Desire, Dreams, and Cups of Gold

Today’s post is about desire . . . and pirates.

Desire – lust, appetite, need, an overwhelming feeling of longing, to want something, that craving to hold onto pleasurable experiences, the principle cause of suffering . . . and pirates – buccaneers, sea-bandits, freebooters, picaroons . . .

Why? Because it was on this day in 1671 that one of the most famous pirates of history, Henry Morgan, landed in Panama. And it was on some other day, in August of 1929, that one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck published his first book, Cup of Gold, which he subtitled “A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History.”

The reason Henry Morgan landed on The Isthmus of Panama was because he wanted to take the city of Panama, and he wanted it bad. Steinbeck writes,

Panama was a great, lovely city in 1670 when Henry Morgan determined on its destruction; a rich, strong city, and justly called the Cup of Gold. No place in all the raw New World could compare with it in beauty and in wealth.”

First edition
First edition

In Steinbeck’s novel, Henry Morgan is obsessed with this goal: “I must take Panama. I must capture the Cup of Gold.” Because the author presents Morgan as a rather romantic character, for Steinbeck was at heart a romantic writer and many of his books are modern retellings of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it is not merely the riches of the city he desires. He wants a woman, too:

‘There is a woman in Panama and she is lovely as the sun. They call her the Red Saint in Panama. All men kneel to her.’ Thus said the whispering. The voice grew and grew until men in the taverns drank to La Santa Roja. Young seamen whispered of her in the dog watch. ‘There is a woman in the Cup of Gold and all men fall before her as heathen kneel before the sun.’ They spoke softly of her in the streets of Goaves. No one had seen her; no one could tell the tint of her cheeks or the color of her hair. Yet, in a few years, every man in the wide, wild Main had drunk to the Red Saint, had dreamed of her; many had prayed to La Santa Roja. She became to every man the quest of his heart, bearing the image of some fair young girl left on a European beach to be gloriously colored by the years. And Panama was to every man the nest of his desire. It was a curious thing. In time, no speech among gathered men could end without mention of La Santa Roja. She was become a queer delirium in the minds of the rough pirates, a new virgin for their worship. Many said she was Mary come to live on earth again, and they added her name in their prayers.”

Morgan and his men landed on Panama’s Caribbean coast and marched overland to the city. However, to the pirates chagrin, they found very little in the way of plunder, for the city officials, having anticipated the assault, transferred most of the town’s treasure to a Spanish galleon that lay in the Gulf of Panama beyond their reach. Not too happy about this turn of events, Morgan and his men tortured as many of the Panamanian citizens they could find, but these folks had little gold to surrender, and perhaps, that’s why, in frustration, the pirates burned the city to the ground.

After Cup of Gold came out, Steinbeck was of the opinion that this first published work was not very good, and others have agreed with him. When I first read it some thirty years ago, I enjoyed it immensely and thought it too short, but then I’m a sucker for pirates, and especially Morgan, portrayed on film by Errol Flynn (as Captain Blood) and the immortal Steve Reeves. In case you might pick up the book some day, I won’t include any spoilers here. I’ll just say that Morgan was consumed by greed and hunger, a consummation that led to fairly predictable results.

The moral of Steinbeck’s version of the Captain Morgan legend is pretty obvious: all that glitters is not gold, or as the Buddha puts it in the Dhammapada,

Even a rain of gold would not be able to quench the thirst of desire, for It is insatiable and the origin of sorrows. This the sage knows, and finds no delight even in the pleasures of heaven. A disciple of the Buddha delights only in the elimination of desire.”

Not all desire is destructive. The desire for peace, for instance, is constructive. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, desire is the fuel for transformation and the foundation of compassion. The idea is not to reject desires but to use them. That can be a tricky path, though, and a practitioner needs to possess a superior degree of self-discipline because it’s easy to end up going down a side path where one indulges desire.

For most Buddhists, the path means having few desires, and although the Buddha spoke of the elimination of desire, I think their complete eradication is somewhat idealistic. In theory, there’s something to be said for the Vajrayana approach. It’s more realistic to conquer desire. Just as we strive to master our minds, we want to master our desires so that they don’t master us.

Desires are like dreams . . . I often dream that I am about to get something that I want very much, but always before I can have it, I wake up. These dreams can be intense, and seem real, and in those first few minutes of wakefulness I am disappointed that I was only dreaming, and I experience frustration and a sense of loss that I didn’t get what I wanted. Buddha said not getting what you want is the greatest suffering, and actually getting what you want is the second greatest.

But enough about desire. When I was a boy, I used to dream about being a pirate . . .

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
that few have ever seen, most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams.

Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too late.
The cannons don’t thunder there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late.

– Jimmy Bufffett



Being Everywhere

The Time Warner Cable/CBS dispute continues, with all CBS programming blacked out. The two multimillion dollar companies fighting are squabbling over a $1 per customer increase and digital rights. And it is we, the viewers, the people, who are suffering. Naturally.

Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.
Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.

For the second week in a row I was unable to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan on Showtime (owned by CBS), so I watched The Grapes of Wrath on TCM instead. That’s the 1940 film based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, his protest novel about how capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation. How fitting.

I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. It’s been even longer since I read the book. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family forced from their farm by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They journey to California along with thousands of others in search of work and a new life.

John Ford was the director, an odd choice because The Grapes of Wrath was regarded as a “leftist” novel, and Ford was a staunch right-winger. But he was also a humanist, and no doubt identified with the plight of the migrant workers in the same way as he did with his ancestors who suffered through the Irish Famine, and with the struggle of the Welsh coal miners whose lives he depicted so beautifully in his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley.

Although his conservatism, and at times, his brand of patriotism, is not my cup of tea, I consider John Ford a great filmmaker. It seems to me that his version of The Grapes of Wrath follows Steinbeck’s novel closely, even the political part. The film was produced 73 years ago, and yet it is a thoroughly realistic portrait of that time, rather atypical for films of the period. Shot in glorious black and white, Ford’s cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who a year later would perform the same duty for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.

Watching the film this time around, I was stuck by the scene where the Joad family finally finds some work in California. They’ve already been preyed upon, and they show up at a ranch where work is a sure thing. The migrants drive through the barbed wire gates of the ranch in their overloaded vehicles, past the guards who act like Nazi thugs – it’s more like a German concentration camp than an California work camp, an eerie parallel considering not much was known about the Nazi camps in 1940. And, at the same time, a premonition of the Japanese internment camps two or three years later.

The first night, young Tom Joad meets up with some “agitators” who are planning a strike against the oppressive landowners, and he ends up killing a deputy who has in turn killed his friend, the former preacher, Casy.

Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, the basically decent man who finds himself thrust into some violent situations that turn him into an outlaw. Tom Joad’s journey is not just from Oklahoma to California, but also from self-interest to selflessness, and as he becomes a fugitive, his sense of family grows larger to include all humanity.

The climactic scene in the film is when Tom has to say goodbye to his Ma. He figures that since he is already an outlaw, he might as well go out and “do something, maybe find out what’s wrong.” The words he says to his mother are not word for word from the novel, but close enough. It’s doubtful that either Steinbeck or screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Buddhism on their minds, but I’ve always thought Tom Joad’s short speech is about as good a description of the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as I’ve ever heard.

Ma Joad accepts that Tom must leave but how will she know where he is and if he will be all right?

grapes-fondaTom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Being everywhere . . . being a piece of something that belongs to everyone . . .