Sunday, October 30, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on How Lies Formed a Human Monster)

“I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape….

“Cathy's lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit. Most liars are tripped up either because they forget what they have told or because the lie is suddenly faced with an incontrovertible truth. But Cathy did not forget her lies, and she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also -- either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.”—Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968), East of Eden (1952)

Several months ago, I thought of using the above quote to mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of East of Eden. Though I didn’t have time to write at the length I wanted then, it may have turned out for the best. This meditation by John Steinbeck on a monster in beguiling human form is appropriate for the present moment—the weekend before Halloween, not to mention an evil hour in the life of the American republic.

Several years ago, when the American version of House of Cards was still in production, a close relative of mine asked about Robin Wright’s Lady Macbeth-type political wife, “How could a woman so beautiful be so evil?” 

Claire Underwood’s American psychological predecessor was Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames, who sheds lovers, homes—even past identities—as periodically as a serpent does its skin.

I use “serpent” advisedly, as East of Eden, as alluded to in the title, is an allegory. 

The two male characters with first names beginning with “A”—Adam and Aron Trask—are innocent or naïve, like Adam and son Abel in the Book of Genesis. The three males with first names starting with “C”—Cyrus, Charles and Caleb—are analogous to Cain—wild, resentful and despairing.

The letter “C” also suggests Cathy’s affinity with the second set of Trask males. But as the novels’ principal female, she also functions like Eve or Lilith, the she-demon of Near East mythology.

Since its publication, East of Eden has not been treated warmly by literary critics, who have complained that Steinbeck grafted this allegorical structure onto a historical saga about his maternal family, the Hamiltons; that the novel is long and ungainly; and that the author intruded commentary on the action, violating the injunction to today’s creative writing students to “show, not tell.”

But, though East of Eden may not be perfect, it is surely compelling, with its dramatic qualities recognized when it was turned into a film in 1955, a network TV mini-series in 1981, and (now in development) a Netflix limited series written by Zoe Kazan.

Hollywood’s divergent treatments of this sprawling epic partly set in Steinbeck’s own Salinas County resulted in different main characters. The movie’s director, Elia Kazan, narrowed the plot to the book’s last quarter, spotlighting James Dean in a prototype thereafter indelibly associated with him: a conflicted, tortured youth.

But in the early 1980s, the golden age of the mini-series, TV offered the opportunity for a more expansive treatment of the novel—6½ hours that concentrated on Adam and Cathy. Inevitably, viewers focus less on Adam, who fundamentally changes little, than on Cathy (played by Jane Seymour, pictured in the image accompanying this post).

Midway through the plot, Cathy abandons her life as wife and mother to become Kate, a prostitute and madam. Her sexuality is not itself sinful. It’s her use of it, combined with her propensity for deceit, that makes her fascinating and unpredictable.

As cunning as Eden’s serpent, Kate becomes additionally cynical as she learns how the hypocrisy of her clients in the sex trade leaves them utterly vulnerable to her insatiable drive for wealth.

While middle-aged Adam is scrupulous to a fault, refusing gains from son Caleb’s speculation on beans in a wartime economy, Kate says in business by keeping a stash of photos of brothel clients for blackmail.

Rereading East of Eden after over 40 years, I found inadequate Steinbeck’s explanation that monsters like Cathy/Kate are “variations from the accepted norm to a greater or a less degree.”

But the better word to describe this heinous type is “violations” rather than “variations.” While “variations” are something inherent that a person is born with and unable to change, “violations” are products of free will.

Cathy/Kate violates every norm of responsibility and selflessness. She shares with Cyrus, Charles and Caleb a willfulness that leads to destructive outbursts, but unlike them never resists this impulse.

That lack of remorse renders her utterly alien, Steinbeck observes, in the same way that, “To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish.”

In the postwar period, the United States struggled to understand the radical evil that gave birth to the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. But Americans’ aspirations for liberty didn’t eliminate their own vulnerability to cynics ready to exploit falsehood and bent on power.

After all, East of Eden arrived halfway through the reign of terror perpetrated by Joseph McCarthy, as careless about truth as he was about the damage he created through his access to the media and investigative responsibility in the U.S. Senate.

Steinbeck abominated McCarthy but did not find him alien to the Eden of American democracy, according to an article this past week in the British paper The Guardian

In an essay that originally appeared in 1954 in the French journal Le Figaro Litteraire (now published in English for the first time by Strand Magazine), the novelist wrote:

“We have always had a McCarthy. I could list names and movements going back to the beginning of our history. And always the end was the same … It changes its name every few years. It always uses the bait of improvement or safety.”

The exterior of Cathy Ames may have been beautiful, but her interior was as ugly as Joe McCarthy’s. The senator, Steinbeck warned in his French essay, represented “the taking of power by a self-interested group.”

Current events lead me to think that Cathy schemed enough but didn’t dream big enough. All she wanted was wealth accumulated and invested as a sex worker.

Nowadays, if applied on the campaign trail, her reckless disregard for truth, her mockery and infringement of every civilized norm, could have landed Steinbeck’s monster on Capitol Hill, a serpent in the temple of American democracy.

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