I was going to write something about Republicans and their absurd campaign to accuse the Dems of voter fraud and how the fabric of Democracy is in jeopardy, not because of the long list of things that the Bush administration has perpetrated but because of ACORN?! But who cares at this point? I'm just going to assume that it's all too ridiculous, too desperate, and too late for McCain and the GOP, and Americans have made up their mind by now. If I'm wrong I commit myself here and now to giving up blogging on political matters. It has been until now a kind of act of hope. A GOP victory will squeeze the last bit of that out of me.
So I want to shift gears and write about John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which I've been reading on and off for the last month. It's interesting for the ways in which it succeeds and fails. He's telling his own family saga while interweaving it with the fictional mythopoetic saga of the Trask family. I'm not sure it succeeds as great literature, but I admire its ambition--for its attempt to take on a big idea, and to use fiction as a tool to explore it. The book in this sense points us to something that is worth our thinking about. East of Eden is a 600-page exegesis of Genesis 4:1-16, which tells the Cain and Abel story. Steinbeck is at pains to make clear he sees this as a story that discloses a universal truth about the human condition, not an exercise in Judaeo-Christian theologizing.
He is right in pointing to this story as a key to understanding the paradox at the heart of the human moral predicament--that our soul-life comprises the impulses of both the serpent and the dove. And he is right to point to the possibility of resolving resolution of this paradox in the Hebrew word "timshel," which appears in verse 7: "Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it." That "you can conquer it" is the key idea in the book. Steinbeck pushes the idea that timshel means "You can" or "Thou mayest"--not 'You will' or "You must," as it is sometimes translated. In his journal about writing the book Steinbeck said, "Here is individual responsibility and the invention of conscience. You can if you will but it is up to you. This little story turns out to be one of the most profound in the world. I always felt it was, but now I know it is."
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and guileless as doves." It suggests that in order to be who we must be in the world we need to coordinate the efforts of both the serpent and dove that for most of us are dissociated aspects of our psychic constitution. The Cain and Abel story is the account of how that dissociation occurs both in mythic time and in our common human experience. The mark of Cain is in the image of the serpent, the mark of Abel in the image of the dove. The serpent is skeptical about anything that is not given to the senses, wise and curious about the world, competitive, clever, and ambitious about negotiating one's way in it. The dove is a childlike innocence, unambitious idealism, simple joy and playfulness, a fundamental goodness. But here's the important idea: despite our inclination to think otherwise, the Abel-dominant types are not "better" or morally superior to the Cain-dominant types.
So I want to think out loud here about Steinbeck's take on this basic idea. I'm not sure I know what I think about his ideas about Cain and Abel, but here's what I think he's saying: Conquering sin means to overcome our split natures and our fundamental alienation from ourselves, and it begins with the reconciliation of the Cain/Abel or serpent/dove polarity. We each of us have both Cain and Abel in us, just as we all have male and female in us, but one side is dominant. There are extreme Cain-dominant types (Cathy) and extreme Abel-dominant types (Adam), but most of us have a more even mix of both. Both Cain-dominant and Abel-dominant types are prone to 'sin' in different ways. Both are trapped insofar as they are incapable of embracing and integrating their recessive aspects. Conquering sin is at its root the task of overcoming our fundamental alienation from God, from one another, from the earth, but it starts with overcoming the alienation we experience within ourselves. The ur-split in the human soul that is at the very foundation of what ails us as human beings is told in the Cain and Abel story.
Both types have a tendency to be trapped in their one-sidedness, and to project the most negative aspects of their recessive traits onto the other. The culmination of this story depicts the moral failure of Aron, the Abel-dominant type, and the moral advancement of Cal, the Cain-dominant type. It might be easier for Abel types to be good, but it's also easy for them to succumb to rigid, delusional thinking. They don't see the world as it is; rather they see what they want to see as it fits their imagination of it. Cain types see the world clearly and realistically, but have a harder time with love, which they tend only to see in biological or power terms.
Abel-dominant types see themselves as high-minded idealists, mystics, artists, and see the Cain types as crass, materialist philistines, as clever manipulators and game players who care nothing for truth and beauty, but only for a thing's cash value. The Cain types, who see themselves as worldly wise and sophisticated, see the Abel types as life's losers, naive hippies, rigid ideologues, easily manipulable fools with their heads in the clouds. William James in The Will to Believe talks about the same split in personality types in his description as "hard-headed" realists and "soft-hearted" idealist psychological types. And so, Steinbeck suggests, the ideal is to be both--hard-headed serpents and soft-hearted doves. Sam Hamilton, about whom more later, embodies such an integration.
