Cannery Row Foundation
Research & Reference Materials

Under Construction

An Analysis of the Concept of Breaking Through
A Paper by Kevin Bayuk, San Francisco State University

Sometime between 1939 and 1940, Ed Ricketts wrote an essay regarding
"a personal interpretation of some modem tendencies." which most clearly
defined and named a transcendent concept, age old in philosophical origin,
that became one of the underpinnings of the works of John Steinbeck and
the writings and lectures of Joseph Campbell. Ricketts called this concept,
"The Philosophy of Breaking Through." Breaking Through is by no means
a new creation, but he articulated what other philosophers, artists, and even
religions only described in a circumspect manner or alluded to. Many of us
have experienced moments of Breaking Through without knowing what to
call it. To get a total understanding of Breaking Through, one could first look
to a definition, base on Ricketts' essay; then look at examples from the
contemporary works of Ricketts' personal "friends" John Steinbeck; and
finally, look at some other clear examples from poet Robinson Jeffers,
scholar Joseph Campbell, and many of the traditional Eastern religions.

Ricketts' Interpretation

What did Ricketts mean by Breaking Through? The philosophy cannot be
paraphrased, and Ricketts himself struggles to define the concept by
offering examples of personal experiences or second hand accounts to make
his understanding clear. Perhaps one can best Breaking Through as a sort of
epiphany that occurs when stimulated by some everyday or traumatic
experience. This experience must not be traumatic, shocking, or stressful,
but consistent with common experiences of all humans. The epiphany, or
insight, is the "break through"--breaking through to a more "total
understanding" of a situation or person or concept. For example, many of
Ricketts' examples are of traumatic experiences. Society normally deals with
traumatic experiences in a predictable fashion. In other words, when a loved
one dies, it is expected for the relatives to grieve. Ricketts is arguing
that the death of a loved one may be the stimulus needed to motivate a
"break through" in thought to an entirely greater understanding of the
death, or death in general. The person experiencing the breakthrough will
accept the death or view the death as periphery on a whole new plane of life
and death. Looking at the whole picture of life and death, the person may
feel more in touch with the concept of impermanence. Nothing lives forever,
change is constant--these are the breakthroughs, the stimuli are just
details of everyday life. The stimulus can be a death, a fight, or an opera.
There is no predetermined set of events that will cause an epiphany.

Ricketts argues that oftentimes, "we fail to see the transcending simplicity
of it" [higher plane of understanding] only because of obstacles on our
inward horizons. We are so caught up in our realities, details, emotions,
and biases, that we miss the big picture because we do not even take the
first step of accepting what has occurred. It is the moments when we Break
Through these barriers, that we further our understanding of the world
around us, and raise our consciousness to a higher plane. Breaking Through
is essential for the progression of human thought. It is a basic concept,
but it speaks to so much truth. Part of the human condition is ignorance,
but Ricketts' philosophy describes the method to achieving an understanding
of a "more deeply significant whole."

Breaking Through in Steinbeck

John Steinbeck befriended Ed Ricketts in the 1930s and undoubtedly had
many conversations on the philosophy of Breaking Through. Both men
probably brought many ideas to the table, but only Ricketts wrote a formal
essay on the topic. John must have been impressed with the notion of Breaking
Through because we can find the idea in several of his novels including Pastures
of Heaven, Cannery Row, To A God Unknown, The Grapes of Wrath, and Ed
and John's collaboration The Log from the Sea of Cortez Ricketts believes that
"many of us can achieve at least a clearer and more easily conveyed conscious
expression of it through the spiritual motifs underlying literature."

The Pastures of Heaven is a novel laden with tragedy and consequently, laden
with opportunities for Breaking Through. The story of Shark Wicks contains
an excellent example of a moment of Breaking Through. Upon seeing her
husband for the first time after his forced disillusioning confession,
Katherine Wicks comforts Shark with a power and manner that is reminiscent
of Breaking Through. She could have had an emotional reaction; she could
have broken down at seeing the state of her husband, but instead, she cured his
lifelessness. Steinbeck conveys the "break through" with the phrases, "A warm
genius moved in", "the great genius continued to grow in her", and "She felt
larger than the world". The words "genius" and "world" clearly imply some new
understanding and when taken together, the idea is stated fairly obviously.

