‘The Place’

I’ve been back on the John Steinbeck after a recent trip to California. First up on my Steinbeck ‘to-read’ list was ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ , a very readable tale of a man in a small town, with a wind of change in the air and some moral dilemmas to face.

I thought the passage below was fascinating. There’s a lot of talk today of people needing to meditate, practise mindfulness as if it were something modern. It seems to me Steinbeck’s protagonist Ethan Hawley is definitely describing something akin to meditation:

“It sounds uncomfortable and silly, sitting cross-legged in a niche like a blinking Buddha, but some way the stone fits me, or I fit. Maybe I’ve been going there so long that my behind has confirmed to the stones. As for its being silly, I don’t mind that. Sometimes it’s great fun to be silly, like children playing statues and dying of laughter. And sometimes being silly breaks the even pace and lets you get a new start. When I am troubled, I play a game of silly so that me dear will not catch trouble from me. She hasn’t found me out yet, of if she has, I’ll never know it. So many things I don’t know about my Mary, and among them, how much she knows about me. I don’t think she knows about the Place. How would she? I’ve never told anyone. It has no name in my mind except the Place – no ritual or formula or anything. It’s a spot in which to wonder about things. No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself. Now, sitting in the Place, out of the wind, seeing under the guardian lights the tide creep in, black from the dark sky, I wondered whether all men have a Place, or need a Place, or want one and have none. Sometimes I’ve seen a look in eyes, a frenzied animal look as of need for a quiet, secret place where soul-shivers can abate, where a man is one and can take stock of it. Of course I know the theories of back to the womb and the death-wish, and these may be true of some men, but I don’t think they are true of me, except as easy ways of saying something that isn’t easy. I call whatever happens in the Place ‘taking stock’. Some others might call it prayer, and maybe it would be the same thing. I don’t believe it’s thought. If I wanted to make a picture of it for myself, it would be a wet sheet turning and flapping in a lovely wind and drying and sweetening the white.”

And also interesting how he considers it not to be thinking.

Excerpt from The Winter of our Discontent, by John Steinbeck.