Extreme Cain-dominant types like Cathy Ames/Trask are sociopaths, but the more socially acceptable Cain-dominant type is the Tom Sawyer, Eddie Haskell or Alex Keaton type who is always playing the angles, gaming the system to advance his self interest. If unliked as children for their fast-talking manipulativeness and compulsive need to win, they are naturally successful as adults because they intuitively understand and embrace the way the world works, accept uncritically and learn quickly the world's rules, and are ambitious to be winners in the world's game. They are people whose feet are planted firmly on the earth.
I don't know for sure whether the distribution between the two types is evenly split, but in my experience it is. The Cain types are the practical doers, the Marthas of the world. The Abel types are the dreamers and contemplatives--the Marys of the world. But within the Abel camp there are both left and right wings, and both left and right Abel types have a harder time than their Cain brethren in dealing with the world in its evil and ugliness. The lefties are the Huck Finns, the utopians, hippies and anarchists, the haters of "civilized" life--they tend not to be very successful on the world's terms. And there are the righties who are the religiously or ideologically rigid fanatics and perfection-obsessed control freaks prone to witch hunts and purges.The righties can be either fascists or Jacobins in the political sphere. Either type is living in a fantasy that they hope to impose forcibly onto the world.
Cain-dominant types are not inclined to fanaticism--they are too pragmatic. And they are suspicious of all religions and ideologies because of the craziness they have seen too often associated with them. And they are right--the ungrounded or dissociated Abel-dominant type is prone to profoundly delusional thinking and to dangerous and often violent behaviors that follow from it. Cain types can be individually dangerous, Abel types can be collectively dangerous because of their tendency to join groups and cults whose members mutually reinforce a collective fantasy and the magical thinking that often comes with it. The Cain type is far too skeptical, and is too much of an individualist to fall into those kinds of collective delusions.
So the ungrounded Abel type is prone to evils just as dangerous, or even more so, as the too-grounded Cain type. The ideal is the integrated human who has his feet firmly on the earth and his head in the stars. Goethe, Shakespeare, and in EOE Sam Hamilton are representatives of this type. Or perhaps, it's possible also to have one's head and hands working actively on the earth with one's feet planted in the stars, which is the mark of the great servant saints like Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, in EOE I think Lee. One way or the other, the ideal is to be neither one nor the other, but the integration of both.
The task for Cain types is to integrate the recessive part of them that is dove-like, and for Abel types to integrate the recessive part of them that is serpent like. Steinbeck's narrative suggests that the degree of our success or failure as moral beings depends on the degree to which each of us effects this integration. In East of Eden, Cal, the Cain-dominant type, is Aron's moral superior because Aron in his project to remain untainted by the world's and his own moral ugliness refuses to accept the Cain/serpent part of his nature and does everything he can do to run away away from it. He remains a moral infant despite his natural goodness. He is killed in the war, but as they grow older dissociated Abel types become either drug addicts or Grand Inquisitors. The fundamental moral task is not to surrender to one or the other side, but the struggle to live in the tension between them, and in doing so to effect their marriage.
Cain-dominant types like Cal have stories of integrating their recessive aspect that are depicted more commonly than Abel-dominant types. The gangsta who feels intense remorse upon realizing how badly he's hurting his mother. The overambitious businessman who realizes that he doesn't know his kids. The manipulative woman who realizes that her life is loveless. They come up against the fundamental nihilism at the bottom of the Cain way of doing things and shipwreck, so to speak. They become vulnerable to a grace that breaks in from outside the system, which is in effect their Abel side demanding to be taken seriously.
Abel-dominant types, on the other hand, want to live in an ideal fantasy of the world, and will do so unless something forces them out of it. The only thing that snaps Abel-dominant types out of their perfectionistic fantasy life is a shock. The shock carries risks because it might drive this type into deeper forms of disconnection from the real world. In EOE's Adam we see that negative result in the shock delivered by Cathy when she shot him, but a positive result when Sam hit and knocked him down when he learned that Adam was so lost in his depressed reverie after Cathy's leaving him that he hadn't gotten around to naming his one-year old twins.