One of Steinbeck's more popular major works, Cannery Row, also contains an
example of Breaking Through, but this one is more subtle and ambiguous.
Doc's discovery of a dead woman in the tides of La Jolla forces him to pause
in a way that a "break through" is implied. The shock of the dead body is
the stimulus, but Steinbeck only hints at the "answer" or the "break
through". When Doc sees the body he recognizes her beauty, which could be
considered odd, and hints at strong "acceptance". The music that swells in
his head is indicative of Breaking Through, because Ricketts believes that
music is or may be a key channel for Breaking Through. Maybe Doc came to a
new understanding of the relationship of people and tidepools, maybe he
achieved a greater understanding of death, or the significance of life, or
maybe he achieved a higher plane of self-consciousness. Steinbeck plants the
seed for the reader to recognize and identify with the event to some extent.

To A God Unknown is one of Steinbeck's more underrated works, but one in
which Breaking Through plays a major role. The "calm" that continually comes
upon the protagonist Joseph Wayne is a direct reference to Breaking Through.
When tragedy strikes, such as the death of his wife Elizabeth, Joseph does not
react in a traditionally manner-he feels a "calm" coming upon him. His
identification with the land, and "the greater picture" forces him to
experience life on a higher or broader plane. He doesn't have much emotion
or pain for the death of his wife, because, how insignificant the death of
one person to the earth. Joseph Wayne feels at one with the earth. He does
cry when Elizabeth dies, but he cries more because he can't feel for her,
than from feeling. The end of the novel brings the clearest example of
Breaking Through in all of Steinbeck's works. When Joseph slits his wrists
he finally accepts, and comes to the understanding of his identification
with the earth, or nature. "I am the rain," he says, to express his greater
understanding that things are the way they are. The "calm" again is directly
mentioned as it "grew more secure about him". This is the essence of
Breaking Through.

 The Grapes of Wrath is such a comprehensive novel that contains so many
themes and motifs, it is not surprising that Steinbeck alludes to greater discoveries
during times of struggle. The most obvious "break through" are achieved by
Jim Casy in regards to his ideas on a collective human spirit and collective
uprising. Casey reflects to Tom Joad on his thinking in the Wilderness that lead
him to believe that no individual has a "soul", but there is only "one human soul.
"This allusion to Breaking Through is not explicitly stated as such, but nonetheless,
the radical, more collective, more universal idea, is the type of conclusion arrived
at in a break through. Casey does describe how in the jail he witnessed an experience that broke through his constant thinking, to develop the idea that people can accomplish things acting as a group more effectively than as an individual. This was a thought he had been struggling to articulate before the break

The Log from the Sea of Cortez explores a wide variety of philosophical
constructs and concepts including Breaking Through. Here, the allusion to
Breaking Through is revealed in a sort of philosophical rumination in normal
prose. The passage Is very clear in its description:

And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most
of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and
desired reactions to our species, is really the understanding and the
attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably
to all reality, known and unknowable ... It is advisable to look from the
tide pool to the stars, and then back to the tide pool again.

