November 23, 2014

''Timshel'' (Thou Mayest) - And Why It Makes All The Difference

Filippo Vitale, ''Cain and Abel''

John Steinbeck's East of Eden is perhaps the lengthiest work of literature based on the story of Cain and Abel. Though its 601 pages are intimidating at first, they contain powerful truths and reflections.

Summary (although you really should read the book for yourself)

"Set in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley, this sprawling and and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons--whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel." (description found in my copy)

East of Eden takes place over a long period of time. It details two sets of Father-Son and Brother-Brother relationships which reflect the Biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. John Steinbeck, though very subtle in many ways, leaves nothing to interpretation as to who is who: Cyrus Trask begets Adam and Charles Trask, while Adam Trask in turn begets Aron and Caleb Trask.

Most of the novel focuses on Adam Trask and his relationship with Cathy Ames, a wicked woman who finds pleasure in manipulating and crushing those who stand in her way, with no other seeming purpose than her own ambitions.  "The trouble is that since we cannot know what she wanted, we will never know whether or not she got it," writes Steinbeck.

Caleb, dark and withdrawn, is devoured by jealousy of his brother Aaron, who is loved by all and whose academic success is praised by their father Adam, while Caleb's business endeavours are utterly rejected. In his anger, Caleb takes his revenge, which results in Aron dying.

The Biblical Reference

Here is the story of Cain and Abel as quoted in the novel (this is important):

Adam started to speak and Samuel looked up at him and he was silent and covered his eyes with his hand. Samuel read, " 'And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord has respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he has not respect.' " (...) " 'And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, "Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him."" 'And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him' "

From the reading of this passage follows a discussion between Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton and Lee (Adam's cook and housekeeper - Cathy did not stay with him long) on the meaning of the story and questions as to why Cain's offering was rejected. Though the discussion does not resolve at the time, Lee later recalls ''the story bit deeply into me and  and I went into it word for word (...) the more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me."

"Timshel," The Hebrew Word That Changes Everything

It is by comparing two English translation that Lee makes his discovery:

(...) they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this--it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, 'If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." It was the 'thou shalt' that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin. (...)Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, 'Do thou rule over him.' Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I begun to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer has been that these very different translations could be made."

Lee then applied himself to studying Hebrew and discussed the issue with Chinese sages, who also took on the study of Hebrew and engaged a learn rabbi.  After two years of these studies, the sages found the answer they were looking for. As Lee recalls :

This was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' 'Thou mayest rule over sin.' (...)The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin (...). 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. (...) For if 'Thou mayest'--it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' (...)(...) for in his weakness and his filth and in his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (...)

'Timshel' And The Moral Struggle Between Good and Evil
In East of Eden, the idea of choice between good and evil is a prominent theme.

Cathy Ames, who has followed an evil path since her youth, is confronted to it when her son Aron expresses his disgust at her lifestyle. She feels remorse for the first time. When confronted to this reality and the possibility of a choice, however, she commits suicide rather than abandoning her ways.

When his father Adam refuses his gift, Cal Trask is also faced with a choice: he can either forgive his father or he can jealousy consume him and seek revenge on his brother Aron. This time, Cal chooses evil, just like Cain in the biblical narrative: He exposes Aron to a disturbing family secret which prompts Aron to enroll in the army, where he eventually dies in battle.

However, the novel does not end there. Upon fully realising the evil he has committed, and though he is guilty of one of the most repulsive crimes, Cal repents and seeks forgiveness. His life is then at a crossroads: Cal cannot change the past, but he can still choose to live the right way.

DISCLAIMER: East of Eden Is Not Theology...

The purpose of literature is to deepen our understanding of human nature and the human condition. This is the perspective from which I read East of Eden. It is not a perfectly accurate retelling of the story of Cain and Abel compared to the biblical narrative, as it focuses on man's abilities for overcoming evil rather than God's grace.

I have even read somewhere that the hebrew word 'timshel' as employed in the Cain and Abel narrative is better translated in the imperative, and that God's words to Cain must be understood as :''You are planning to sin, and it is ready to overtake you. But you, Cain, are commanded to conquer it instead.''

In my opinion, however, and even from the perspective that 'timshel' is a command, Steinbeck's premise in East of Eden stands: Cain has free will in the face of a choice between good or evil. He is free to make his own decision, though the objectively right and moral one is that of good.

Picture from the 1955 ''East of Eden'' movie featuring James Dean. It's an awful movie, don't watch it.

August 31, 2014

The Other #YOLO

YOLO. You Only Live Once.

This acronym has become increasingly popular in symbolyzing a perspective that is focused on the pursuit of pleasure (the senses) as well as achieving one's personal goals and ambitions. Parallels can be drawn with the phrase carpe diem (''seize the day'') and the maxim ''eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.''

