Yet another profound look into a chronicled book-for-the-ages from Lynn MacDougall. This is part one of a new series:
“A child may ask, ‘What is the world’s story about?’ And a grown man or woman may wonder, ‘What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”
I’m in my second reading of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first foray into this work was motivated by Mumford and Son’s “Timshel,” a reference to the story. Late nights reading, bent pages, pens and highlighters later, I’m fairly sure my family was ready to murder me as I turned every conversation into a lecture on East of Eden wisdom. But there is astounding wisdom in this novel, the truth being—and I can’t say this about many works of art – it has actually changed me. It changed the way I think and live and love, about what a relationship means, about what is profound in the soul of the human being, about joy and sorrow mingled. I don’t think Steinbeck had religion, but what he seems to have had is a profound struggling and wrestling with doubt and sorrow.
A la Sigmund Freud: “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.”
I’m guessing Steinback dealing with these concerns long before writing East of Eden, but it particularly stands out as an avenue of continuing to wrestle and wade through the struggle. Evidence abounds in this novel. Steinbeck seems to end in a kind of humanistic place, with the glory and greatness of the human soul, but I think he was searching the depths of his soul for something, and his words have caused me to look deep in those depths of my own soul to find what I believe.The quote above is 400 pages into the narrative and is followed by this:
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us … Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last … There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? have I done well — or ill?
This is the main strand of the book. Besides one, all characters are multi-dimensional, permeable to the good and evil around them. At one point despised, at the next turn loved. This is true of all characters except Cathy. Without giving too much away, here are Steinbeck’s words of introduction:
I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents… And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? … a malformed soul? … There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil.
In the continuum of good-evil, Cathy seems to be a personification of “evil” here – there is little, if no struggle with her “malformed soul.” In my posts on Being Human, laid out was the “monster” concept – that within each character there are monstrosities. As Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
But what is evil actually? It has been defined as “profound immorality, wickedness of depravity” … or the milder version,” something that is harmful or undesirable.” What evil lurks in our own hearts and souls? Is it really that bad – isn’t it merely “negative” or simply a bad attitude? Especially if we are Christ followers, we can’t imagine that there is any longer pure, unadulterated evil inside.
Yet W.H. Auden says, “Evil is unspectacular and always human. And shares our bed and eats at our own table.” Not just red horns or slashers. Jeremiah says it too: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It’s the truth about our condition.
East of Eden is an expansive account of the wars we wage with ourselves and others in dealing with this condition. Samuel, Lee, Adam and his sons, Cal and Aron, among others – all grappling with the malevolence of a world turned in on itself. Cal wonders at himself, why he’s so happy with tragedy (“I hope it hurts. No, I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to think that. There it is. There it is again…”) and this inwardness is echoed often by other actors throughout the book.
The crux of this yarn is based on The Genesis tale of Cain and Abel. After Cain’s sacrifice is not accepted these words:
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
The story of our lives, is it not? The translation of “you must rule over it” is the primary issue of the text, and what the novel says it means exactly I won’t give away. Regardless, our answer dictates how we live. One of the protagonists, Lee, says “I think it is the symbol story of the human soul” (More on that in another post)…I ask, what is the story each of us choose to create and listen to? What stuck in my craw the first time I read this was towards the end of the book (Spoiler!). A conversation between Abra and Cal about Cal’s brother, Aron, and his “troubles.” Abra says,
He (Aron) wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way… He was going to have it come out his way if he had to tear the world up by the roots… When you’re a child you’re the center of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re your own size and shape. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse but it’s much better too … Aron couldn’t stand to know about his mother because that’s not how he wanted the story to go. And he wouldn’t have any other story. So he tore up the world … he tore me up…
Back to that evil inside – isn’t it really a worship of self, as Abra says above we continue to make ourselves the “center of everything?” That we refuse to give up an old narcissistic obsession, and tear up the roots of the whole world in its pursuit?
The next two or three posts will focus on East of Eden and the working out of the problem above. In the meantime, think about your story. As Lee also say …” Think about “have I done well … or ill?” Then think about whose story it really is.