Back Back Story: Cain

Thu 09/22/05 at 2:31 pm

A Wrinkle in Time and The Lord of the Rings hold the top two spots for the most influential books I read during my first sixteen or so years. Several candidates vie for third, including Demian by Herman Hesse. It had such an impact on me that I can remember being so restless after finishing the book I needed to take a walk. It was the “magic time” of day, Maxfield Parrish twilight, just after an autumn rain shower in Minnesota. I strode through the alleys of Madelia in my Hang ‘em High poncho and bumper tennis shoes, deeply inhaling whatever brand of cigarette I had managed in my minority to procure – probably a Winston. Reading Demian began a life-long fascination with Cain, or, more appropriately, the Cain archetype – now that I know Cain merits archetypal status thanks to the Google search I conducted for the term “synchronicity” in connection with my August 12, 2005 post.

The biblical story of Cain is set forth in Genesis, Chapter 4. Cain was Adam and Eve’s first born, “produced,” according to Eve, “with the help of the Lord.” (Hmmmm, who else was produced with the help of the Lord?) After Cain, Abel arrived, apparently without any help. Cain grew up to be a farmer. Abel grew up to be a shepherd. At one point, Cain offers God “the fruit of the ground,” and Abel offers “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.” What ensues is yet another example of God’s arbitrary behavior. See Earlier Posts, infra. In the narrative, we get no clue why God “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” I’ve heard a few tortured sermons on the subject, and I’ve read Steinbeck’s East of Eden, but I’ve yet to be satisfied with a reason that bests the “flies to wanton boys” explanation. See September 9, 2005 post. In any event, having no clue why God adjudged his offering and himself unworthy upsets Cain. The next thing we know, in a variation on the “Mom always liked you best” theme, Cain rises up against his brother and kills him. After ordering Cain into exile, God, again without satisfactory explanation, pays heed to Cain’s fears of retribution, and, instead of “an eye for an eye,” sets a mark upon him and vows “sevenfold vengeance” on anyone who kills him.

Cain receives very different treatment in Demian. In Hesse’s novel, Max Demian befriends the young Emil Sinclair whom Max recognizes as one of his own, being marked, as Max and others are marked, with the same sign he believes the biblical figure Cain bore. Max doesn’t believe God gave Cain the sign to prevent others from taking vengeance on him for killing his brother. To Max, Cain’s mark identified him (and his progeny) as an individual of “intellect and boldness” with “courage and character” that normal, run-of-the-mill folks would, understandably, find “sinister.” Demian (Bantam Books ed.), pp. 24, 25

I so wanted to be Emil Sinclair. I wanted to bear a mark that would enable the Maxes and Evas of this world to know me as one of the chosen. Up until the time I read Demian my fondest desire had been to reach the age of majority, so I could take my smoking inside a bar where I would sit, nursing a drink, while quietly observing the other clientele, and having brilliant, alcohol-inspired insights which I would record from time to time in a small notebook. [Before moving on to real cigarettes I had practiced smoking candy cigarettes for years. I’d also practiced drinking by pouring Coca Cola into a souvenir shot glass acquired at Mount Rushmore and tossing it down in a single gulp. (Mind you, this was still in my “when I grow up I want to be a cowboy” days; I’d only just started reading O’Neill, Williams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway – imagine the effect Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Ice Man Cometh had in continuing to foster this fantasy.)]

On a related matter, I had a plate of shrimp experience in connection with this post. See August 12, 2005 post. The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, September 21, 2005, commemorates the birthday of the poet Donald Hall. The entry goes on to relate that Hall’s first literary hero was Edgar Allen Poe. As a result he “wanted to be mad, addicted, obsessed, haunted and cursed; I wanted to have eyes that burned like coals, profoundly melancholy, profoundly attractive.” Yeah, what he said.

Thanks to Demian, at least I grew up wanting to be “cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café” only until such time as a preordained stranger would walk into the bar, notice me sitting at my regular table in a dark corner, and realize who and what I was. Mitchell, Joni, Blue, “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” He or she would come over and join me. At the conclusion of our conversation, this individual, having recognized my intellect and boldness, would offer me a tenured position in the English department of some prestigious college or university. And I would live happily ever after. Talk about magical thinking.

Demian’s influence showed in other ways, too. For instance, since I started reading “serious” literature up until the time I completed my M.A., I never read a book without a yellow highlighter in hand. It had to be a yellow highlighter, not any other color, and not fluorescent yellow, either. If I were to go through these highlighted volumes today, I would be able to collect all the allusions to Cain, the mark of Cain, and his mythic and artistic progeny including, but not limited to, the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, the Ancient Mariner, and Longinus. I toyed with the idea of one day writing a scholarly paper on the subject of Cain, which I would, of course, be asked to read it at an MLA convention, thereby sealing my reputation as an academician. I had a few papers like that in mind. Instead of writing any of them, however, I went to law school. So much for magical thinking. (Come to think of it, no one ever offered me a tenured position at a prestigious law school either. I would, of course, have been asked to teach Law in Literature; e.g., “Moby Dick: Agent or Principal,” or “The Jury in Camus’ The Stranger: A Really Good Reason to Abstain from Smoking at your Mother’s Funeral,” and the like.)

I’m posting this entry to explain, in part, why Cain (the very one) has been chosen to play a major role in the novel. A future post will relate how in my imagination Cain has managed to hang around until the present time. I’m rather pleased with his back story. So far, at least, my research has uncovered no other source that even suggests the tale I intend to tell. Could be, I’ve actually had an original thought.

next post: A Few Firsts
previous post: We’re All Alone

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