The young, overprotected Siddhārtha Gautama is a classic example of an Abel-dominant type being shocked out of his revery in his discovery of the ugliness and evil in the world. Dostoyevski's Alyosha Karamzov's shock in learning of Father Zossima's rapidly decomposing body is another classic case of an Abel-dominant type being shocked into the real world by ugly truths. Hamlet, I think, is another story of an Abel-dominant type, shocked at first into dissociated passivity, similar to the one EOE's Adam falls into after the birth of his twins. Aron's encounter with the ugly truth about his mother, another example.
Cain types aren't shocked by the ugliness of the world. They accept it as it is, and do their best to navigate in it. Abel-dominant types, when they embrace the part of themselves that is Cain-like, become capable of great works. But sometimes after a shock they flee their idealism, thinking of it as a mistake of their youth, and become cranky cynics when they are older. The bitterest cynics are usually Abel types who in response to shock or disappointment while young react too extremely. Humiliated by their naivete, they assume there was never anything real about their ideals. So they reverse polarities, so to speak.They discard them completely and become identified with their dissociated Cain aspect. They don't know the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Cynicism is a lazy strategy used by those who have been fooled to prevent themselves from being fooled again.
Dissociation is the great evil; integration the great good. The wise, jovial, and ingenious Sam Hamilton, a character based on Steinbeck's maternal grandfather, is the image of the integrated human--the righteous man whose righteousness lies in his having integrated the craftiness of the serpent with the guileless innocence of the dove. In Sam you see what a human looks like who has married the two. Sam is more than a temperament; he is an accomplishment--the sum of his choices, and in him there is a glorious comical, generous self-sufficiency that overflows and lifts the lives of everyone around him. He is a mechanical genius, endlessly inventive, and curious about everything because he is so deeply connected to everyone and everything around him. He is both self-reliant and interdependent. He describes himself as a mediocre man, but he is quite the opposite--a great soul in a modest station.
Others among the Hamilton children are like the rest of us, a mix of successes and failures, because for few is a victory decisive. This condition of neither succeeding or failing completely is the existential predicament I think Luther pointed to in his delcaration, "simul iustus et peccator"--"at the same time justified and sinner." For him it was an irreconcilable polarity or paradox that defined us as human. The Calvinists tended to emphasize the peccator part in their ideas about the fundamental depravity of human nature and of its need for radical regeneration by God's grace, but the Calvinist interpretation for timshel is Thou shalt, not Thou mayest. You are either depraved or saved, and don't have much say in the matter. And the Lutheran formulation, while it lends itself to the kind of paradoxical tension explored by Kierkegaard, is more likely to lead souls less rigorous than his to a kind of complacent or passive ambivalence.
I might be unfairly simplifying both of those classic Protestant formulations of the human predicament, but I would argue that the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox traditions seem more amenable to Steinbeck's idea of timshel. Both traditions stress a process of sanctification or theosis, which is chosen, and it is a work. These traditions focus more on the goodness of creation and the human being, which is wounded but not destroyed, and which in the fullness of time shall be perfected and healed. Sanctification is a work one chooses to undertake, but at the same time not completely an achievement of the will, at least not any more than a bountiful crop is a willed achievement of the farmer. He can't will his crops to grow, but he can choose to do the work that allows them to germinate, mature, flower, and fruit.
All humanity and the earth are in need of deep healing, and in need of grace to slowly restore them to complete health. But in daily practice the different churches are pretty much alike in understanding their job as converting Cain types into embracing Abel attitudes and behaviors. This is not always a bad thing, but too often it promotes a morality of alienation and dissociation rather than deep healing. The challenge is not just behavioral, it's to effect a deeply emotional shift which is as difficult to achieve as to deeply, truly come to love one's enemy. There is nothing glib or easy about such a shift; it is a tremendously hard work and a significant accomplishment.
In Abra and Cal we see Steinbeck's attempt to show a process by which people who are born Abel-dominant or Cain-dominant find their way to embrace and integrate the Otherness in the recessive aspect of their own natures that for each is so difficult to love. This is where the mythopoeisis in Steinbeck's narrative is a little heavy handed, but still there is more here in Abra's coming to love Cal than a heady, plot-driven contrivance. It had emotional resonance for me. It was believable to me--as was the encounter in which Lee and Abra recognize one another as Father and Daughter. But in Cal's and Abra's discovery of and embrace of their other halves, we also see the mythopoetic dimension of the narrative that culminates in the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage, the alchemical wedding, which is the archetypal image of the enactment of this integration within the human soul.
