I get muddled while thinking about Steinbeck

Well, East of Eden

This is an old pre-writing for an eventual essay I wrote at the beginning of senior year in response to East of Eden. I loved East of Eden. Adored it. But I did not love writing this paper. It was a reflective piece that was supposed to organically grow from some quote or another and, well, nothing about the writing of this paper was organic. Quite the opposite. While this pre-write may have been organic in that it was pretty stream of consciousness, the eventual paper was one of the most contrived and forced things I’ve ever produced. (Okay, that’s definitely an exaggeration.)

I felt completely inadequate standing next to such a powerful and complex book—I was embarrassed to even try to say anything about it. Nothing I could say could ever have been enough. So, naturally, I picked the deepest, most intense quote I could find and talked around it, apologizing for my inferiority all the while. However many problems I had with the idea of the essay (and actually making myself do it), I think what I ended up writing turned out to be kind of interesting. So here’s the pre-write. I think I’ll post the eventual essay too (even though I’m not the biggest fan of it) and then I can pretend I’m being interesting and talking about my writing process or something.

Well anyway, here’s the pre-write:

“I believe that there is only one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. 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, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. 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 evil? Have I done well—or ill?” East of Eden, Chapter 34.

I didn’t really annotate East of Eden. I wanted to devour it and, in devouring something, one hardly wants to stop and take out a pencil and go back and underline that lovely little tidbit of wisdom you just read. It takes some of the magic out of the thing. But when I reached Chapter 34 and read it and read it again, I decided it was time to go find a pencil and mark it in some fashion. “This whole chapter” is what I ended up writing.

Chapter 34 is short. It is one of Steinbeck’s interruptions to the narrative in which he tries to make some sense of the world—and it is brilliant. East of Eden is, most basically, a story about good and evil and about man—who is caught in between. In Chapter 34, Steinbeck describes the one story that is in the world, the one story all others are based on and born of, the one story which means everything. The story of good and evil. We all have the story inside of us, we all know the story, though we may not recognize it.

This idea captivated me. Not only was Steinbeck handing us the key—well, maybe part of the key or one of the keys—to his novel, but he was helping us understand—or at least me understand—what it is that makes us tick.

In East of Eden, there is only this one story, repeated many times in many (sometimes) various forms. However the main—and most obvious one—is the story of Cal. Cal feels the struggle between good and evil inside him far more poignantly than most. His parents—Adam and Cathy—are exaggerated personifications of the two forces, so that Cal, feeling both of his parents inside him is harshly aware of the dichotomy. Cal’s story is the story of the world, of man. Cal’s question is everyone’s question: “have I done well or ill? Am I good or evil?”

I don’t want to sound conceited, stuck-up, self-involved, or self-aggrandizing, but this passage resonated for me because I recognized that struggle within myself and also recognized my interest in it in all other parts of life—in all that I read and do (except math. Maybe that’s why math is horrid).

Who am I kidding? I can talk all I want about not wanting to sound pretentious, but it’s inescapable. I’m seventeen and not seventeen like Cal is seventeen. I find it impossible to begin an explanation of my connection to Chapter 34 without feeling as if I am saying that the dilemma of whether or not to steal a cookie is a battle between good and evil within me. Perhaps I am being shallow. Perhaps I simply don’t understand. But to me, attempting to relate myself to the struggles of characters in East of Eden feels ridiculous. Not because they are exaggerated, but because I am so breathtakingly average.

Reading Chapter 34, I stopped. I thought. That there is only one story in the world felt so right, explained everything. And really it does. Even though I have not (yet) been faced with deciding whether I am destined to be a Cathy or an Adam or simply a Cal, I have, for I am human (whatever my other faults) found myself questioning why—in all our thousands of years of civilization—why, fundamentally, nothing has changed. I think everyone must wonder that sometimes, whether after hearing about the most recent bombing in the Middle East on the radio or following receiving a failing grade on a physics test; it makes no matter. (Though yet again I can only speak of what I know, which is frighteningly little.) But Steinbeck has given us an answer. Or at least half of one.

If there is only one story then we are all doomed as much as we are blessed. We are trapped in an inescapable conflict with evil, which each generation is doomed to repeat. But we are blessed with the freedom to choose—regardless of our backgrounds—which path we shall pursue. A terrifying and yet optimistic prospect. It’s a bit of a trap; we would not have the conflict between good and ill if we did not have choice (for one can hardly classify a lobster as being a good or an evil lobster), but without choice, we would simply be lobsters. Our humanity is predicated upon this story. Upon our choices. Upon our struggles. I think I like it.

I wonder, though, is this an over-generalization? Can Steinbeck really be saying that the issue is black and white, 1 or 0? Not just the issue, but all issues, the entire world: binary. I don’t think so. I simply think that for most of us, the choice is invisible as we are not self-aware enough to recognize it, and so we take the easy way out or the instinctive way out and blame our natures.

Predestination—in every shape and form—has never sat well with me. It is such a cowardly way to view the world. Can one really be content to spend one’s entire life in the passenger seat? Can that be satisfying? Regardless of good or evil, would not the choice be infinitely more satisfying?

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I’m not sure how any of this relates to me. I’m not sure how I can convey that I sense this in myself without sounding absolutely ridiculous in the process. As an Irish twin, I stand poised to embark on a lengthy analysis of my relationship with my brother in comparison to the relationship of Cal and Aron. But I can’t do it. Fights over who actually gets to call Bladerunner or the third series of Doctor Who or the nicer copy of the fifth Harry Potter book theirs are just what they sound—trivial. I wish I could delve deeper into myself and find something dark and horrid. Anything. I am not saying I am perfect—far from it. But I hardly feel that whatever is in me when I am in conflict with myself is worthy of the title “evil” or even “ill.” I am no Gollum caught in the midst of perpetual arguments between Stinker and Slinker.

This is all wrong and backwards.

I told my mother once that I wished I’d never been born. I don’t remember why I said it, but that only confirms that I had no good reason to have said it. We were in Mexico and I was five. Or maybe six. But I wished I’d never been born. Was that evil? I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t good or kind or right. But was it evil? The term evil is such a strong one. Particularly to apply to a five year old, a twelve year old (unless that twelve year old is Joffrey Baratheon), or even a seventeen year old. I would hesitate even to say that Cal struggled between good and evil. But he struggled. We all do. So what is it? Has Steinbeck been, perhaps, too binary after all? What do we do about the middling people? The ones who are not the best of the best but certainly not evil. Is that a conscious choice? A choice? I suppose it must be, but can we really call it one unless we know for certain that evil has been presented?

Despite what Steinbeck claims at one point in the novel, I do not think that people are born evil. There are circumstances and then there is a choice. But what if someone’s life is absent of those circumstances? Do they still make the choice? Can there be a choice if one side is lacking? Taking Cathy as a character meant to be examined rather than as a symbol, I would argue yes. Her circumstances were good, there were none to cause her evil and yet evil she was.

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