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East of Eden and Candide
In the midst of 80s nostalgia and remembering the greatness that was this decade, I don't want readers to think that "children of the 80s," are oblivious to great, classic literature and today's current events. Recently, I have read two incredibly amazing books. Furthermore, I have noticed some interesting parallels. The first is East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This novel is an unbelievably grandiose recreation of the Book of Genesis.
Salinas County is depicted as a place of incredible purity and innocence, in which people have simple values and work hard to sustain them. In contrast, there is Monterrey, a seedy, dirty, yet attractive town filled with brothels, bars, factories, and ports. Some sort of warped destiny once joined Mr. Trask to Kate, the union of good and evil. As a result, she gives birth to twins, Aaron and Caleb. Both Mr. Trask and Aaron embody all that is good, whereas Kate and Cal embody all that is evil.
Cal often goes to Monterrey, and upon finding out that his mother is still alive as well as being the head of the most prestigious brothel in town, he seeks her out. After repeatedly being underestimated and rejected by his father, Cal decides that the ultimate revenge will be to take his brother Aaron to meet his mother. He was right? Upon hearing the news, Mr. Trask has a stroke, and Cal feels incredibly guilty.
The last few chapters of this book compose the most intense writing or probably even the most intense experiences that I have ever had. Lee, the family's loyal servant, repeatedly notes a passage in the Bible, in which it is made clear that any individual, regardless of past experiences or trauma, has a choice in life. The fact that humans have the ability to always make this crucial choice and use a superior rational is what sets us apart from other species. Even though Mr. Trask is virtually a vegetable and at the brink of death, Lee begs that he show some sign that he has forgiven his son Cal or the cycle will not be broken. Cal will continue to be a resentful rogue, who feels unloved and has no direction. This simple idea is extended through and endless number of pages. I have never read so fast and understood so much in my entire life, not that my life is really that long yet.
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Interestingly, the farce that is Voltaire's Candide seems to tell a different story. The entire tale is centered around the fact that Candide is a nubile, almost naive individual who's life is filled with positive coincidences. Every positive thing that happens to him happens by accident. More specifically, every negative thing that happens to him is almost immediately countered by something positive.
Nevertheless, within this pervasive sequence, there is a troubling episode. Candide, accompanied by one of several companions and loyal assistants he meets thoughout his adventures, reaches the city of Eldorado. It is literally a city of streets paved with gold. The city's dirt actually consists of precious stones, including diamonds, emeralds, rubies, etc., but in this city these entities have no value. Prisons, police officers, violence, crime, poverty, depression, rage and unhappiness are unknown in Elderado.
The king is the most gracious, benevolent, and egalitarian ruler in existence. I would think Candide and his friend would want to stay there forever. At least, I would. I would never leave a place like that, especially if I had no real family, or any other such responsibilities. Well, Candide does not feel this way. He chooses to leave and asks to take "mud" or in this case as much gold and precious stones as he can carry into his previous and inferior world. Candide quickly loses his cargo upon arrival.
We now arrive at the mystical contradiction that both East of Eden and Candide do not seem to bring to light incredibly clearly. Perhaps, the authors intended for the reader to leave these novels with that frustration or doubt. In the end, Cal reaches a spiritual closeness to his father that Aaron, the "good" son cannot even imagine. Why is Cal eventually rewarded for being a self-absorbed bully, whereas Aaron is cast off or virtually killed for having the love and appreciation of his father, which he never consciously sought, at least not as tenaciously as Cal did. He never had to. Why should he be punished for that?
Not only does Candide leave what is essentially heaven, not even realizing that he was there, but he also has no regrets afterwards. I guess this is preferable because if Candide had managed to understand the significance of the kind of place he escaped from, he would have probably shot himself,and then be miraculously resuscitated of course.
Maybe a major moral in both novels is that although we are essentially good people, we fail to acknowledge where this goodness stems from and whom we have to thank for it. Love is thrown at us from all directions to the point where we become oblivious and perhaps forget that we have to share our surplus with those that need some more, but without trying to change or belittle them. Hence, this is the troublesome situation between Mr. Trask and Cal, Aaron and Cal, Mr. Trask and Kate, Candide and just about everyone he comes into contact with. On a mystical level, I think that I have actually hit a personal milestone.
It is now time for a forced transition as to how a particular revelation in literature relates to popular 80s culture. I choose The Breakfast Club to bridge the gap. I doubt I have the plot of this film to any "child of the 80s" as I remember having it memorized at the age of seven, but I'll give a short summary so I can remind myself. Five high school kids have Saturday detention. They are from contrasting social circles. These kids have nothing in common and barely know one another, but by the end of the day they are all making out with each other. Aren't films great! Anyhow, I think the reason that just about anyone who sees the film feels an appreciation for it is because within these contrasting characters and personalities, most of us can find at least some trait that we can relate to. Unless we have ice water for blood or are just incredibly secure individuals, most of us would want to be part of such a forum. In this situation we would be with people who are apparently different from us, but after a few hours of interaction, we would realize that we are all basically the same.
Of course in real life, such a situation rarely presents itself. The closest I ever got was a retreat I had in high school. I happened to end up with a group who I knew of in my grade, but had rarely ever spoken to and did not particularly like. Although it was great to realize that there was more to these people than I had originally thought, not much changed as a result. We did not develop the close bonds that the kids in the movie did. All that really happened was that the kids who already were friends became better friends. Well, a positive result is a positive result after all.
I do realize that as great as films are they cannot portray real life exactly as it is, although I occasionally forget and think that the actors I see on the screen actually are the characters they portray. This is a dangerous habit, demonstrated by the Madonna/ Sean Penn article in this website, especially when someone compares his or her own life to a film.
Nevertheless, both books and films such as those just discussed offer simple, yet powerful messages: Insecurities can be overcome with faith in oneself, in the goodness of others, and many times with the help of some higher power (whatever that may be). Although these ideals can be proven to be exemplified in the culture of just about any time period, 80s pop culture is a notable example. There was an overwhelming number of films about the dork who just wanted to fit in. In the end, he eventually does, or better yet realizes that he should not have to. Much of the music just called for the listener to "dance and sing, get up and do your thing" (the Madonna album). You just couldn't help yourself. Cartoons were not made for ages 25 and over, and little, confident, Pac-Man was all we needed to remove evil from the world.