Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Eden, and East of, A Primer on Human Nature

After a glorious month, I finished East of Eden last night. I feel that I must speak. But remember, I have no claim of being any type of literary critic. Actually, I'm more like the high school sophomore who read it for the first time (which this was the first time) and am blown away by it, in a very naive and basic way.

It of course is a long book, with many nooks and crannies. I won't even attempt to explore them. But I have an overall deep impression. I think Steinbeck has captured the human nature better than anything I've read in a long time.

He has captured the full spectrum of human personality, just like in real life. On one extreme is Cathy, the sociopath. Then in the middle are many people for whom evil and good are in flux and constant battle . . . like for most of us. Then on the other extreme are Samuel and Lee, who are as saintly as any human can aspire to. Not perfect, but to looked upon in deep respect. But also represented are the "good," like Aaron. Not good in the true sense, but a facade of good that has roots in a deep (think of the subterranean primal flow of consciousness I alluded to in my Oklahoma post) emotional and spiritual discord. I've know many Christians, and have been such a one myself, who ascribed to the "good" on the surface as a substitute or balm for the deeper pain.

Anyway, I had to sing the praises of this book. I wish I could teach a Sunday school class on books like this. They go so far to reveal reality much better than the material that most Sunday school classes handle. The problem is, I feel that most would misunderstand. The Evangelical churches, where I've attempted to do classes on books or movies, if they are not blatantly Christian, say The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, then they don't get it. The first time they get to a word like "damn" the book becomes an outrage. What a shame. On the other extreme, I'm sure I could lead such a class at the Episcopalian church on our island (not all Episcopalian churches are like this) they would miss the point on the other side, as they don't see the Bible as relevant to real life. I think the only place where a book like this would get the respect it deserves and yet yield Biblical insights is maybe somewhere like LAbri, and that rare church which carries such balance.

6 comments:

Jaimie said...

Well there's "damn" all through The Chronicles of Narnia. But I don't think evangelicals ever actually read CS Lewis. If they did, they wouldn't like him.

solarblogger said...

I went to a conference on this book once. It was delightful. We all read the book in advance, and then talked about it for three days. The other attendees helped me to a deeper understanding of the book.

One reader suggested looking to see whether there was any structural pattern to where the word Timshel was used. He found it at the center of the book and at the end. After he said this a group of us visited the Steinbeck museum between sessions and found a hidden use at the beginning. Steinbeck mentions a box the manuscript was sent to the publisher in. Take a look: box in the Steinbeck museum.

Everybody was in love with Abra.

This is one of the best novels I've ever read. Surely in my top five, and none of the others is clearly better.

Many of the attendees were Christians and theology freely entered into some of the discussions. After returning home, I recommended the book to my pastor and he loved it. (And it was clear from the conversation that he actually read it.)

But I do agree reading a book like this threatens many. Even if they don't feel any need to attack the book, they might try too hard to make Steinbeck agree or totally disagree with them. And Steinbeck seems less theory-bound than any writer I've read. He'll borrow imagery from all sorts of perspectives. Cathy sometimes seemed Satanic, sometimes animalistic, sometimes just psychologically injured, and sometimes (though most rarely) normal human. I don't know if Steinbeck himself had finally decided what caused her to be as she was. It often felt more like reporting than like composition. And reminded me of people I knew, and how I would wonder the same things without conclusion.

jmj said...

Must be Timshel in Hebrew on the box.

It seemed like Cathy (Kate) was born with Sociopathic tendencies.

When we limit ourselves to "Christian" literature, we certainly limit our experience don't we. I've redefined "Christian Literature" as that literature that reflects reality, or, intentionally fantasy (in the case of fantasy it is for the same of enriching or simply entertaining us). The most non-Christian literature is that which distorts reality under the pretense that it is reality . . . such as "Christian" fiction.

Anonymous said...

The Evangelical churches, where I've attempted to do classes on books or movies, if they are not blatantly Christian, say The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, then they don't get it.

I got news for you, CM -- LWW has been book-burned because it has "Witch" in the title and thus must be Witchcraft.

But I don't think evangelicals ever actually read CS Lewis. If they did, they wouldn't like him. -- Jaimie

Jerry Jenkins is more their speed than C.S.Lewis. Check out "Heathen Critique" website for chapter-by-chapter snarks on Jenkins' non-Left Behind novels.

Headless Unicorn Guy

beakerj said...

I go to a church that grew out of English L'Abri many years ago. We would certainly value & talk about this kind of book, maybe even run a short reading group on it. I am aware of my fine good fortune.

solarblogger said...

It is Timshel on the box. I've lost most of my Hebrew, but I can still sound out words.

"It seemed like Cathy (Kate) was born with Sociopathic tendencies."

If I have to settle on one theory, I think that's the best one. Steinbeck seems to frame each encounter with her in such a way that you might come to a different conclusion with each, if the single encounter was all you had. Which I found fascinating.

I've bought almost no "Christian fiction" for the reasons you list. Or what I have bought (e.g. C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams) was written before the genre existed as we know it today. I was given a copy of This Present Darkness for Christmas one year and left it unread.