Steinbeck and I have always been friends. We had a brief frosty period brought on by Grapes of Wrath, but overall, we are chums. This friendship has been reinforced this day.I just finished the biggest longest thing on my reading list. East of Eden by John Steinbeck ( who is a prime participator in my author schizophrenia, by the way) has officially been crossed off the list, four long years after its placement there. And this is a big ginormous deal, everybody.
When I came to North Carolina I made a specific bucket list for North Carolina. This is an ever-evolving animal, this list, because I keep readjusting my ideas about what I want to actually do with my life in general and my time here specifically, but the single thing that has not been questioned and reconsidered at three in the morning is that I want to finish my reading list while I am here. And this, my friends, was the first big effort to check stuff off that list.
As a result of this triumph against my own procrastination and the time sucker that is netflix, I feel alive. I feel like I just played sudoku with a pen. I feel like I just had the most productive day of my life. I feel really really good. My brain is awake and kicking and spitting out essay ideas from this fabulous and beautiful piece of literature. And I have to write about it right now or I will forget everything and going back over it will bring only halfhearted impressions that will never be able to adequately replace the fresh emotion of book discovery. So I thought I would type really fast instead of scribbling in my Jimmy book and invite you all to the party of lit analysis. Interested? If you aren't, stop reading and don't tell me. Here we go...
This book was first described and summarized as a retelling of the book of Genesis, replayed out by the generations of the Trask and Hamilton families in the Salinas Valley of California (where else, Steinbeck?) right before the first world war. I suppose that is the only way you could describe it in a book cover without giving the whole thing away. But it really is a whole lot more than that.
- In a book where the generations "helplessly replay the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel" I find a lot of beautiful evidence that this book is, in fact, a sort of paradox where the characters do indeed play out the same fall and tragedy all over again but are at the same time a uniquely powerful testimony of the power of agency.
- I know a few feminist writers who would have a field day with all the unexpectable female characters here. The eve character? She's a murdering psychopath, y'all. All the other female characters barely even exist. There is only one female character who is a decent human being and is actually a person. She grows out of her natural manipulative nature into a wise and controlled woman of unbelievably deep perception. I like here so much I might name a child after her. "...For though I called another, Abra came." The rest of them though. Wowza. I want to write essays about it, and when I die I want to meet Steinbeck and ask him specifically to explain to me what was going on in his brain when he chose to present this view of women. Either that or go talk to McCuskey about it. Probably both.
- This is a fascinating view of the story of Cain and Abel. I have always thought of them as such black and white characters, as I suppose is common. Cain was plain wicked, a murderer. Abel was straight up righteous, right? What if that isn't true? What if Cain was the realist and Abel was severely hindered in his abilities to deal with the truth when it shatters the pretty pictures he has invented about all the world around him? What if Cain was wrong, but he didn't mean to kill his brother? What if he actually loved him? This is a picture of Cain and Abel which fascinates and frightens me, because I identify so much more with the Cain character even in all his badness and vindictive instincts and I don't really like the Abel character in spite of his lofty gonna-be-a-minister ideals. This alerts me to the danger that is in my own character of judging based on blacks and whites. It is easy to condemn Cain and vindicate Abel. But tell another story. Can I so easily do the same with Cal and Aron? I feel that I must not.
- Translations are vital and dangerous. One Hebrew verb, translated three different ways, can change a whole life.Thou shalt. Do Thou. Timshel. Thou mayest.
One of the best passages in the book which will demonstrate how beautiful this thing is, whilst not giving away too much of the plot: (Because the optimist in me hopes and believes that someone will decide to read this someday)
"Don't you see?" he cried. "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel- 'Thou mayest'- that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'- it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' Don't you see?"
"Yes I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?"
"Ah!" said Lee. "I've wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and lives of innumerable people is important.....These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. The know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and succesful lives. But this- this is a ladder to climb to the stars."
Adam said, "I don't know how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this."
"Neither do I," said Lee. "But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing- maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because 'Thou mayest.'"
See? Do you see? The glory of the choice, as Lee says, is what makes a man a man, gives him stature with the gods. I read this part while I was sitting in the rain on my favorite rock in the middle of the stream at Ayr Mount. It was stormy and damp and there was no one around. I sat in solitude, nursing a bad mood, and suddenly stumbled upon one of those concepts that seems old, that you have always known, when really, you know that you have suddenly just felt the sacredness in it in a very new way. I left my rock in the middle of the river and got ready to go home. And while my body climbed up the bank to the path, my soul was coming down from some high mountain, clinging still to the unexpected shrine I had found there.
That, my friends, is why I read. It is also why I want to write. Words give me gifts. Or rather, they help me accept them. Those moments of holiness which are often inspired by books that change my life, sometimes come through my own self. And someday I will learn more fully how to transcribe such a thing and send it out to do what good it can. In the meantime, my Jimmy book is full of such things in raw form, and I am practicing, and learning to practice harder, because "Thou mayest".