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Last week the topic of the ‘seven sins’ came up again (see post from 25. June 2013). In one group, we had been reading about a decline in the sales of soft drinks and the topic of the attempted ban of XXL drinks in New York City was mentioned, so I took the text I had provided on the ‘History of Supersizing’ once more to class, in which our tendency not to take seconds so as not to appear piggish is explained in connection with one of the so-called cardinal sins – in this case ‘gluttony’.
The topic of the ‘seven sins’ alone provides for interesting discussions on (the function of) religion or rather on morality and ethics, once you detach the ‘sins’ a little from there religious background (which is sometimes advisable if you want to talk more about the content related to the single ‘sins’ and not about the pros and cons of organized religion).
Who teaches us right from wrong? What do we consider morally questionable? Which values do we share as individuals, which values are part of our society as a whole? Have there been changes across generations? Very deep, very fruitful if in the hands of an open-minded class – maybe also a potential landmine, but in my experience those sessions in which we dare to tackle ‘deeper’ questions are very often quite satisfying.
In any case, the ‘seven sins’ provide good vocabulary practice. Some of the seven words themselves are more formal or literary, but once you start describing and applying them more widely you are talking about a lot of vocabulary, meaning transfer, metaphors etc.
The topic even works as a party conversation. I challenged my friends to naming them and gradually the list was completed: GLUTTONY, ENVY, GREED, SLOTH, LUST, PRIDE and – (one is always missing when trying to list anything, like the fourth answer to a ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ question, so it took a while until we came up with number seven) – WRATH.
When explaining the meaning of those unknown, I try to find associations that help guess them. My personal favorite choices are with e.g. SLOTH a reference to Ice Age; with GREED a reference to the film Wall Street (and the Ferenghis’ Rule Of Acquisition ‘Greed is Eternal’ – not that many are familiar with that reference :-); and with WRATH a classic from which you find a little excerpt below:
The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves, and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.
The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.
Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.
When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards. Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.
In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning. They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust. After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do?
Most will probably not recognize it, as the more familiar or more widely read novel in Germany by this author is Of Mice and Men.
The excerpt is from The Grapes of Wrath written by the Nobel Prize winning American novelist John Steinbeck, published in1939 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It describes the plight of one of many farming families of Oklahoma hit by the depression of the 1930ies and by the severe drought and ensuing erosion of land in the dust bowl, the biggest ‘man-made’ natural catastrophe in the US.
April 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the first Viking hardcover publication of Steinbeck’s crowning literary achievement…