Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jose Saramago, Cain (2011)

The story of Cain in Genesis is brief: No more than 30 or so sentences over 25 verses. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, is born and he grows to become a farmer; Cain and his brother Abel, a shepherd, make an offering to God, and Cain's offering is snubbed by God while Abel's offering is not; Cain takes this badly and kills his brother; God asks Cain what happened to Abel and Cain lies to God by stating that he does not know (here Cain utters the memorable phrase, "Am I my brother's keeper?"); God knows that Cain has lied and that he has killed his brother; Cain is told by God that he will wander the earth forever as punishment (a fate worse than death); God places a mark on Cain's forehead so that no one will slay him to ensure this fate worse than death; Cain wanders to the land of Nod, where he sleeps with a woman who bears him a son named Enoch. That is it. We do not know how the woman Cain slept with came to be born, unless the woman is Eve herself, which would not be totally out of character with other incest stories of the bible. Adam and Eve had one more son named Seth, and we are not informed of any daughters. The inference is that there must be other humans out there besides Adam and Eve copulating and multiplying, but the Genesis story provides no illumination of their existence. A shortcoming in the tale of the primordial first family.

Leave it to Jose Saramago's imagination to fill in the blanks of the Cain story. And not only does Saramago fill in a few blanks of Cain's story, but the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Joshua, Noah, and Job as well. For Cain is not merely a wanderer, but he is a time traveler as well: Cain, travels back and forth in time, and, with the fortune of a Forrest Gump, Cain just happens to make an appearance on the stage of many significant biblical events recorded in Genesis and Exodus. Who knew? And the wisdom Cain arrives at at the end of his journey is that God is not only petty, but he is a bad guy, not much different than the devil. God is neither merciful nor loving, and he certainly has little empathy or compassion for man or his Chosen People. This is a world of fallen human beings (see August 28, 2011 post): humanity characterized by lust, incest, rape, murder, jealousy, deception, and real estate wars.

Saramago is careful to point out that Cain is neither Jewish nor Israeli. While standing at the walls of Jericho with Joshua's army, Cain is asked whether he is Israeli. He says he is not. Well then if you are not Israeli, what are you? Saramago explains, "When Cain was born, there was no such thing as the Israelites, but neither was he a Hittite, an Amorite, a Perizzite, a Hivite, or a Jebusite." He is a man without an identity, or as Saramago describes, a "man without definition." But in one sense --- as wanderer --- his wandering is the story of the Israelites, the Jews. And as a time traveler, he is like the "prophets" Jeremiah and Isaiah whose prophesies of the future are based on the vantage point of the biblical authors in the future who project themselves into the past.

The Lord murders innocents at Sodom and Gomorrah; orders Moses to slaughter thousands of Israelites because they turned their attention to an idol; orders Abraham to slay and sacrifice his son; tolerates the devil heaping misery upon Job; the Lord commits genocide of nearly the entire human race when he causes the flood. Cain abhors what he witnesses in the Lord's behavior. But Cain is neither Abraham, nor Noah, nor Moses, nor Job. Cain refuses to be respectful of the Lord. In the end, Cain sabotages the Lord's plan to purify the human race by designating Noah and his family to protect a select few of each species, including the human species, from the Lord's flood, and to start life anew. As Noah's ark endures the flood and they wait for the waters to subside, Cain slays Noah and his family, so when the waters have finally subsided, Cain is the only human left. How now can humans possibly multiply? Sounds like the same internal procreation riddle that plagues the Genesis story from the birth of Cain. As Cain disembarks the ark, the Lord asks where are Noah and his family? This time Cain tells the truth: they are dead. I killed them. And the Lord and Cain argue who among the two of them is more loathsome. The lingering question that remains at the close of Saramago's narrative is how all those events that Cain, our wandering time traveler, witnessed far into the future ever happened, now that he and the Lord have killed off the entire human race except for Cain? There are no women remaining for Cain to procreate with.

Imagination is a wonderful human attribute, and it is certainly one important characteristic that distinguishes our species from its closest relatives. Paul Bloom has contemplated why imagination has survival value. It triggers emotional responses, and it creates pleasure, both of which have survival value. "Imagination is Reality Lite," writes Bloom, "a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky, or too much work." I have a difficult time, however, succumbing to a conclusion that fantasy has significant survival value. Fantasy is at best an exaptation, just as V.S. Ramachandran concludes that our ability for abstraction is an exaptation (see October 25, 2011 post).

Imagination is what we use when we plan for the future, and that capability has significant survival value. (See May 22, 2011 post, indeed another post revolving around a novelist who took liberties with biblical stories.) Being able to view the past in different ways, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the ways our predecessors carried out their lives, and even fictionalizing the past so as to provide an angle on the past that our predecessors could not see, is part of the art of imagination and planning for the future.

As I wrote previously in this blog, I also believe storytelling evolved in part to preserve our memories of things past. (See August 15, 2011 post). And storytelling, whether historical or fictional or both, enables the construction of both personal and social/group identity. The biblical stories served exactly that purpose as they were merged, edited, and redacted ultimately to serve the national goals of the Jewish kingdom.

I don't think Saramago is out to preserve our memory with his imaginative retelling of the Cain story. And while Saramago is whimsical in his treatment of the Lord in Cain, he is not satisfying a desire for pleasure from fantasy either. But I do think he is out to remind us that our memories are fragile, capable of being rewritten in ways that make us look at things differently, perhaps in a revolutionary way, causing us to pause to plan our future in a different way than we have been carrying on all these millenia. What Saramago's imagination has succeeded in doing, however, is to show that the biblical stories are no more than products of a fertile imagination, just as Saramago's Cain is the product of a fertile imagination. The God of the Bible and the God of Cain simply cannot be real. If God made man in his image, which is the biblical telling of our creation, we are rotten murderers, mass murderers to the core. If man imagined God in our image, then God cannot be perfect. The God of the Bible and the God of Cain dovetail in these respects: God is a fallen character. But I submit there is a third perspective: that (1) man imagined God as an unseen agent, who is not defective and is all-powerful, to explain what we are unable to explain about the world and universe around us, and, (2) as social structures among homo sapiens developed, leaders among men claimed special powers to communicate with God to either justify or sustain their relationship of power (authority) over other men. And it is the leaders among men who choose to make God what they want to make of him (or her): at one-time loving and empathetic, at another time a warrior and mass murderer, and at other times utterly indifferent. This third perspective is more consistent with the history of God in the Abrahamic religions. By this third perspective, God is wholly imaginary as well, a work of fiction.

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