cultivating & crashing

an organic collection of notes, observations, and thoughts

Tag: steinbeck

A criminal and brave people

Chapter 51, section 2

“You’re pretty full of yourself. You’re marveling at the tragic spectacle of Caleb Trask—Caleb the magnificent, the unique. Caleb whose suffering should have its Homer. Did you ever think of yourself as a snot-nosed kid—mean sometimes, incredibly generous sometimes? Dirty in your habits, and curiously pure in your mind. Maybe you have a little more energy than most, just energy, but outside of that you’re very like all the other snot-nosed kids. Are you trying to attract dignity and tragedy to yourself because your mother was a whore? And if anything should have happened to your brother, will you be able to speak for yourself the eminence of being a murderer, snot-nose?”

Cal turned slowly back to his desk. Lee watched him, holding his breath the way a doctor watches for the reaction to a hypodermic. Lee could see the reactions flaring through Cal—the rage at insult, the belligerence, and the hurt feelings following behind and out of that —just the beginning of relief.

Lee sighed. He had worked so hard, so tenderly, and his work seemed to have succeeded. He said softly, “We’re a violent people, Cal. Does it seem strange to you that I include myself? Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and the brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.

Chapter 55, section 3

He went on, “I had to find out my stupidities for myself. These were my stupidities: I thought the good are destroyed while the evil survive and prosper.

“I thought that once an angry and disgusted God poured molten fire from a crucible to destroy or purify his little handiwork of mud.

“I thought I had inherited both the scars of the fire and the impurities which made the fire necessary—all inherited, I thought. All inherited. Do you feel that way?”

“I think so,” said Cal.

“I don’t know,” Abra said.

Lee shook his head. “That isn’t good enough. That isn’t good enough thinking. Maybe—” And he was silent.

Cal felt the heat of the liquor in his stomach. “Maybe what, Lee?”

“Maybe you’ll come to know that every man in every generation is refired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup—thin, strong, translucent?” He held his cup to the light. “All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that—more fire. And then either the slag heap or, perhaps what no one in the world ever quite gives up, perfection.” He drained his cup and he said loudly, “Cal, listen to me. Can you think that whatever made us—would stop trying?”
East of Eden

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The way is open

Genesis 4:6-7

And the Lord said to Cain,
“Why are you distressed,
Any why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is upon you,
Yet you can be its master.”

East of Eden, chapter 24, section 2

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “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’—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? … Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of the deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and then tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this–this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise 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.'”

East of Eden

I’m reading East of Eden and it’s making me fall in love with American literature all over again–or maybe it’s just Steinbeck. I am especially enjoying the discussion between Adam, Samuel, and Lee during the naming of the babies on guilt, Cain and Abel, and rejection (chapter 22, section 4). Makes me want to drink more whisky and read the Bible more.

Lee poured a tumbler full of dark liquor from his round stone bottle and sipped it and opened his mouth to get the double taste on the back of his tongue. No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. What a great burden of guilt men have!

Samuel said to Adam, And you have tried to take it all.

Lee said, So do I, so does everyone. We gather our arms full of guilt as though it were precious stuff. It must be that we want it that way.

Aron broke in, It makes me feel better, not worse.

How do you mean? Samuel asked.

Well, every little boy thinks he invented sin. Virtue we think we learn, because we are told about it. But sin is our own designing.

Yes, I see. But how does this story make it better?

Because, Adam said excitedly, we are descended from this. This is our father. Some of our guilt is absorbed in our ancestry. What chance did we have? We are the children of our father. It means we arent the first. Its an excuse, and there arent enough excuses in the world.

Not convincing ones anyway, said Lee. Else we would long ago have wiped out guilt, and the world would not be filled with sad, punished people. Samuel said, But do you think of another frame to this picture? Excuse or not, we are snapped back to our ancestry. We have guilt.

Adam said, I remember being a little outraged at God. Both Cain and Abel gave what they had, and God accepted Abel and rejected Cain. I never thought that was a just thing. I never understood it. Do you?

Maybe we think out of a different background, said Lee. I remember that this story was written by and for a shepherd people. They were not farmers. Wouldnt the god of shepherds find a fat lamb more valuable than a sheaf of barley? A sacrifice must be the best and most valuable.

Yes, I can see that, said Samuel. And Lee, let me caution you about bringing your Oriental reasoning to Lizas attention.

Adam was excited. Yes, but why did God condemn Cain? Thats an injustice.

Samuel said, Theres an advantage to listening to the words. God did not condemn Cain at all. Even God can have a preference, cant he? Lets suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself. Cain brought him a bunch of carrots maybe. And God said, I dont like this. Try again. Bring me something I like and Ill set you up alongside your brother. But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a mans feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.

Lee said, St. Paul says to the Hebrews that Abel had faith.

Theres no reference to it in Genesis, Samuel said. No faith or lack of faith. Only a hint of Cains temper.

Adam said, You two have studied this. I only got it through my skin and not much of it stuck. Then Cain was driven out for murder?

Thats rightfor murder.

And God branded him?

Did you listen? Cain bore the mark not to destroy him but to save him. And theres a curse called down on any man who shall kill him. It was a preserving mark.

Adam said, I cant get over a feeling that Cain got the dirty end of the stick.

Maybe he did, said Samuel. But Cain lived and had children, and Abel lives only in the story. We are Cains children. And isnt it strange that three grown men, here in a century so many thousands of years away, discuss this crime as though it happened in King City yesterday and hadnt come up for trial?