The Importance of Pigs

My copy of Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” reproduces a letter written by Steinbeck, displaying the little stamp that he put on all of his letters, a cartoon image of a flying pig. I imagine Steinbeck’s life-long ambitions and aspirations as a writer seemed to him as unlikely for success as the chances of a pig becoming airborne. Steinbeck’s coat of arms stamp had, in Greek letters, “Pigasus” (not Pegasus, the flying horse), and the Latin inscription “Ad Astra Per Alia Porci” (“To the stars on the wings of a pig”). Steinbeck saw himself as a lumbering soul, trying to fly.

Farmers in early America referred to pigs as “mortgage lifters” because they were so easy to raise and sell.

The constitution of the state of Israel declares that no pig shall be raised on Israeli soil. That legislation has been cleverly circumvented, I am told, by building farms in Israel with vast platforms, where the pigs are born, live, and go to slaughter, their feet never having touched the ground. I suppose this is as close to flying as a pig can get in the real world; airborne in a legalistic sense.

The metabolism of pigs is so close to human metabolism that pigs are popular in medical and pharmaceutical research. Pigs are omnivorous, as are humans.

The pig does not have four stomachs and chew the cud, but has a digestive track very much like our own.

Occasionally, and at the oddest of moments, I am reminded of a line from one of Wallace Stevens’ poems, “Frogs eat butterflies. Snakes eat frogs. Hogs eat snakes. Men eat hogs.”

I once read that human flesh tastes remarkably like pork. I am not quite sure who made this observation or how they came by their knowledge.

Years ago, I lived in Roslindale, a suburb of Boston. One summer night, I was taking a stroll, near to the Arboretum park, when I saw a man walking towards me in the distance. At first glance, it seemed as if he were accompanied by a dog. As the creature ran towards me, I could see by the dim street lamps, that it had a very un-dog-like profile and build, and it lumbered and swayed slightly, back and forth, in a way that a dog never would. I began to feel some apprehension as it came closer and closer. The man called out, “Don’t be afraid! That’s my pet pig.” The pig was so friendly. It seemed to want to greet me and welcome me.

My cousin has worked on his family dairy farm all his life. He emphasized once to me that “The animals are not pets.” It is difficult to slaughter an affectionate animal. One PBS documentary followed families for one year as they attempted to imitate exactly the daily life of people in the 1830′s. In one episode, the father must kill the pig they have raised. The pig was like a pet. Yet they had to slaughter the pig in order to survive. A neighbor asked the father of the family it he would like someone else to do it. The father answered, “What kind of a man am I if I can’t kill my own pig.”

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” – Steinbeck

The title of his novel was taken from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Julia Ward Howe (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on”).

The phrase “grapes of wrath” sound like something Biblical. I have my Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance opened in front of me, and I have read all the verses listed under grapes, grape and wrath and there is only one verse in The Book of Revelation which reads speaks of “the great wine press of the wrath of God” (Ch. 14, verse 19). My mother was always sickly and would complain that she looks like “the wrath of God” (or sometimes “the wreck of Hesperus”) whenever anyone threatened to visit.

Steinbeck has a long passage, early in the book I believe, about a turtle struggling to cross the road. The turtle carries with it, stuck to its shell, a seed of grain.

Of course, this passage is intended by Steinbeck to be very symbolic.

The turtle’s struggle symbolizes persistence and suffering and survival. Seeds of grain are ancient symbols of life, of dying and then bearing fruit.

Later in the novel Ma Joad states:

“You got to have patience. Why Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.”

Tom makes a curiously Christ-like statement to Ma Joad: “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

An symbolism is used in the Old Testament which is analogous. Steinbeck may well have been aware of this passage since he seems to have had an extensive knowledge of the Bible. The family name Joad bears a striking resemblance to the Biblical name Job.

I have to check this, but from memory, it is in the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 4. According to the story, the prophet is commanded to take a tablet of clay or stone, and draw upon it a diagram of Jerusalem, and then lay upon the ground for literally hundreds of days, and play, symbolically, as if he is laying siege to Jerusalem.

“Take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign … “

I believe that the function of such ancient and mythic symbolism has found its way into literary craft.

Steinbeck’s turtle and seed of grain is very much like Ezekiel’s clay tablet.

Someone once asked Akira Kurosawa regarding the symbolism and meaning of “Seven Samurai”. Kurosawa replied that if “a meaning” was of importance, then he would not have made the movie, but would have simply held up a sign with “the meaning” written upon it.

Why are symbols and parables so important to us? Why can’t we always just hold up a sign with “the meaning” on it, plain for all to see?

We may reflect upon this excerpt from Steinbeck’s 1962 speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“The writer is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures for the purpose of improvement….Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate Man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

The connection of all human life is one of the novel’s dominant themes.

A few years ago, a total stranger read things I had posted on the internet, and wrote me a long E-mail, ending with this well-known quote from The Grapes of Wrath

“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’ . . . . I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ . . . . I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

- Jim Casy, Chapter 4 (It may be significant that Jim Casy’s initials are “J.C.”, which can bring to mind Jesus Christ.)

This stranger had read my accounts of my life in a Greek monastery, and how I slowly drifted away to other beliefs, other interests, other ways of life. One famous iconographer, whom I worked with, left that monastery and went to Colorado, to found his own monastery. This stranger wrote me to say that he had spent time in Colorado, with that iconographer, and had experienced many of the exact same changes and disillusionment as I described in my posts. His life and my life had evolved in an uncanny parallel fashion. For him, that Steinbeck quote summed up how he felt.

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One Response to “The Importance of Pigs”

  1. Sara Miller Says:

    I know this might not be the most appropriate place to post this but for other readers living in the USA are you concerned about the debt? It just seems like it is getting to the point where the country is going to go bankrupt and my husband and I are just a little concerned that our kids and grandkids are going to have some big problems in a few years. Thanks for letting me vent, Sara

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