Notes on the Imagery of Cain and Abel in Steinbeck’s East of Eden

Delivered at New Saint Andrews College to the Lost Generation Literature class, November 6, 2018.

Good morning. First of all, I recognize that Cain and Abel imagery is arguably the most obvious biblical allusion made in the course of the novel, and therefore I will not be spending a great deal of time arguing that such imagery does in fact exist, or analyzing where or in what manner it exists. Rather I will take it for granted that the biblical story of Cain and Abel is the dominant myth lying behind the characters of Adam and Charles, Cal and Aron, and attempt to do some close reading of the passages where this story is referenced, in order to hopefully provide some insight into what this imagery really means for the novel. Continue reading


Computer Processing and Human Thought

Robert Epstein, the distinguished American psychologist, published in May of this year an essay arguing, in the words of its subtitle, that “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.” He is arguing against what he calls the “IP” metaphor for the brain — the brain as information processor: this metaphor for the human brain has set back the research of neuroscience, and inhibited our ability to comprehend the real means by which we perceive, remember, and re-experience past realities in order to interpret the present. Yet I would argue that a flippant rejection of the metaphor can lead us far astray—if not in the field of neuroscience, at least in our philosophy of man’s relationship to the computer. I will not summarize the entire article here—it is well worth reading—but I will quote a section.

“Computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms. Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?”

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Memory #1

One night I went with my friends Caleb and Mike to Zips. Zips was (and still is) a tiny fast food restaurant down third street half way between downtown and the grocery store, with a brilliant red logo on their sign, red like the Cleveland Indians. We sat down underneath the fluorescent lights, and ordered a series of greasy hamburgers, with a special sauce that made Caleb sick (I shared our common goal of culinary self-flagellation, but did not go so far in my asceticism as to order the sauce). We swayed out as if lead balls had formed in our guts, and for the next three years of living together, we would, once every few months, grin at each other and propose an outing to Zips. Caleb would giggle, and then frown, and his face would grow red. “Agh!” Mike would protest and put up his hands, like a cat pawing at a window. Zips, muse of our amusement.


Movie Review – The Ritual (2018)

Rating: 4/5

The Ritual, a tense, tightly written horror film released a few weeks ago on Netflix, is a beautifully done film, that asks the right questions in a way that keeps the viewer in suspense, and provokes genuine sympathy for its characters. Like perhaps too many horror films, however, I don’t believe that, in the end, it answers fully the central question it asks.

It opens with a group of college friends in an English pub, arguing over where to go on vacation. They are opinionated, selfish; the seed of dissension is right beneath their skin. On the way home, Luke (Rafe Spall), the the central character of the story, stops by a liquor store with Rob, another member of the friends, only to discover while they are purchasing vodka that the store is being held up. In the mugging that follows, Rob is repeatedly bashed in the head with a tire iron until he dies, while Luke huddles, afraid, behind a shelf of champagne. For one moment, before the last blow strikes, Rob makes a great effort to look up at the hidden Luke, perhaps accusingly, perhaps imploringly. Ever afterwards, Luke is besieged by guilt, by the fear that if he had acted, confronted the criminals, Rob would never have died. Continue reading

The Chinese Leviathan

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Adam Greenfield writes perceptively about the growth of intrusive, government-initiated social technologies in China.  Artificial intelligence, through face-recognition technologies and cameras on every corner, allow the Chinese government almost complete knowledge of the each citizen’s actions, and as a result, they want to establish a system of “social credit,” through which a citizen is awarded or penalized for how well his life measures up to the official standard.  Take public transit instead of driving and get better insurance rates.  Or perhaps more sinisterly, in order to keep your passport, don’t attend Christian worship services. Continue reading

Is Social Media the New Totalitarianism?

It is popular to criticize the major social media giants—Google, Facebook, Twitter—for their impact on people’s minds, and the proliferation of unwanted ideologies. Both liberals and conservatives are concerned about the amount of “fake news” gobbled up by gullible social media users ready to be entrapped by clickbait. Facebook has been conducting, ever more publicly since the 2016 election season, a vigorous campaign to screen content for factual reliability. Twitter recently changed its guidelines for verified users to include measurement of offline behavior, so they could have a reason to block users associated with radical right-wing groups. Google has been leading the charge for diversity in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, and very recently along with Facebook implemented in-house rules for dating in order to support the #MeToo campaign.

Nevertheless, the tech giants continue to attract international scrutiny and criticism. Just in the past few days, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Facebook that unless it fixes its “fake news” problems soon, it will face direct government regulation from Ottawa. But others have identified what they believe is a deeper problem with the very nature of global social networks. Continue reading

The Writer as a Character: Phillip Lopate on Personal Non-Fiction

Phillip Lopate, in his book, To Show and To Tell, gives the following advice to the aspiring memoir writer:

Actions speak louder than words.  Give your protagonist, your I-character, something to do.  It’s fine to be privy to all of I’s ruminations and cerebral nuances, but consciousness can only take us so far in the illumination of character  Particularly if you are writing a memoir piece, with chronology and narrative, it is often liberating to have the I-character step beyond the observer role and be implicated crucially in the over-all action.  How many memoirs suffer from a self-righteous setup: the writer telling a story in which Mr. or Ms. I is the passive recipient of the world’s cruelty or is exposed to racism or betrayal, say.  There is something off-putting about a nonfiction story in which the I is infinitely more sinned against than sinning.  By showing our complicity in the world’s stock of sorrow, we convince the reader of our reality and even gain his sympathy.

Or, what makes Crime and Punishment so unnervingly fascinating?