dirt

"not dirt for dirt's sake, or grief merely for the sake of grief, but dirt and grief wholly accepted if necessary as struggle vehicles of an emergent joy--achieving things which are not transient by means of things which are."

- Ed Ricketts, from an unpublished essay quoted in John Steinbeck, Writer by Jackson J. Benson

 

I think a lot about the moral responsibility of writers and other artists, and how we are supposed to contextualize ugliness and pain. More and more I see that ugliness and pain are part and parcel of beauty and joy and attempts to sanitize beauty and joy seem more and more misguided. No wonder we are so anxious, wondering why our incredible prosperity can't be cleanly snapped off from the messy, tragic history that created it. But also: no wonder we are so frustrated and devastated by dirt and grief, as if these ugly things appeared out of nowhere and had no purpose, no connection to the life we want.

In this massive Steinbeck biography I'm reading, Benson compares Steinbeck's version of non-teleological thinking with his friend Ed Rickett's, a Monterey biologist who was the model for Doc of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. While Steinbeck's worldview was mechanistic (grief and joy must be accepted together because both demonstrably exist in the world), Rickett's was more mystical. He seemed to believe that acceptance of grief was necessary in order to make any meaning of it. Conversely, humans, confronted with a world in which grief and joy are intertwined, can only find meaning in joy by acknowledging the cost at which it comes: 

"where there is refusal to accept the hazards of grief and tragedy, as occurs more frequently than not, I should expect to see the struggle belittle rather than deify, since whatever is has to be taken and accepted in order for development to proceed."