Author John Steinbeck tapped into the human Zeitgeist for all time. That’s what makes a classic: a story that resonates with the organic nature of our cyclic journey.
On 26 April, Michael Cathcart of the ABC’s Radio National program Books and Arts Daily discussed John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. *
One of the speakers said he wasn’t sure how to interpret the last scene when the mother of the recently stillborn baby offers her breast to a starving elderly man.
Another said it was reminiscent of the sculpture of the Pieta, where Mary cradles the crucified Jesus’s head in her lap — and I perceive that according to the biblical myth, that too was a time of desperation, that darkest hour before the dawn.
Steinbeck chose a symbolic gesture par excellence of the way that life goes on despite all its challenges and despair. However, the speaker’s difficulty in interpreting it possibly stems from his lack of exposure to successful breastfeeding, the mechanism of which, incredibly, few understand today. It is such an essential skill, an art tragically lost to us because of a misunderstanding of progress, smaller, scattered families, the voracious marketing of cattle milk and the skewing of the economy to value taxpaying workers above well-nurtured and fully parented children. There endeth my lesson; now back to Steinbeck’s.
The questioning speaker said he saw the young mother’s offering of her breast as a symbol of renewal, but ‘in time the mother’s milk would run out and then what would they do?’
This statement galvanised me to write this post. As a qualified breastfeeding counsellor from the early ’60s to the ’80s, I cannot help but try to relieve his confusion.
The actual milk would not be in the breast immediately after birth. What is there is colostrum, a very rich fluid which not only nourishes the newborn but acts as a laxative to clear out the meconium, or dark matter which has accumulated in the baby’s gut during its time in the uterus. This gets the digestive system working.
There was a lot of dark matter in the lives of the dustbowl residents — much to be got rid of.
The old man probably had few teeth and would be able to feed without causing any pain to the mother. In our second childhood at the end of life, instincts return. A baby’s instinct, its life-support system, is to squeeze, not to suck or bite (as does non-reciprocal capitalism if we choose to draw that parallel). The most important point to make is that breastfeeding is a demand and supply system. Mother and baby are necessary to each other. They are a team, working in harmony. The more often the baby suckles, the more milk is made. Cut down the feeds, and the milk will follow suit. That’s the natural way of weaning as the baby moves on to solid food. What is more, the constitution of the milk and the antibodies it contains will keep pace with the growing child’s needs. Society is like that: it needs to develop. And, as an aside, the mother benefits too, because with each feed the uterus contracts, and an overweight mother could not ask for a more satisfying way to regain her figure.
When we follow Steinbeck’s brilliant choice of symbolism through its natural, organic cycle, it can be seen as a comment on how we would be better off by organising our lives and commercial dealings to the mutual benefit of all concerned. This was Marx’s dialectic: that capitalism cannot survive without products, and production cannot happen without the workforce. Therefore, the way to an abundant life for all is to cooperate intelligently, humanely and with foresight.
Today, in times very like those described in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck offers a motherhood statement for all time: it’s up to us to learn how to be fully human.
*Listen to Michael Cathcart’s program here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/american-classic3a-grapes-of-wrath/4642960