‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

“‘I am mine, I am my own’,
Said the ancients years ago”
–”I am mine”, Beta Radio
 

A couple of months ago I found a copy of Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck at O’Hare Airport. I had never read anything by him before, but this memoir was on my travel books list. Being traveling at the time, I thought it was only fitting to read it. This book marked me deeply, and it was the beginning of my current love affair with John Steinbeck’s work. I learned many things from and because of the book, amongst them a refreshened sense of accountability and what it means to be free.

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Also, I have a crush on him.

Almost at the beginning of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck justifies his desire of going on a road trip at his age (he was sixty) with the following quote:

“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as punishment.”

It is the last part, about acknowledging the consequences of our actions as such, where the possibility of freedom lies. Far from romanticizing free will, Steinbeck does not seek it in the possibility of doing whatever one chooses, but rather in recognizing the outcomes of our actions as completely our own. Free will resides in being individually accountable for our actions, however good or bad, fortunate or ill-timed, as completely our doing. Free will requires therefore a rejection of all superstition and religious fatality.

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Later on in his memoir, Steinbeck attends mass at a small church in Vermont. After describing the harsh manner of the priest and his straightforward attitude about hell and sinning, he writes:

“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.”

The problem with the “sinning nature” of humanity shared by many a religion lies exactly there: it is not possible to be accountable of something we are not guilty of, something we cannot help. But without accountability there cannot be choice, not self-reliance, no freedom. The priest Steinbeck writes about did not see it that way, and assured everyone in the service that they would indeed burn in hell if they did not change their ways. Instead of being frightening, this thought is uplifting for Steinbeck; there is choice then, and if one is to burn in hell, it is because of his or her own doing:

“I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.”

Funny as this passage might be, it had me thinking for a long time after finishing the book how damaging it is to find excuses for our wrong doings (in our religious belief, in our upbringing, in our family history, in our social or economic circumstances). Not only because it takes from us the pride there is in any achievement (if our wrongdoings are not our own, surely our successes can’t be completely ours either) but because it completely alters the light under which we see ourselves. There is no greater danger than believing we are not accountable for our actions, good or bad.

A few weeks after reading Travels with Charley, I bough a copy of East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to see if his novels were as compelling as what I had read so far. I was not disappointed. Out of the many things that are praise-worthy in the book, I was surprised to see the whole novel revolves about the same dilemma on free-will and accountability.

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East of Eden, as its name suggests, is in some ways a reenacting of the Book of Genesis, specially the story about Cain and Abel. The novel follows various generations of two families that settle in the Salinas Valley at the end of the 19th century: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. There is a wonderful chapter in the middle of the novel in which the characters discuss the story of Cain and Abel. As Lee, a Chinese employee in the Trask ranch, says, the different translations of the story alter its meaning completely.

When God, in the Book of Genesis, finds out Cain killed his brother Abel, he banishes Cain to the East of Eden and He says to him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?, and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door”. This is the choice given to Cain, however the next part of the dialogue varies depending on the translation. The King James versions says, “And unto thee shalt be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”. This is, as Lee acknowledges, a  promise: Cain will conquer sin, therefore his free will is taken from him.

Another version of the Bible, the American Standard, says “do thou rule over him” instead. This is not a promise, but an order, also taking free will out of the question. Lee is also not satisfied with this translation, so he consults some scholars on the Hebrew word used in the passage. The word is timshel and it does not mean either “thou shalt” or “do thou”. It means “thou mayest”, thou mayest rule over sin:

“… 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 man. For if ‘Thou mayest’, then it’s also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see? […] Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and in 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 […]

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’.”

Timshel is the motif of the whole novel, a retelling of the book of Genesis with an emphasis in the possibility of choosing. The novel follows the hardships of a varied set of characters, and each one of the is confronted with difficult choices, some great and some small, but not all of them are accountable for the paths they choose.

The same respect towards accountably that an older Steinbeck would put down in his travel memoir can be seen in East of Eden, and also his belief that literature is nothing but an attempt to explain this struggle, this search for and fear of free will:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

East of Eden was published ten years before Travels with Charley, and both follow the same line of thought on free will. They both speak of a complex kind of freedom, a kind of freedom that rejects the two main myths about humanity, that people are inherently good or evil; a kind of freedom that places a huge responsibility on being human: “You see, there is responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be”. And it is in the responsibility and in the hardship where beauty lies, for if we are capable of the worst evil, we are also capable of the greatest good; “I am my own”, Caleb says in the novel, “If I’m mean, it’s my own mean”.


I am currently reading The Grapes of Wrath (I am obsessed with Steinbeck, I know). Have you read anything by him? Any recommendations on what to read next?

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

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However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

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What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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“Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

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Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

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Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!