So begins one of the best chapters of one of the best books by one of the best writers the world has ever known.
It is the beginning of Chapter 13 of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one of my favorite books of all time. [Click image for my review →]
To read Steinbeck is to be transported not only in place, but in time. It is to embrace a new (old) vernacular, and encounter some of the most lifelike dialogue ever composed. When he writes of dust, you feel the grit in your teeth.
In Chapter 13, at the beginning of Part II of Eden, the author slips into a bit of his philosophizing, much as another great writer, Tolstoy, was wont to do. Here the narrator definitely steps forward and addresses his readers in an aside that remains relevant to the overall story, yet is definitely jarring in its abruptness. It does seem to come out of nowhere, and for about one page-worth, Steinbeck warns of the dangers of “mass method” and “collective production.”
He points out that a man’s importance in the world should be measured by the “quality and number of his glories.”
And what were these glories to consist of? Hah! This is the awesome part!
Glories consist in a man’s individual awareness of the beauty of life.... “so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes.”
He said that the industrial age had many wonders all its own, but if they ever usurped these other “glories” mankind would be impoverished. Too much emphasis upon what the “group” can do would diminish (in its end result) the very quality of that which is done! And then he went on in an extended passage that is so wonderful, I want to reproduce it here in its entirety, and I don’t even want to spoil it by commenting at the end of it. It stands better on its own. I have taken the liberty of thinking of this passage as Steinbeck’s own credo, for his voice seems to be so strong in it, I cannot help but picture him speaking it in a spotlight. And if he did, and I were there, I would applaud till my hands were raw!
Whether it was his “credo” or not.... I wonder if he would mind if I adopted it as my own, because I want it as My Credo.
The words which follow, are his.
At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?
Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken. And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.