No good publication should go unburned
October 11, 2007
No book has the right to ambush a person’s private musings 15 years after they turned its final page. But, good ones always do anyway.
I was mowing the lawn the other day ” which gives an outward purpose to my wanderings around the yard while thinking about stuff ” when, for no apparent reason, new thoughts on an old story came to mind.
It’s difficult to find anything that gets to the truth better than good fiction. It’s thing that makes great literature so enjoyable, and autobiographies, for the most part, a waste of time. The exception is autobiographical fiction based on an extraordinary life, which allows the author to puff and blow a little bit without much harm to readers’ senses, while allowing enough leeway so that the writer can make a run at honesty ” while leaving a handy escape should anyone take them to task for it.
Tied with many others for the penultimate spot on my list of all-time great books is one such novel, Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” In the author’s own words, it is ” … the story of my country and the story of me.” I would respectfully add that it is a story about one of the great struggles of the individual, namely the attempt to discover what it is that determines the nature of each of us.
The book is extremely complex, with multiple storylines running through it simultaneously, all woven so tightly that it feels like telepathic silk wrapping around your thoughts, that it has induced, keeping them warm and nurturing them so that someday they will grow so large as to make your head ache for harboring them. A major theme centers on what appears to be the inherit evil and goodness in twin brothers, Caleb and Aaron Trask. It is a Cain and Abel story with a twist. Where the classic Genesis story places good and evil in obvious and simple terms for explanatory purposes, Steinbeck’s version mixes and muddles them for exploration.
To make a long, gracefully moving story short and unable to dance, the twins’ mother, a deceitful, greedy, murdering whore, leaves the family shortly after giving birth to her boys. The kind and forgiving father is left to raise the children as a single parent in the wild western Salinas Valley.
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As the boys make the involuntary migration into adolescence, Caleb, the “bad boy,” yields to his natural curiosity and discovers the truth about his mother. He visits her in the brothel she runs and, after revealing his identity, she punishes him by telling him that he is exactly like she is. Aaron meanwhile lives blissfully unaware, Caleb doing all he can to preserve his brother’s ignorance, innocence, and goodness, which are presumably inseparable. Caleb is convinced that Aaron has inherited all of their father’s virtue and he, his mother’s vices, foremost jealousy, which ironically causes him to crave love. The stories depiction of the strength of the individual, good or evil, is inspiring.
A twist in Caleb’s exploration of his hypothesis on inherited disposition is known only to the reader: The twins are actually a product of a lustful foray by the contemptible mother with the boys’ equally despicable uncle. With this insight, the reader is aware that good and evil can only be products of one’s own doing and that no person can be justly punished for the crimes of their father (or mother).
The violation of respect for this truth is evidentially abhorrent in real life. A man hates his neighbor for some wrong committed against him. His son grows to hate the neighbor’s son because he is a descendant of the perpetrator. The hate escalates to the point where entire families hate entire other families until names begin to change through marriage and generations. Contrary to what one would hope, oftentimes the hate at this juncture isn’t diluted. It becomes more potent. It can no longer be aimed at a single family name, so it is blanketed over all names of similar origin and even people of common physical characteristics. Thus, a descendent, decades removed from the original crime, ends up hating all “Hebes,” “niggers” and “wet backs” because he has convicted all for the act of one whom he never even knew.
This theme came back to me while absently mulching grass. While I pushed the mower in a pattern of parallel lines across the lawn, my mind wandered wildly. A daymare sprung on my unguarded consciousness, perhaps from the remnants of a story in the Saturday paper, tucked deeply into gray matter, about the alarmingly common torture of women in the Congo. It led to the realization that many women there become pregnant by rape and not just by the hyperbole of election-year politicians. The unspeakable question begged for an answer: What happens to the babies?
For those staunchly defending the right of a woman to have an abortion under any circumstance, I suppose the answer is easy. Staying close to this safe line on the pro-life side, in an attempt to expediently handle a potentially tragic campaign issue, I think the acceptable thing to say is that one is against abortion except in cases of rape. It appears that there is popular agreement on this common solution because there has been little real thought about it.
So, I write about it now because the question, as awful as it is, came to me and I can’t dodge my conscience. In light of Steinbeck’s book and its plea to us to examine an obvious truth, it becomes a profound question.
And, here is my humble answer, not without amply consulting sympathy for the incomprehensible suffering involved: If we believe that a fetus is human life and we accept the notion that no person should be punished for the crimes of its parent, aborting a baby because its father is a rapist is not the right thing to do. A bad life is not predetermined.
But, this column wasn’t intended to be a political stump on a controversial issue. My intention was to demonstrate how powerful literature can be. Some people’s reaction to this influence has been to burn books. I have stronger faith in mankind. I suggest reading more of them.