Facet : Life And Truth

I am actually moved to introduce this work of John Steinbeck …To A God Unknown … with reference to just one facet, as it happens early in the work, amongst other great emotions that fill it.

To A God UnknownThe story is simple but in common with most of his works the narration is on a grand scale, though a version smaller than that of his epic East Of Eden. Thirty five year old Joseph has begun life in Nuestra Senora valley in California, away from Vermont where he grew up. His brothers Thomas, Burton and Benjy had joined him soon after he set himself on a 160 acre farm, practically for free; the pooled size of the ranch is now 640 acres.

One day … (quote) … Joseph stood by the pasture fence, watching a bull with a cow. He beat his hands against the fence rail; a red light burned in his eyes. As Burton approached him from behind, Joseph whipped off his hat and flung it down and tore open the collar of his shirt. He shouted, “Mount, you fool ! She’s ready. Mount now !”

“Are you crazy, Joseph ?” Burton asked sternly.

Joseph swung around. “Crazy ? What do you mean ?”

“You’re acting queerly, Joseph. Someone might see you here.” Burton looked about to see if it was true.

“I want calves,” Joseph said sullenly. “Where’s the harm in that, even to you ?”

“Well, Joseph—” Burton’s tone was firm and kind as he implanted his lesson, “—everyone knows such things are natural. Everyone knows such things must happen if the race is to go on. But people don’t watch it unless it’s necessary. You might be seen acting this way.”

Joseph reluctantly tore his eyes from the bull and faced his brother. “What if they did ?” he demanded. “Is it a crime ? I want calves.”

Burton looked down in shame for the thing he had to say “People might say things if they heard you talking as I just did.”

“And what could they say ?”

“Surely, Joseph, you don’t want me to say it. The Scripture mentions such forbidden things. People might think your interest was—personal.” He looked at his hands and then hid them quickly in his pockets as though to keep them from hearing what he said.

“Ah—” Joseph puzzled. “They might say—I see.” His voice turned brutal. “They might say I felt like the bull. Well, I do, Burton. And if I could mount a cow and fertilize it, do you think I’d hesitate ? Look, Burton, that bull can hit twenty cows a day. If feeling could put a cow with a calf, I could mount a hundred. That’s how I feel, Burton.”

Then Joseph saw the grey, sick horror that had come over his brother’s face. “You don’t understand it, Burton,” he said gently. “I want increase. I want the land to swarm with life. Everywhere I want things growing up.” Burton turned sulkily away. “Listen to me, Burton, I think I need a wife. Everything on the land is reproducing. I am the only sterile thing. I need a wife.”

Burton had started to move away, but he turned around and spat his words, “You need prayer more than anything. Come to me when you can pray.”

Joseph watched his brother walk away and he shook his head in bewilderment. “I wonder what he knows that I don’t know,” he said to himself. “He has a secret in him that makes everything I think or do unclean. I have heard the telling of the secret and it means nothing to me.” He ran his fingers through his long hair, picked up his soiled black hat and put it on. The bull came near the fence, lowered its head and snorted. Then Joseph smiled and whistled shrilly, and at the whistle, Juanito’s head popped out of the barn. “Saddle a horse,” Joseph cried. “There’s more in this old boy. Drive in another cow.”   … (unquote) …

Years pass in abundance, much work and many happenings. Joseph marries, has a son, then his wife dies. The oak by which he had built his house dies. The land is visited by the dry years; all water holes go dry and it is now deserted. There is just Joseph on the land he identifies with.

A little away from the cluster of houses, all empty and locked, there a huge rock that has small cave from which a thin stream yet trickles. Joseph carries a tent and takes to spending his days and nights by the rock, getting up every half an hour to water the moss covering the rock. The enemy driving the land go dry is Joseph’s own nemesis too, one whom he fights with the whole of his being … (quote) …

The light had come secretly in, and the sky and the trees and the rock were grey. Joseph walked slowly across the glade and knelt by the little stream. And the stream was gone. He sat quietly down and put his hand in the bed. The gravel was still damp, but no water moved out of the little cave any more.

Joseph was very tired. The wind howling around the grove and the stealthy drought were too much to fight. He thought. “Now it is over. I think I knew it would be.”

… … …

“I’ll go !” he cried suddenly. He picked up his saddle and ran across the glade with it. The horse raised its head and snorted with fear. Joseph lifted the heavy saddle, and as the tapadero struck the horse’s side, it reared, plunged away and broke its tether. The saddle was flung back on Joseph’s chest. He stood smiling a little while he watched the horse run out of the glade and away. And now the calm redescended upon him, and his fear was gone.

“I’ll climb up on the rock and sleep a while,” he said. He felt a little pain on his wrist and lifted his arm to look. A saddle buckle had cut him; his wrist and palm were bloody. As he looked at the little wound, the calm grew more secure about him, and the aloofness cut him off from the grove and from all the world.

“Of course,” he said, “I’ll climb up on the rock.” He worked his way carefully up its steep sides until at last he lay in the deep soft moss on the rock’s top. When he had rested a few minutes, he took out his knife again and carefully, gently opened the vessels of his wrist. The pain was sharp at first, but in a moment its sharpness dulled. He watched the bright blood cascading over the moss, and he heard the shouting of the wind around the grove. The sky was growing grey. And time passed and Joseph grew grey too. He lay on his side with his wrist outstretched and looked down the long black mountain range of his body. Then his body grew huge and light. It arose into the sky, and out of it came the streaking rain.

“I should have known,” he whispered. “I am the rain.” And yet he looked dully down the mountains of his body where the hills fell to an abyss. He felt the driving rain, and heard it whipping down, pattering on the ground. He saw his hills grow dark with moisture. Then a lancing pain shot through the heart of the world. “I am the land,” he said, “and I am the rain. The grass will grow out of me in a little while.”

And the storm thickened, and covered the world with darkness, and with the rush of waters.  … (unquote) …

* * *

John Steinbeck prefaces the work from the Vedas that runs as here below :

He is the giver of breath, and strength is his gift.

The high Gods revere his commandments.

His shadow is life, his shadow is death;

Who is He to whom we shall offer our sacrifice ?


Through His might

He became lord of the living and glittering world

And he rides the world and the men and the beasts

Who is He to whom we shall offer our sacrifice ?

From His strength the mountains take being,

And the sea, they say, and the distant river;

And these are his body and his two arms.

Who is He to whom we shall offer our sacrifice ?

He made the sky and the earth, and His will fixed their places,

Yet they look to Him and tremble.

The risen sun shines forth over Him.

Who is He to whom we shall offer our sacrifice ?

He looked over the waters

Which stored His power and gendered the sacrifice.

He is God over Gods.

Who is He to whom we shall offer our sacrifice ?

May He not hurt us,

He who made earth,

Who made the sky and the shining sea.

Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice ?



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