This is one particular enactment of this union. I don't think it happens in a formulaic way. And I think it takes great wisdom and spiritual discernment for anyone--friends, lovers, parents, pastors--to understand how this works in the people about whom they care most. But I would argue it is the path to sanctification, the recovery of the human, who, though created in the image and likeness of God, is now shattered and who needs to be put back together again.
To be obsessed with Utopian fantasies is to be in a kind of hell, but so is it hell to live only in a world where playing the game is all there is: whoever gets the most money, power, and sex wins. The task in the political sphere is to effect a marriage between the Abels and Cains, the idealists and the pragmatists. A good marriage is never about hair-splitting the differences--there has to be a magnanimity and a respect for honest differences while at the same time celebrating where there is agreement and deep sense of felt connection and amity. The center is not defined by one's political opinions but by one's commitment to be open to the Other, and if the Other shows reciprocal openness, a marriage is possible.
To be in the center does not mean to give in to the fanatics of the right or left, but to be open to working things out with honest, passionate partisans of the left and the right. So it is never about just giving in; it's about creating something new. A marriage succeeds of fails depending on the capacity of each partner to participate and grow something that is bigger than the individuals.
The problem, of course, for us is that the honest players on both right and left or in the two principal parties are not at the center but at the periphery. A vibrant center cannot be created and grown by people who are fundamentally dishonest, and this is why most talk about bi-partisanship is delusional. It assumes that the principals have an honest interest in something other than advancing their own narrow agendas. There are plenty of snakes playing the system, but very few who combine in a full-souled way the idealism of the dove with the shrewdness and tenacity of the serpent. They are in the system, but they are peripheral to its operations. And in the operational center, there is so much delusional, dissociated thinking, one hardly knows how to think about it or deal with it in a practical way.
My hope is that Obama is in fact an honest man. I don't know that he is, but he shows encouraging signs that he might be. I read him as an Abel-dominant type who has come to accept that the world, and politics in particular, is an ugly place, full of wolves waiting to chew him to pieces, and that he has to be cautiously shrewd in negotiating his way toward achieving certain limited, plausibly achievable goals.
He is not a finished product, and if he is who I hope he might be, he will grow into the job. I will be disappointed if he doesn't at least reach one plausibly achievable goal, viz., to shift the framework of political discourse from solid right to center left--to New Deal, version 2.0. and in doing so to push the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Malkins, Lowrys to a delegitimized fringe where they will talk irrelevantly and impotently among themselves. There are some signs already that this is happening. There is no moving forward so long as a framework that legitimizes the hard right remains in place. And so I will be sorely disappointed if Obama turns out to be Bill Clinton, version 2.0. Both Clintons are Cain-dominant types who were too comfortable with the existing rules. They think of themselves as realists, and that's why they, like most Cain-dominant types, underestimated or dismissed as the foolishness of what Obama represents.
The Clinton/Gore ticket was a balanced match between a Cain type and an Abel type. Bill is the fast talking Tom Sawyer, who I believe sincerely wants to do good, but it's mostly for him about the game. Al Gore is the Huck Finn who despises the game, and his attempts to play it were inept to the point of ridiculous. He's much freer in the role he's playing now, more balanced, and is much more himself.
Obama interests me for the way he presents a balance of both the serpent and the dove. His FISA vote was a disturbing indicator that it's quite possible that the serpent part of his personality whacked the dove part, shoved him in the trunk, and took over in the driver's seat unassisted by any dove thinking. But I doubt that has happened, and in the short run I'm willing to cut him some slack. The question is not whether someone makes mistakes or occasionally exercises poor judgment--everyone does. More important is whether he has an integrating center, a kind of interior gyroscope that keeps him steady on his feet. I see more signs of that in Obama than I do in McCain. I think most Americans see the same thing, even if they wouldn't say it that way.
So I'm looking forward to how this movie develops. I don't think it will be one we've seen before. I think that the objective circumstances will force certain fundamental plot shifts. But we'll see.
[Ed. Note: just re-read this, 9/18/2010, and it looks, alas, like the serpent has whacked Obama and thrown him in the trunk. I describe here how some Abel-dominant types reverse polarity and become Cain-dominant but with a cynicism Cain types don't have. I don't think this is true of Obama--I think it's more a case of the two parts not talking to one another. He wouldn't be where he is today if he didn't have a very shrewd serpent side, but the problem seems to be that that part of him is embarrassed by his dove side. He mistrusts his Abel side, sees it as flaky, and so restrains it because he thinks he must in order to be taken seriously by all the snakes who dominate the Beltway scene. ]