A Response: Steinbeck, East of Eden

Steinbeck 1940's

John Steinbeck was dedicated to the human spirit; in all of our sadness, remorse, cruelty, all of our joys, longings and indeed our mortal futility and earthly resignations. I’m afraid to think how John came upon this knowledge, this depth and equally a bleak hopelessness that can too be found. I can surmise that in his old age he had accumulated these things as divers of warm waters gather pearls. This is evident in the expansive novel which accounts for the lives and trials of 3 or 4 generations of two Californian families living around the turn of the 20th century; The Hamilton family and the Trask family.

“Thou Mayest.” -What of it? It is that within us, the child, the adolescent youth, the man, and the wizened and equally the doddard have the capacity for greatness and depravity. This is what I’d  like to examine in these golden pages. How does one hold greatness and likewise how does one sink into a cold darkness; can the mold be broken? The human characteristics one is born with-can they be overcome?

The map of the heart for some is paved with good intentions that does its best to circumvent the chasm of hate, the pitfalls of bitterness and vengeance. But such is that roads wear and are exposed to elements and extremes. The crushing loss that is death greats all of us. The betrayal of a friend, a brother, creeps in our hearts like a storm. Our world so bright, crushed like paper under the coldness of a women gone without a reason. These things can dim the path to utter obscurity; We are beset by things stronger than high wind, floods, drought and the like. And it so happens that even those without a map and given a wilderness to cut through can find it flashing by in chances. East of Eden, tell us to look, and look well.

The human at every age and reason wages battles and becomes entrenched in battles that echo forward for sometime as stones cast into a pond. The choice in war is ultimately the strategy for how a victory is best achieved. It seems though that a disaster, like an encroaching enemy strikes without warning, upturning all that stands in its wake. How can one surf a Tsunami, how can one aim to shoot when a bayonet is jammed in your gut? Can one prepare for this unknown? I think not but we do have a choice of how we survive these ravages. Are we caught up in a hurricane and left closed on a scorched island or desolate and resigned to death as we lay bleeding out on the field? It seems that these lessons of the heart and mind are always learned in retrospect after the damage has been achieved and hell wreaked.

Perhaps, Steinbeck is trying to tell us something. Perhaps he, is trying to speak from his character Lee as he repeatedly can be heard saying, “Timshel.” This is what is called, Thou mayest in Hebrew as described in an afterthought. You have the option, be damned or rise above yourself to greatness. The venom of bitterness, vengeance and doubt are poisons that complicate; yourself crippled lays in its wake.

I believe that this book would be great if it only encompassed the aforementioned moral standpoint, Don’t hate and live as peaceable neighbors. Ye, it smashes greatness and hangs at lofty peaks, peering down. What of resignation? What of ignorance of reality?

East of Eden, calls us to look again-look what else we have here in these golden pages. In all that is found in greatness, including generosity and all the positive attributes of humanity it is observed that there is an ability or perhaps a tendency to loose the very essence that make these attributes great; perhaps it is found playing craps among inflated self worth, a head that floats in the billowing cumulus clouds, or blinded love built of air and fantasy. In the romance of love and the passions of ardor it is greatness but oh, how pretentiousness can come like a thief-And how we use noble pursuits to ignore another facet in us; using a crutch to shoot the stars-is it still greatness? It is shown how such over-love and generosity can get oneself shot. It is shown how such piety and righteous can be a sham; an illusory coat of arms to guard against an inability to cope with harsh, unyielding truth. Is Samuel Hamilton right, “The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb.”?

Icarus compensated for his ineptitude by flying so high as to disregard natural laws then only in burning horror did he end up crashing down. What Steinbeck is trying to tell us is that there is a tact to life. There are hells above and below us. Perhaps, East of Eden, is asking us to be real, to be honest, to be forthcoming. Thou mayest fly above reality or thou mayest wallow in wretchedness but what thou aught is to find that imperceptible balance between the two-but there it is and here we are left: Would we be anything but human if we could just manage that?

“Maybe it’s true that we all are descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, the brawlers, but also the brave, independent and generous.” I think it is the mastery of Steinbeck to show us something we have always known in a way that is shocking, gripping and lasting, that is East of Eden. “His whispered word seemed to hang in the air:”

“Timshel.”

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