The Pearl and what it can teach us about money

July 10th, 201310:33 am @

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Nicola Cutcher, a founding member of Dumbshow and performer in The Pearl, reflects on how the story sheds light on the role of money in our society…

At the start of the book, John Steinbeck writes, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.”

My own reading of the novel, and understanding of our play, is coloured by my background as a journalist and my preoccupation with current affairs and issues of power and social justice.

Since the financial crisis I have been reading and thinking a lot about money and its role in society and how it has become our master rather than our servant. I have found The Pearl to be an illuminating lens through which to examine such ideas.

Firstly, to give you some context: The Pearl is a richly well-crafted fable exploring wealth, class, materialism and notions of value. The story tells of a poor couple, Kino and Juana, whose baby son is bitten by a scorpion. They’re devastated that they can’t afford to pay a doctor to treat their child, but then Kino dives into the sea and finds a great pearl. This pearl transforms their fortunes and possibilities – though they now have something that everyone else wants, and their life can never be the same again.

I want to share a few moments in the story/book/play that I find particularly significant…

When their baby is stung, Juana sucks the poison out herself and applies a poultice of seaweed to the wound as a traditional healing method. However we are told that her remedy “lacks authority” for it costs nothing. The notion that something would gain authority, if it were paid for, is a very powerful one.

Kino and Juana also revere the doctor, whose tools and knowledge hold a mystique. Steinbeck implies that the doctor in question is not deserving of the expectations, trust or respect placed upon him. We have deferred so much that is in our power to the market or to experts. The writer and thinker Dan Hind says that we live in a world enraptured by the “cult of the market” and the “cult of the expert” and I imagine that Steinbeck would share this diagnosis.

After her baby has been stung, Juana doesn’t pray directly for her son’s recovery. Instead she prays for Kino to find a pearl with which to pay the doctor to cure her son. In the novel, Steinbeck accompanies this observation with the comment, “for the minds of people are as unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf”. It seems that Steinbeck is pointing out how misplaced so many of our aspirations are, how indirectly they achieve our needs or desires, how we revere and fetishize the means rather than the ends. The writer Mark Boyle, who lived for a while as a ‘moneyless man’, describes money as an agent of separation, keeping us away from experiencing true wholeness or oneness.

Like the pearl, money itself has no intrinsic value, only a social one. By contrast, nature’s bounties have intrinsic value – they can be eaten or drunk or used to give us shelter. It calls to mind the North American proverb, ‘When the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish dead, we will realise that we cannot eat money’.

Yet there is nothing easy, simple or preachy in Steinbeck’s story. It is by no means a clear morality tale. It is not saying ‘money is bad, greed is bad’; it is much more complex than that. In the luster of the pearl shines back man’s reflection, with all its good and bad qualities. The pearl (like money), as a socially-valued and useful tool, offers a real means to solve Kino’s problems. It can pay for all sorts of things and enable a better life for his family, offering freedom from hunger and discomfort.

I was trying to think how best to explain such inherent complexity, but I can do no better than quote Spike Milligan when he said:

“All I ask for is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy”.

Most of us probably want to find a ‘pearl’ and have money, though we may also understand or intuit that this is not an end in itself, nor what really creates happiness, wholeness or meaning.

Steinbeck’s story asks many significant questions of us. Another good one is: When does aspiration become greed?

But most pertinent to me is: If you see deep systemic flaws in the money system or in how our society assigns value – what do you do?

Kino begins to question fundamental notions in his society and there is a moment in our production when he shouts in fury “That’s not fair!” His friends warn him that they are afraid for him, because he is challenging their whole structure and their whole way of life.

If you know the system is not fair, how far should you personally struggle against it for what is right? For a comfortable life, you can accept the ‘rules of the game’ and abide by them, living as contentedly as you can within those limits, rationalising as you see fit, but always aware of (and perhaps undermined by) the uncomfortable truth that your daily reality denies. Or you can challenge those rules and fight for what you believe is right and the possibility of a better life, but risk personal alienation, hardship, failure and unhappiness. There is no easy path when faced with such a dilemma. This is Kino’s predicament in the novel and remains a challenge to each of us today when conscious of injustice.