The story of the Salinas Valley at the turn-of-the-20th-century, “East of Eden” deserves its praise, one of several novels earning Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author described the book this way, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
Simply said, he tells the truth about us, glorious ruins that we are— or at least enough of the truth to make us squirm.
One of the heart-aching threads in the story is of the Trask family, who come to California from Connecticut full of hope, and find great sorrow. A good man, the husband Adam imagines that he understands his wife Cathy, but he severely misses what she wants, the horribly marred woman that she is— and it is her “wants” that become tragic, played out in the lives of the family over generations.
At one point, husband and wife meet after years of separation, one fateful night with its own revelations and terrors. Full of yearning, Adam says to Cathy (now Kate, and the madam of what Steinbeck calls “a whorehouse”), “I wonder what you want, what final thing?”
The question caught me, as it is one I have been asking for a long time. Not new to me, human beings have been asking about “wants” and “final things” in many different ways for thousands of years. What do we want, when all is said and done? And how are going to live in light of our longings, in relation to our beliefs about what matters most— our wants forming us as they do?
Do you have a telos that is sufficient to meaningfully orient your praxis over the course of life?
That question has been running through my teaching for most of my life. While the words, “telos” and “praxis” may seem unusual, they are actually at the heart of everyone’s heart. Why are we alive? What is the point of life, of my life? What do I most want? We all begin here, in some way on some level asking and answering these questions. But getting the “telos” right is only part of what matters. Does the way we answer the question of “telos,” honestly, meaningfully, form the way we live, our “praxis”? Does our praxis, the ordinary push-and-pull of everyone’s life, reflect what we say matters most to us, our telos?
The question matters because our longings shape us; in a certain sense, we become our longings, we become our “wants.” One of the truest truths about us is that we are “wanters,” each one of us, which is why the very wise man, Augustine of Hippo, saw us as most fully known in our longings— his insights into us have made him known as “the apostle of longing.” So “I wonder what do you want, the final thing?” is no small thing, because it affects everything else.
None of us does that perfectly. In fact everyone of us falls short, stumbling along the way of our best efforts. That is painfully true of Steinbeck’s characters, even tragically so. I haven’t yet decided what I think of the book as a whole, but there are moments along the way that are profound, speaking so very deeply about who we are, and how we live, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve— living “east of Eden” as we do.