Half the world is in lockdown. For those who are healthy it is a good time to catch up on some new reading or to go back to classics of literature.
“East of Eden”, John Steinbeck’s passionate 1952 epic, re-creates the seminal stories of Genesis through the intertwined lives of two American families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. A brilliant novel of ideas, East of Eden is far-reaching in its effort to explain the most fundamental trials of mankind. Brutally realistic – and sometimes fatalistic – about people’s ability to harm themselves and those around them, it is also a celebration of perseverance, enduring love, and the noble yearning to better oneself. It is a work of profound optimism about the capacity of humans to triumph over adversity.
Although Steinbeck’s East of Eden focuses on the Trask family reenacting the saga of Cain and Abel, one of the novel’s most significant characters is Lee, the family’s Chinese servant. Steinbeck uses Lee as a character to expose the idea of wisdom with quotes of Confucius to help move the plot along. Lee first enters the novel unceremoniously as a “pigtailed Chinese cook” who speaks pidgin and hovers on the periphery of the story to develop as a character of profound humanity.
As the novel unfolds, the reader discovers a philosophical man. Lee fools everyone at first by speaking in pidgin but the reader comes to learn that Lee was actually born in the United States, and is highly educated to the point that he even learned to speak Hebrew. Lee frequently gives voice to the novel’s themes, including the crucial idea of “timshel” ,
the word that God utters to Cain when exiling him to the lands east of Eden. In Lee’s crucial voice of wisdom “The word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world”.
Everyone has a choice. A choice to act or not to act. A choice to choose the right or wrong thing to do. A choice to delay or not delay decisions. Timshel is certainly, in dramatic times, the most important word in the world.
Every government has had its own approach to the spread of the pandemic with different strategies for COVID-19 driven by the dilemma in the choice of mitigating the economic impact, in other words the choice between economics and society. Macau, one of the most densely populated places on earth, exhibited a track record of 10 cases over a month with no registered new cases before numbers started to increase with imported cases. The local government made an unprecedented decision with a 15 day casino closure to protect its population, in a significant move representing about $100 million being lost each day by the gaming industry, which directly employs the majority of Macau’s labor force and provides the government with over 80% of its tax revenue. It was a choice lead by the sense of community for which Macau government must be praised.
For those who have made the choice of economics first, the financial burden of reconstructing the social fabric of their own societies will be an even heavier price to pay on the path to economic recovery.
A European head of government, currently in self isolation, just this week posted a video praising the hundreds of volunteers who made the choice to stand up to help the national healthcare service. What the crisis will reveal when this is over is that, in his own words, “there is such thing as society”.
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).