June 26, 2016
"I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul."
East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
Someone on Goodreads described this novel as "delicious," and I think that's pretty apt—it is rich in story, description, humanity—and it satiated my literary appetite, if you will. The last sentences gave me a jolt and made me cry. Steinbeck is officially a favorite.
I should add my grandfather, a Lee, arrived to San Francisco from China in 1948 so I felt an extra closeness to this character and excerpt somehow. I could picture abuelo as a member of this association, ha. He might've stayed instead of going to the Dominican Republic and, well, how different everything would be. I'm not sure whether Steinbeck did this on purpose, but so fitting that this should appear exactly halfway through the story:
"I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own."
"I have heard of them," said Samuel.
"You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?"
"I guess so."
"It's a little different from that, really," said Lee. "I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.
"They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well."
Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. "I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long."
Lee laughed. "I guess it's funny," he said. "I know I wouldn't dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn't bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter."
"And you?" said Samuel.
"I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn't long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking--the beautiful thinking.
"After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too--'Thou shalt' and 'Do thou.' And htis was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' 'Thou mayest rule over sin.' The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek."
Samuel said, "It's a fantastic story. And I've tried to follow and maybe I've missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?"
Lee's hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. "Don't you see?" he cried. "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. 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 the man. For if 'Thou mayest'--it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' Don't you see?"
"Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?"
"Ah!" said Lee. "I've wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, 'Do thou,' and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in 'Thou shalt.' Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win." Lee's voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, "Do you believe that, Lee?"
"Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, 'I couldn't help it; the way was set.' But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There's no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?"
Adam said, "Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?"
Lee said, "These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this--this is a ladder to climb to the stars." Lee's eyes shone. "You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness."
Adam said, "I don't see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this."
"Neither do I," said Lee. "But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing--maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed--because 'Thou mayest.'"
"I was thinking about that time when Sam Hamilton and you and I had a long discussion about a word," said Adam. "What was that word?"
"Now I see. The word was timshel."
"Timshel--and you said--"
"I said that word carried a man's greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it."
"I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it."
"It set him free," said Lee. "It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man."
"All great and precious things are lonely."
"What is the word again?"
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