Robert Herrick's To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (1648) is emblematic of carpe diem as a literary genre:

''Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May''
- John William Waterhouse (1909)
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
                       You may forever tarry.

Thomas Jordan's Coronemus nos Rosis antequam marcescant (1637) gives a more comprehensive illustration of carpe diem as idealized during this time period:

Jacob Jordaens, The King Drinks
Let us drink and be merry, dance, joke, and rejoice,
With claret and sherry, theorbo and voice!
The changeable world to our joy is unjust,
      All treasure’s uncertain,
      Then down with your dust!
In frolics dispose your pounds, shillings, and pence,
For we shall be nothing a hundred years hence.

We’ll sport and be free with Moll, Betty, and Dolly,
Have oysters and lobsters to cure melancholy:
Fish-dinners will make a lass spring like a flea,
      Dame Venus, love’s lady,
      Was born of the sea;
With her and with Bacchus we’ll tickle the sense,
For we shall be past it a hundred years hence.

Your most beautiful bride who with garlands is crown’d
And kills with each glance as she treads on the ground,
Whose lightness and brightness doth shine in such splendour
      That none but the stars
      Are thought fit to attend her,
Though now she be pleasant and sweet to the sense,
Will be damnable mouldy a hundred years hence.

Then why should we turmoil in cares and in fears,
Turn all our tranquill’ty to sighs and to tears?
Let’s eat, drink, and play till the worms do corrupt us,
      ’Tis certain, Post mortem
      Nulla voluptas.
For health, wealth and beauty, wit, learning and sense,
Must all come to nothing a hundred years hence.

Life's brevity and fleetingnness found in both poems is understood here as promoting a live-in-the-moment mentality the ultimate aim being to delight one's senses (food, drink, sexuality) in a self-centered way. This lifestyle involves squandering one's money (''in frolics dispose your pounds, shillings, and pence'') without reflecting on the meaning of life (''then why should we turmoil in cares and in fears'').

Three Ages of Man (16th century) - Titian


It should be noted that this discussion focuses on 'YOLO' taken to the extreme--it is not necessarily wrong to pursue ambitions and, to some extent, leisure. Knowing that life is short can be a good incentive to seize unique opportunities and step out of one's comfort zone.

YOLO has it right. You only live once. However, as William Penn said: ''Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.'' Our time on earth is short. How, then, will we use the time that is entrusted to us?

The Book of Psalm says, ''Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.'' Similarly, Because our days are numbered, Paul urges us to ''make the most of every opportunity'' and seek wisdom. James writes that what pleases God is ''to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.''

Our purpose is thus twofold: to seek God's wisdom and goodness as well as caring for the less fortunate. Loving people--both strangers and those around us--requires selflessness and self-sacrifice. It requires us to place others' well-being above our own and invest time and energy in them.

Our knowledge that life on earth is finite should prompt us to seek truth and goodness beyond self-fulfillment, self-gratification and self-actualization.

''Learn to do right; seek justice.''

This life is the only chance we have do good, serve the truth, and make a difference in this world. Let us invest and use it wisely.

''Wreck of Time'' - Mihai Criste

March 10, 2014

Travel series: ''Il giorno é arrivato''

The man at the train station couldn't speak English, but I decided to take the next train anyway. I fell asleep on the train, I awoke, and now here I am. In Italy, for the first time.

In the frenzy and chaos of finishing exams and flying to Europe shortly after, I brought with me much adrenaline and two massive dark circles under my eyes. And now, for the first time in many months, I just am. I have no plane or train to take, no activities to do, no places to visit. 

The sun is shining bright, a chilly wind is blowing, and as I walk on the streets of this millenia-old italian city, I feel like an impostor. Everyone around me is busy: busy talking on the phone, busy going back to work, busy going home. I catch a glimpse of their routine, somewhere between home and the office, work and play.

Meanwhile, I am here passive, contemplative, useless. It feels out of place to not be working, to not have something concrete to do. Back where I come from, everything is planned, organised, work-oriented. But here I am.

I don't want to see any monuments. I don't want to visit. I just want to be, here, and now. 

I walk around. Everything is so beautiful, so full of meaning, a feast for the senses. Every sensation is amplified, every thought is loftier. How foreign it is to be a spectator, to pay attention, to notice, to appreciate. 

Parks everywhere. I pick the one that has the prettiest name, with the most vowels. 
My friend and I lie down on the grass, in full sunbeam. I left my bag about a meter away. I should probably bring it nearer, as my passport is in it and you never know. But the heat and weight of the sun are so numbing that I am paralyzed. 

I wake up and look at my watch. We have been napping for an hour and a half. My heart skips a beat, then I sigh in relief: my bag is still there. Always selfish, the sun has once more taken more from me than it has given: I feel heavy and with little energy. It is an oppressive, yet liberating feeling.

The shade is coming our way. The sun will soon be going down. It is good to be idle, for once. It is good to be an impostor of the ordinary. The day has come. 

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