Steinbeck, Round 2

So my last post was about the pre-write I did for a paper on East of Eden. Here’s the paper as it eventually turned out. We were supposed to start with the actual experience of reading the book, reaching whatever quote we’d decided to pick, and then expand into a discussion of whatever the quote meant to us or to anything else, I suppose. I can confirm that I was indeed living in New York City when I read East of Eden and that I did write “this whole chapter” at the top of Chapter 34, but beyond that, my account of coming across the passage is largely fictionalized. I don’t remember where I was when I first read it and I didn’t remember when I wrote this paper, either. Honestly, I was probably in bed. But where’s the drama in that? Without the bustle of the six train, I would have had to spend far more time struggling to analyze something I hardly wanted to touch with a ten foot pole, worried that I’d somehow contaminate it. I probably did anyway.

So here we go:

Black & White

Generally, one does not associate New York’s number six train with excessive comfort, but on this particular day, conditions had reached a record low. It was a quarter to six and, unwilling as I was to cram myself into the bosoms of the harried mothers and business women who filled the trains, I had already let three trains go by. But it was late July in New York and a person can only take so much. So as I watched the third train speed away—creating not so much a wind as a wall of hot, heavy air—suffocation by business woman was starting to sound a whole heck of a lot better than asphyxiation two floors below street-level. At least the actual cars had air conditioning. Accordingly, when the fourth train arrived, I began pushing and shoving along with the rest of the crowd, successfully earning myself a good square foot of floor to stand on, so long as I kept my feet close together, didn’t move too much, and held my arms flush to my sides.

The doors closed and I breathed a sigh of relief. Half these people would get off by 59th street. Then I could relax, maybe even sit down, and try to sneak in a couple of pages of East of Eden before 77th street.

The woman next to me was reading Fifty Shades of Grey and every time she turned the page, she jabbed her elbow into my side. I tried desperately not to catch a glimpse of the pages, having learned my lesson in that department on an earlier commute.

The subway car smelled sour, like Chinatown on a hot day, and I cursed myself inwardly for having had the luck to choose a car whose air conditioning was broken. Too late to switch now; at this hour I’d never be guaranteed a spot back on the train. I’d suck it up and relish my cold shower that much more when I got home.

The doors opened at 51st street letting out a flood of people destined for the shops and I managed to nab a space in the corner of a bench, pressed up against the railing by a mother and her squirming toddler. I reached into my purse for East of Eden and let it fall open at the bookmark in my lap. My back was already beginning to stick to the hard blue plastic of the bench as I began to read where I had left off.

To clarify, I didn’t really annotate East of Eden. I wish I had. But I wanted to devour it and, in devouring something, one hardly wants to waste time scribbling half-legible marginalia, for by the time the pencil is found, the passage reread, and the line or star or banal note made, the magic is gone. On top of that, at the time I was reading East of Eden, I was working ten hour days as an intern at The New Yorker and honestly couldn’t be bothered to do anything remotely work-like the moment I set foot outside Condé-Nast each day. This included annotating.

But when I reached Chapter 34 aboard a crowded six train at rush hour surrounded by screaming kids and tired adults all of whom smelled vaguely like a high school locker-room, something changed. I put the book down slowly and unzipped my purse. A couple moments’ rummaging produced a sturdy pencil stub. I picked the book up again. I reread the chapter. Then I watched people getting off at 59th as I chewed thoughtfully (or so I hoped) on the eraser. Then I read the chapter again, underlining the bits I liked best. I stared at it for awhile, unsure of what to do. After I’d gone through all the effort of getting the pencil, I didn’t know what to say.

68th street. People got off. People got on. I chewed my eraser.

Just as the train was slowing for the 77th street station, I scribbled atop the chapter heading This whole chapter. I didn’t know what else to say or do. The chapter had hit me like a speeding train.

Chapter 34 is short. I am not some super-reader devouring whole thirty page chapters multiple times in the span of a single subway ride. In fact, Chapter 34 probably barely passes the two page mark. 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. He 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 always recognize it.

In East of Eden, there is only this one story, repeated over and over, between each and every character, in each and every plot. However, 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 his parents inside of him, is harshly aware of the dichotomy. Cal’s story is the story of the world, of men, of me.

But Evil is a big word. Such a big word that, sitting here as I type this, I can hardly keep a straight face. How is it that I, a seventeen year-old prep school student, can be speaking to you of Evil? What do I know? Very readily I concede: nothing.

