04/25/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Where's Tom Joad Anyway?

Written by Brian Moran

One minute he's in the eyes of a "hungry newborn baby" crying, the next minute he's there "when there's a cop's beatin' a guy", and after that he's caught up in "a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air." Tom Joad, how do you manage to be in so many places at once?

The idea behind this classic quotation from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, fused into Bruce's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," is to force us to rethink who we are as individuals. Are Steinbeck and Springsteen nuts for telling us that a person can be in all these places at once? Or are they trying to say that who we are is quite a bit larger than just "ourselves"?

Since the days of Descartes, at least -- and probably all the way back to the Ancient Greeks -- the Western mind has been trained to view the world dualistically, seeing itself and the rest of the world as distinct, separate objective entities.

What we have here in the Steinbeck/Bruce quote is a challenge to that dualistic view of individuality. Tom Joad is more than just Tom Joad the man. The frustrations and anger towards the system of the guy getting beaten by the cop, the newborn baby crying, those fighting the blood and hatred in the air, and Tom Joad the man, form a larger social consciousness that brings them all together as one.

In that sense, Tom Joad is more than just his body, his brain, his blood. There's a larger social identity at work, which is why he's able to be in all of those places at once. His body and brain may be in one place, but the social memes that formed his mind encompass the entire globe. The pain that all the characters in that quote feel is literally a part of who he is. Thus, his true identity is paradoxically larger than himself.

This, of course, isn't limited to Tom Joad. We're all part of a larger social consciousness, and thus greater than ourselves. As Bruce is well aware, disconnection from this larger social consciousness always leads to despair, regardless of the individual freedom we find. Introducing "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in his home town of Freehold, New Jersey in 1996, Bruce stated the point clearly: "The question raised in the novel [talking about John Ford's film version of The Grapes of Wrath], and in the film, was if salvation can be individual; if there's such a thing as individual salvation, or if there's some way that our fates kind of rise and fall together."

Springsteen began his career by doing just that: seeking individual salvation by rejecting and running away from the corrupt social system of the 70's. But as the Nebraska days best illustrate, this eventually left him at a spiritual dead end. The freedom of the loner could only get him so far, and this forced him to reflect on his place in society. The result has been one of the most socially conscious musical careers America has ever seen.

In a country that's been increasingly dominated by an individualistic mindset since the 1980's, we would do well to learn from the story of this great loner turned social prophet, as our economy continues to spiral out of control. As he put it in a Rolling Stone interview with Jon Stewart: "This is what the guys at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers forgot. They forgot that they are a part of a continuum of history, and it's not about the fucking buck that you make today at whoever's fucking expense. If there's not a sense of continuity, a sense of some sort of communal obligation and responsibility, a sense of a future involved in what you're doing, and a sense of being beholden to the past, you end up being one shallow, greedy motherfucker, just trying to get all you can get."

This idea that the American Dream involves making as much cash as possible for yourself is well out of date, and the time has come for a change. A big theme of this class is how, over the latter half of the 20th century, America has lost a huge amount of what Robert Putnam has called "social capital," which is basically communal connection on a large scale. To put it harshly, we've become "shallow, greedy motherfuckers" that just look out for ourselves, and this mindset is destroying us both socially and economically, as well as spiritually. We need to do exactly what Bruce said: stay conscious of our communal obligations and responsibilities. And if there's any possibility for healing, it's through music like his.

To all those who say our problem is too big to be fixed, all I have to say is this: "Come on, rise up."

Brian Moran is a freshman at UW Madison majoring in philosophy. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he played football and rugby in high school, and worked at a family owned grocery store for a couple of years.

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