus variegatus) at Flounder Bay a long time ago

2. Rock pool at Flounder Bay. Steinbeck and Ricketts never made it here, but in theory one could sail across the Pacific from Flounder Bay on the coast of Aotearoa New Zealand to the Sea of Cortez without touching land.

3. The coast at Flounder Bay

Photos and original text © 2022 Pete McGregor


bev said...

Lovely photo of the crab! The creatures of shores and tide pools are so fascinating. Been awhile since I read "The Log" as well. I suspect that the writings and species accounts of naturalists and biologists often cause the eyes of the non-naturalists to glaze over. For many of us, just knowing the species that were listed in a certain place is almost like being shown a photograph. Years ago, I discovered that there was a government website where I could pull up text files written by biologists who had surveyed many of the places where Don and I used to wander. Some of them were written in such wonderful detail - the species present, but also descriptions of the quality of light, the sounds, the smells. We actually used the coordinates to revisit some of those places. That's when you get the "you can never go back" - vicarious solastalgia - for a place. Unfortunately, I suffer from that quite often these days as our forests here in Nova Scotia are being ransacked. It's a hard thing to see landscapes being radically altered. I hear that from so many biologist friends as well -- especially those who were employed to survey for herpetofauna in the 60s and 70s, in places where the natural world no longer exists - replaced by shopping malls, housing developments, or industrial infrastructures. I think we live in a difficult time for those who care about nature and have the eyes to know what is happening.

NewRobin13 said...

I don't do much reading these days and certainly not of books with many pages and lots of words. I no longer have the attention span to absorb any of it (a "neurological event" that I experienced in 2010 put an end to my reading of books). In reading this post, I loved coming upon the word "nostalgia." Roger and I say sometimes in a perfect moment, perhaps when we're looking out at the endless Pacific Ocean, or taking walk and hearing a bird call, that we have a nostalgia for "now"--a moment that will not come again.

Anonymous said...

Lovely to see another post (finally!).

One thing that stands out: incorporate their musings into a narrative replete with gorgeous, evocative writing.

That is you!


pohanginapete said...

Bev, I agree, strongly, with your comment that these are difficult times for people like us. I don't know whether we're lucky to have experienced those places that are now vanishing or whether that experience just makes the plunder and destruction so much harder to bear. Maybe both.

Robin, when I read your last sentence I immediately thought of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. I can't claim to understand it properly, but I believe one aspect is a kind of appreciation of transience, and 'nostalgia for "now"' seems to sum that up beautifully.

M — thank you!

Unknown said...

Pete, you've articulated here something that I intuitively feel but had never put into words before - the importance of understanding that "making a judgement is less important than understanding the idea, and accepting that ideas always generate more ideas and exploring those". I'm reading a book right now which requires me to sit, absorb, wonder - not decide whether "this is right" or not. And I love that. The analogy that springs to mind is tasting from a food platter, or perhaps trying on garments in a shop for fun...very mundane images i know, but that's how I feel when I'm reading something that provokes such thought.

pohanginapete said...

Unknown — I'm so glad you understand that point and I wish more people would at least try to put it into practice. Your analogies — particularly the first — are food for thought (haha) and I found myself imagining tasting foods, trying to suspend my judgement about whether I liked them or not, and realising that the fun is in fact in finding the flavours and textures and smells and appreciating what it looks like and so on. I wouldn't consider that a mundane analogy — it's an excellent one. Thank you! :-)