We all have those pieces of art–be they movies, books, music, what have you–that upon first exposure we fall in love. We turn the last page or exit the theater or concert hall certain that this will surely be added to our list of favorites and long-held companions. Yet, how many times do we say this and a year or two down the road someone mentions that very piece of art and we find ourselves thinking, “oh yeah, I did read that, didn’t I?” or “I had forgotten how much I loved that album!”
So often we get swept away in the immediate experience of something skipping upon the waters of our soul, leaving little ripples and echoes dancing in its wake. But these dimples and dapples merely play on the surface for a time, returning once more to their source, leaving the waters ultimately undisturbed–the liquid plane unbroken; the deepest depths untouched.
There are other times, however, that we encounter a piece of art–or rather, it encounters us–and we are changed. It transcends mere rankings of “favorites” and “Top 10s” and weaves itself into our fibers. We do not critique and assess it, so much as it sizes and weighs us. The surface tension is broken and we are plunged beneath, staring humanity’s unvarnished truths in the face. And in so doing our own humanity is enlarged, a spaciousness expands in our souls, and we feel more human–even as our foundations are shaken.
John Steinbeck’s 1952 magnum opus, East of Eden, is just this kind of piece of art. It’s the kind of book people say they will read “someday”, only to read it and wish “someday” had come a lot sooner. So if you haven’t read it. Do so. Start today.
Just like other art that has so deeply affected me–Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue–East of Eden is about both the most mundane and most profound of human experiences and knowledge.
At its most basic, East of Eden follows a few generations of two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, and how they interact and intersect. At a slightly deeper level, it is a retelling of the first few chapters of the biblical book of Genesis.
The book takes its time. It’s long, moving with the easy-going gait of a sauntering elder recounting legends burrowed deep within his soul. Entire sections simply describe the way a car engine works, or give extended quotations of whole chapters from the Bible. Even in its seriousness, it is not an earnest book, by any means; it isn’t trying at lengths to convince you of its beauty and power. Rather, it is poised, secure, and relaxed in its seduction of the human heart. And boy, does it seduce.
There are other stunningly beautiful books–The Great Gatsby comes to mind–-but even those books take some breaks in their poetry for some “mere” exposition. Steinbeck’s novel, however, is aesthetically relentless. From beginning to end, page after page, the limits of the English language are pushed to break one’s heart over and over and over again by awashing it in such beauty and imagery and metaphor, bringing life and light even to the dead and dark in the pages.
And this vivifying force extends to the deep humanity Steinbeck has for his characters. You will scarcely find another novel with even one character as fully realized as those in East of Eden, much less the huge numbers found here. None is a caricature or an over-simplified distillation of generic human qualities. Every person mentioned, even in passing, is so distinct as a human being, in all their complexity, comedy, and tragedy.
And ultimately, it is this that most exemplifies the heart from which this novel is poured and the place to which it draws us. East of Eden is a staggering piece of beauty and depth, offered by an artist with such compassion and love for the dignity and complexity of humans, even in their deepest sin and darkness.
One conversation, I believe, offers us the clearest picture of the book’s vision, sweep, and thesis. I’ve edited and removed all specific mentions of character and plot to avoid spoilers (you’re welcome). I think this same conversation could be offered between every human–lovers, friends, enemies–and even within every human’s own soul:
“Do you hate me?”
“No, but you hate me a little. Why is that?”
“I—I’m afraid of you.”
“No need to be.”
“I’ve hurt you more than you know.”
“But I’m glad you told me.”
“Because now I know I didn’t make it all up. I feel free now. And I think I love you.”
“But I’m not good.”
“I love you because you’re not good.”
The lack of “good” mentioned here is not playful, flirtatious, or salacious. The badness spoken of is the deep pain and darkness that exists in all of us. East of Eden emphatically tells us that we do not find life by drawing close to those on what we imagine to be the “right” road–who see all things as pure and good and have little capacity to hold the brokenness of others’ in their sights; nor is it found with those that live solely on the “bad” road–whose lives turn inside on themselves such that they become less human and treat others likewise.
Rather, life in relationship with others is found by drawing close to those who, as one character puts it, are “crammed full to the top with every good thing and every bad thing.” It is when one sees their own darkness and accepts their “not good”-ness, and in turn draws close to others of the same realization, that the light can begin cresting upon the horizon.
East of Eden invites us into a slog, a journey, a work. The book has such compassion for every one of its characters–even its most vile ones–and invites us to do the same, even as we hurt others and they hurt us. And this is so hard.
Yet life and meaning can never be found in relationship with those that are “good”, but only in those that have experienced they are “not good”–meaning that they have seen themselves as what we all most truly are.
This raw, elemental, basic truth of humanity is what stares at us from beneath the surface of the waters. It is the mirror that East of Eden holds to our souls. It is the judgment laid before us, and it is that rarest and sweetest form of judgment: one devoid of all nihilism, one that acts as both a sword that cuts and a balm that soothes, and one which invites us to work for what is most meaningful in our lives–hard, but beautiful relationships. Relationships only held in existence by the tenacity of forgiveness and grace, even against radical sin.
Northern California’s Salinas Valley is the first “character” we meet in the book, and it serves as the backdrop for the rest of what follows. In it we see a beautiful metaphor of where we are invited to find light in the midst of such darkness: relationships forged through the fire and valley of human depravity and pain, and up the other side into life, freedom, and forgiveness.
Steinbeck and East of Eden, therefore, offer us a choice. Will we live our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from all the “bad” and hurt in the world, thus missing the depths of relationship that can come from mercy, forgiveness, redemption, grace, and compassion? Or can we see others and ourselves in the full truth of our “not good”-ness and still love them–growing our capacity to hold both the light and darkness of others within our hearts, not loving them in spite of what’s most broken in them, but precisely because we see them for who they truly are?
It is a daily choice. It is fitting that this novel is a retelling of the opening of Genesis–a book of beginnings. For even in the book’s finality and end, its invitation and vision are offered to us not as an ending, but rather a beginning: of new life, new love, and a new world. It is a call to a hard, but beautiful life; a life whose hope is not founded on whether we will or will not choose the beautiful road of brokenness and compassion, but in the freedom and dignity of being human, in which we are imbued with the honor that we can and “mayest” choose such a road of blessing, beauty, and brokenness.
What will you choose?
[image credit: “Autumn under the Tatras” by Jozef Fabini]