Yet I once knew everything. We all did. We were all once very little and each and every one of us once knew all there was to know. We saw the world in black and white and had good and Evil clearly delineated in our heads. Disney had helped us out. We’ve lost that now. I’ve lost that now. But I can try. I can try to toe the very fine line between the monumental and the trivial, the very real and the absurd. It’s not an easy thing to be speaking of, this Evil. It sounds a thing to be left to the likes of Cotton Mather. We snicker politely (or so I should hope) behind our hands when politicians (who shall remain nameless) pledge to rid the world of “evildoers.” We are too sophisticated for that kind of old-testament talk. We know the world is far more complex than Good and Evil and that there are oh so many shades of gray in between. I know, I snickered too.

But is this really the case? Are there really shades of gray? Is everything really so complex? If it is, what then is it about Chapter 34? What could possibly have struck me about such a short chapter while I was caught in the middle of rush hour in New York City if not a grain of truth?

I believe it. I believe Steinbeck. Underneath my sophisticated, cynical prep-school self, I believe that there is Good and that there is Evil. I believe that all men want to be Good and that it is only human weakness which prevents them from being so. I believe that there is always a fresh face for Evil, while virtue is as old as the hills, gray-bearded and wise. How could I not? I was raised on Gandalf the Grey and Dumbledore and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Am I a fool? Is it ridiculous to believe in the simplicity of things? In the Goodness of men and the inevitable triumph of Good over Evil? Maybe. But I still do.

There is a trend (for lack of a better word) right now in not believing. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as you don’t believe it. It’s cool to be complex. Not understanding is in. I know; I’d fallen afoul of it. But now I’m not so sure; Chapter 34 changed my view on things. I had already believed Steinbeck inside, but I had not known. I had not remembered. Before reading all that Steinbeck had to say, I did not know any of this about myself. I would have told you that nothing could ever be so simple as to be binary.

But I don’t think I knew myself very well.

Reading Chapter 34 was the equivalent of getting hit by a train after standing on the tracks for several hours having forgotten what they were. Chapter 34 was something I’d known, but forgotten and buried. Then I read it in Steinbeck’s words and the train hit and I remembered. I remembered being a kid of four or five and knowing more about the world than I ever will again. A four year old who saw the world in black and white because she’d been told the truth in the stories and myths and legends and fairytales that she loved so much. Truths that we learn to forget as we get older as our parents and teachers and siblings and friends remind us that no, the world is not that simple. Well, the world really is that simple; the rest is human frailty.

I laughed at myself when I first considered committing this to paper. How quaint, how trivial! Seventeen and thinks she has it all figured out. She’ll see in a few years. She’ll be eating her words. I feared that this was true and that I had stumbled on nothing but a big flop. But I don’t think I have.

What could be more complex than the idea that our entire world, everything we know, is predicated on just two things? Good and Evil. That’s it. Nothing more. Just trying to wrap my head around that is astounding. There is no easy out the way there is when you say “It’s complicated. . . You see the issue isn’t black and white; there’s all this gray in between.” And if you say that? No one questions you. “All the gray in between” is our answer for everything complex. But is it really an answer? Isn’t it much, much harder to accept that really there is only Good and Evil in the world? Because if there is only Good and Evil, men have the choice between the two. It is up to men to decide whether they are going to be Good and strong or Evil out of weakness. Man is trapped in the story, trapped in a cycle between Good and Evil, doomed to repeat it again and again in the one, never-ending story. I say doomed. But is it so? Are we ever really doomed if there is a choice?

None of this is to say that I have it all figured out. I don’t. Not in the slightest. Accepting that there is only Good and Evil hardly even begins to answer the questions I have. But somehow, I feel better about all of it. I’m not a cynic; I’m an idealist. Believing in Evil is surprisingly uplifting. Evil cannot exist without Good. Men want to be good. I want to be good. And I have no excuse not to be because I have the choice. There is no gray shade for me to hide in. Only the glorious contrast of black and white, Good and Evil. And it’s amazing. For when I am old, I will be able to brush of the dust and chips of my life and ask “Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

So there you go. Rather dramatic, I think. But not entirely terrible. In sentiment, it’s rather similar to my Catch-22 piece. It’s almost a precursor to it, really. The conclusions I reached about the time of reading Catch-22, which I discussed in that essay, are hinted at here and had certainly been stewing for some time.


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