The Levels of Moral Compass According to Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, and Hesse
From Hermann Hesse’s Demian, Emil Sinclair is a good boy who wants to be bad. He is raised righteously by religious parents but Sinclair wants to, in the words of Jim Morrison, break on through to the other side. Enter Demian — may or may not be dead, may or may not be the daemon, may or may not be Sinclair’s guardian angel.
Demian’s “otherness” encompasses all of the world’s other. Like most things unknown — he is labeled and associated with all things wicked. But he is simply an individual. The difference is that he knows that he is an individual. One who can think for himself and believe in his own truth. But in a world with set beliefs and laws, he is an anomaly.
“Each of us has to find out for himself what is permitted and what is forbidden — forbidden for himself,” Demian says.
It’s been a week since I finished reading the book but I’m still marveling about it. I’m not sure if it’s the book or the circumstance that it’s the third this year that made me contemplate conscience.
I started the year with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, with the goal to take my time and read slowly. It was the perfect book to do so because it was, second to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, the most beautifully written book I’ve read in my life. Besides the writing, it was the first book that made me think about the level of guilt in every person. These quotes stuck with me:
“As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.”
“To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish.”
These lines are the introduction to Cathy — the mother who guiltlessly abandons her children simply because that’s not what she wanted to be. So when one of his sons discovers that Cathy is their mother, he freaks out because he thought it was the explanation for his strong urge to do bad things. It was as if lacking conscience is hereditary. But this son fights it, because, after all, he has his father’s kind genes.
Closing the book, all I could think of is what if it’s true? If I don’t feel guilty about anything, I can do whatever I please.
Moving on to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which I read from February to March, my curiosity with conscience piqued. Fyodor Dostoyevsky personifies guilt in the three brothers. One has a lot and becomes a monk, the other is in between, while the last has none and claims to be an atheist. This atheist guy believes that “everything is permitted.” Considering Steinbeck’s theory, that could be true. To a person who has no conscience, laws and religion do not make sense.
Now, back to Demian — the book I consider as the amalgamation and summary of the previously mentioned hefty works. Sinclair is similar to Cathy’s freaked-out son. But Sinclair’s upbringing, not his genes, shaped his conscience. His religious community dictated to him what’s good and evil. So he often freaks out too.
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that very difficult?”
Because his conscience is cut out by the people around him, he is forced to follow religion and laws that do not align with the “promptings which came from (his) true self.” Demian to the rescue, explaining that each person has to identify what’s permitted and what’s forbidden that is unique to him. Which, again, comes down to conscience.
It’s a brilliant idea because it highlights individualism. Should we follow blindly? Or do we honor our own moral compass? And who’s to say what’s wrong from right? From this context, what’s right for you may be wrong for me. So is everything really permitted? You know what, I don’t want to make a point. I just want to bring forth this idea that we’re all different species who live different truths.
My truth? Mine is to avoid hurting people. And animals. And equal respect for all.
And I thank you.
Earlier this year, I wrote separate reviews for East of Eden and The Brothers Karamazov published in Books are Our Superpower:
Why a 600-Page Steinbeck is Worth the Effort
John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’ Meticulously Explores Good and Evil