It took me longer to read than the previous four novels on my winter reading list, but I finally finished East of Eden be John Steinbeck. Simply put, the story is epic. It covers threes generations of the Trask family, who moves from the east coast to the Salinas Valley in California. The novel drawls heavily from the biblical story of Cain and Abel as well as Steinbeck’s family history.
Prior to reading this book, if you had asked me what my favorite book was (non-theological) I would have answered, depending on the day, either Les Miserables by Victor Hugo or Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoevsky. I believe I have found a new possibility for my favorite novel.
While I find the work absolutely stunning, I could not possibly disagree more with Steinbeck’s conclusions about life. Consider the following exert:
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”
He concludes this narration with:
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take and direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one things that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”
Make no mistake, there are some profound truths here. Biblical theology informs us that as humans we bear the Imago Dei, the image of God. As beings made after our creator, we are invited to join in his act of creation. However, this image was shattered (though not entirely lost), when man willfully fell into sin. Simply put, complete freedom of the mind will only result in continued depravity.
Steinbeck said the following during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962:
“the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
The belief that man is capable of perfecting himself is a presupposition without any warrant. However it does point to the truth that deep down, every human knows that world is not as it should be. In the words of Aaron Weiss, “All creation groans…. listen to it. “