Wednesday, 1 July 2015

John Steinbeck on Fish and Relativity

Those of us who work with non-sciency things like language and social studies have learnt not just to accept the lack of universal truths and procedures, but to cherish and revel in them. The relativity and the uncertainty of our areas make them somehow more humanly relevant, more personally accurate and liberatingly dynamic.

John Steinbeck also reflected on this issue in his The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and my summer gift to you this year is in the form of his beautiful prose. Let it linger in the back of your minds for the holiday season!


We made a trip into the Gulf; sometimes we dignified it by calling it an expedition. Once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a better-sounding and a more exciting name. We stopped in many little harbors and near barren coasts to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of the littoral. One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip–and when we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition–was to observe the distribution of invertebrates, to see and record their kinds and numbers, how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced…
We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality. We knew that what we would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But knowing this, we we might not fall into too many holes, we might maintain some balance between our warp and the separate thing–the external reality.
The oneness of these two might take its contribution from both. For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsating and tail beating the air, a whole new relational experience has come into being–an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D. XVII15-IX”. There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed–probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself…The man with the pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.
…we were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizons and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to us true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation. The man with the pickled fish has sacrificed a great observation about himself, the fish, and the focal point, which is his thought on both the sierra and himself.
We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: “D. XVII15-IX A. II-15-IX”, but we could also see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate. Spine-count description need not suffer because another approach is also used. Perhaps out of the two approaches, we thought, there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate than either alone could produce. And so we went.
Source: As given, pp. 1-3

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