What is implied here, is that when one breaks through to some new
understanding (look to the stars), then one can return to the mundane,
normal details of life, while retaining the new understanding. In addition,
this book yields at least another reference to Breaking Through during a
digression about non-teleological thinking. The "non-teleological picture"
is the "larger picture", and here lies its connection to Breaking Through.
It is understanding on a higher level or grasping the larger picture. They
write, "The new viewpoint very frequently sheds light over a larger picture,
providing a key which may unlock levels not accessible to either of the
teleological viewpoints." Steinbeck and Ricketts both had a basic
understanding of the concept of Breaking Through. It is not surprising to
discover that they were contemporaries and friends, because they were able
to discuss their break through, and even to try and deter-mine why. At least
two other contemporaries who knew Steinbeck and Ricketts, were both
profoundly influenced by the idea. Breaking Through in the Poetry of
Robinson Jeffers Both Ricketts and Steinbeck read the poetry of Robinson
Jeffers and found another expression of their idea of Breaking Through.
Jeffers is known as an "honest poet". Jeffers poetry often Involves new
understandings, or "touches" of understanding a greater whole. He says that
he "decided to exclude from his work most of the details of modem life,
especially life in the cities, and concentrate instead on permanent things,
like the sea and the stars and the mountains... " This may remind one of the
passage from The Log from the Sea of Cortez about the tidepools, and the
stars --- the total picture. He is very critical of man in his current
state, and his devotion to "self-interface, self-frustration,
self-incitement, self-tickling, self-worship", these are the details of life
that prevent us from Breaking Through. Jeffers' poetry is amazing in its
clarity and its ability to convey the concept of Breaking Through without
explicitly mentioning it. He does, however, explicitly cite the words
'break' and 'through in "Roan Stallion". In fact, Ricketts quotes the poem
in his essay on Breaking Through. This is where Ricketts came up with the
name Breaking Through. Many of Jeffers' poems recognize Breaking Through,
including "Continent's End", "A Little Scraping", "The Tower Beyond Tragedy"
(great poem!), "At the Birth of an Age", and "Sign Post". Jeffers'
understanding of Breaking Through and his desire to share it comes through
very clearly in "Going to Horse Flats":

     Do we invite the world's rancors and agonies
     Into our minds though walking in a wilderness? Why did he
     Want the news of the world? He could do nothing
     To help nor hinder. Nor you nor I can...for the world. It
     Is certain the world cannot be stopped nor saved.
     It has changes to accomplish and must creep through agonies
     Toward new discovery...
     ...He will remain
     Part of the music, but will hear it as the player hears it.
     He will be superior to death and fortune, unmoved by success or
     ...But how could I impart this knowledge
     To that old man?

Breaking Through acts as a major underlying theme for a majority of Jeffers'
early work Jeffers' has been noted as an influence on Ed Ricketts, and John
Steinbeck, but he also I greatly admired by one of their peers, Joseph

Breaking Through and Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell, personal friend to Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, also
found great relevance in the concept of Breaking Through. Soon to be
remembered as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, Campbell
is primarily a mythologist whose theories and ideas transcend into
philosophy, science, anthropology, psychology, and aid in man's general
understanding of the universe. Ed Ricketts introduced Campbell to the
concept of Breaking Through at about the same time both of them were
reading the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Campbell would later take the idea of
Breaking Through, an incorporate it into his philosophy of "transparent to
the transcendent." Campbell describes, "the meaning of life is a gradual
revelation, the realizations are separated, disclosed one by one, and linked
to symbolic experiences which are thereby rendered radiant and
transparent-glimpses into the heart of the universe." Breaking Through
becomes the mechanism for attaining the meaning of life. Ricketts implies
this in his essay without explicitly stating it. Campbell makes it clear,
that one break through will not fully enlighten man to the meaning of life,
but that the goal of Breaking Through should not be simply to attain to the
transcendent, but to glimpse its presence ever and again (transparently, as
it were) among the ordinary opaque realities of our daily lives." Many of
Campbell's subsequent theories are predicated on the ability to Break

Eastern Religion and Breaking Through

The essence of many Eastern Religions including Tibetan Buddhism, Tao, and
Zen is the recognition of the human condition, and transcendence to a
greater understanding, state, or enlightenment. This concept is synonymous
with Breaking Through. The idea of acceptance of the world and its
trivialities is the foundation for Tao. Zen meditation can be recognizing
the whole or the interconnectedness of all life and all things. And the
doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism include the notion of recognition of the
greater picture, and the eventual transcendence of the human state.

What Ed Ricketts had to say was not new, but it was clearly developed and
stated in terms of his personal experiences that make the concept so much
more accessible. Breaking Through continues to play a major role in the
lives of those who are conscious of the philosophy, as well in the lives of
those who are not. However, understanding the foundation of a notion or
concept helps one sort through life's experiences and helps us decipher
these in relation to a greater whole.

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