Lately I’ve been thinking of a book I’d read years ago that, upon finishing the book, all I could do was reread the ending and sink into the couch and bawl a little bit.
The book: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I barely recall the plot, to be honest, but I remember the way I felt: enthralled (cringing at my use of this word, but it’s fitting) by its lurid prodding complexity and numb…. from all the philosophy.
Some themes quotes from the book that resonated with me:
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
But where does free will, or lack thereof, factor into it? Steinbeck weaves in the concept of timshel, that man ultimately exercises free will in choosing to do either good or evil:
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that 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.”
On monstrosity as deviation from the norm; on normalcy as deviation from monstrosity. A reference to the monstrous Cathy, whose character was evil incarnate (so much so that critics described her as too flatly evil.)
Interestingly, what Steinbeck describes is a feeling that many sociopaths may have: the unnerving sense that others have something they lack, something internal, a moral compass, a set of emotions, a conscience.
“Just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.
To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”
There was no single takeaway from the book, at least, not for me. Its significance didn’t lie in the plot, but the themes. But maybe I say that because I’m not as familiar with biblical stories, particularly the one of Cain and Abel, which the novel recreates between the Civil War & WWI.
At any rate, I highly recommend the book, especially if you’re interested in postwar fiction, philosophy, religion, ethics or literature. Or a book-induced mindfuck.