Cain and Abel


(by Carlos Sanchez Fernandez)

Kipling is clearly not writing from a traditional Christian viewpoint. His religious beliefs are far from clear, apparently a secret, slippery matter in him, about which he would not wish to be made a monkey by posterity. He once described himself as a ‘God-fearing Christian atheist’ – not far from don Luis Buñuel´s remark that he was ‘an atheist by the grace of God’. Obviously, Kipling had a strong belief in reason, as it is understood under the sign of Freemasonry, i.e., the reason of the Enlightenment, both for tolerance and the active ideological fight against superstition – and abuse.

In this poem Kipling cannot hide his doubts, if not a certain sense of scandal, at the very succinct narration of this foundation myth (of murder, and brotherly murder too) to be found in the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. This is not especially remarkable in psychological terms: Cain´s motive, wrath out of God´s disdain, is very simple and direct, and Abel is just a mute profile in the background. The point is: what is Yahweh´s rationale, as it were, for his harsh punishment of Cain? In a few lines in Genesis, we have the Almighty falling on Cain´s head with a vengeance, undoing him and his heirs ad saecula saeculorum. Before that, there is a first notorious issue in Yahweh´s behaviour: why does He disdain Cain´s offerings in Genesis 4, 5? Why are Abel´s and not Cain’s worthy of His respect? Why is Cain said not to have done well (4, 7)? And why does Yahweh say that, as a consequence, sin lieth at the door? In the Bible myth, Cain protests against his harsh fate, and all he gets is to be infamously and irretrievably marked for all time, as well as his seed. It is hardly a nice way to alleviate his fall from grace!! And one can see that Cain´s protest is echoed by Kipling, speaking in the first person in the last line of his poem: ‘I never could call the Judgment fair!’. There could be no clearer indictment of allegedly divine justice.

This is a sort of metaphysical concern that reminds me of Kipling´s greatest champion in the Spanish-speaking world, J.L. Borges. Obsessed with the Book of Books and the aestheticdimension of Theology and Metaphysics as the grandest forms of fantastic literature (for the rest, Borges was an utter unbeliever), he wrote a short fiction entitled ‘Three Versions of Judas’ (Other Inquisitions, 1944). Echoing the amazement stemming from Yahweh´s disrespect for Cain´s sacrifice of his crops, what can one think of the fate of Judas, damned for all eternity before he was even conceived? Why should he be predestined to lie crucified for all eternity, nailed to the very centre of the lowest circle in Dante´s Inferno? Borges has the shocking suspicion that maybe Judas actually chose his destiny… as a way to cooperate with the economy of salvation, sparing the infamy, shame and unavoidable damnation for betraying God to anyone else. He may have been eager to bring salvation to humankind as dutifully as possible, regardless of his own. More than that, we may not have understood the true sense of Scripture: “God became a man, a man to the point of infamy, to save us.” He could have been Alexander, Pythagoras or Jesus; but he did not choose to be any of them. He chose to be Judas, writes Borges. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. (John 1, 10).

I wonder whether Kipling is also surreptitiously trying to say that Cain could have been a saint. Incomprehensibly scorned by God, and assaulted by a storm of wrath, he prefers to stoop to shoulder the guilt and infamy of the first murder on Earth rather than legitimately rebelling against God. In killing his brother, Cain may humbly stress Yahweh´s justice in disregarding his zeal for worship: his baseness, as shown in his bloody hands, and justifies God´s ways. He was base and despicable from his very birth, as the first murder argues ex post; therefore, he undoubtedly deserved his curse. In this way, Kipling may unknowingly be contributing to a future postmodern and avant-la-lettre deconstructivist tale by an obscure Argentinian librarian on the problem of evil, guilt and divine punishment. So postmodern that in a short poem by Borges called precisely Genesis IV, 8, Abel and Cain do not seem to remember that well what it was that happened between them and Yahweh, deconstructing one of the main signifying dyads in our Judeo-Christian culture: ‘There was Blood. There was Death for the first time. I do not remember any more whether I was Abel or Cain.’ (The Tigers´ Gold, 1972).

Furthermore, although this is an idea of my own and therefore probably far-fetched, there could be some grudge of sorts here against Abel as a prefiguration of Christ, the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. This idea of animal husbandry as superior to agriculture is also related to Hebrew identity as originally opposed to the morally suspicious agriculture of the sedentary peoples of the Middle East that the Hebrews were allegedly to conquer in fulfilment of Yahweh´s promises to His chosen people on leaving Egypt. This seems to me to link the poem to Kipling´s understanding of the very concept of Culture and Civilisation.

For now, I venture to put forward the notion (unsupported by any textual evidence) that Kipling resented the shepherding of so many thousands of young, brilliant, idealist yong men, his beloved son John included, to the dark Valley of Death in the Great War, driven to Hades by the Lord of Battles. In this sense, the plain and dumb figure of Abel in Genesis is fleshed out in Kipling as a gentle, reasonable, pleading character, always trying to satisfy his interest with kind words of approach to his agriculturalist brother, to the point of ultimately entreating him to sell his water for a just price. And yet, to use a Spanish expression, he is not a wax figurine of a saint: he ends up stealing his brother´s (and the law´s) property by the very primitive and violent way of making a hole in his dykes with an improvised weapon. What is more, he uses that very weapon to fight for his life against his brother, whom he could have slain if Cain had not stricken first. Shepherds can be nasty when it comes to that.

Now for the contrast between agriculture and animal husbandry: this seems to me to echo the theme of Civilisation against Barbarism that runs through Kipling´s oeuvre. Notwithstanding the apparently friendly depiction of Abel as a pleading, humble and reasonable creature and Cain´s seeming cruelty and disregard for his brother, the fact is that Cain is right in the poem. The Law is on his side (although this implies the tacit assumption that Cain had the right to enact the Law himself). A freemason and a British imperialist, Kipling cannot but abide by the side of Reason and Order. These cannot exist without the Law.

The Roman Empire, an agricultural, corn-growing civilisation for that matter (as Kipling’s own people, the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries and sea-marauders turned into farmers after the Legions’ flight from Britannia) could have been ruthless, but to Kipling it is equivalent to Law and Order. His sympathies will always stand on this side of Hadrian´s Wall, even if Romans would crucify a Jewish prophet or raze a Pictish mud-hut hamlet every now and then. The British army and Navy would also bomb and storm this or that port or rebellious stronghold in any quarter of the world every now and then, but this was a good in itself, even more so for the best interests of the lesser breeds without the Law. As the Romans would put it: Dura Lex, sed Lex.

Related to this, there is a consistent use of imagery in the poem to stress the idea that Cain was a civiliser, a man of invention, a builder (a Freemason) and an engineer (one of Kipling’s favourite embodiments of Civilisation and Empire). In succession, he is said to live in a new, fine, big house (we can presume built by himself, not many building firms around at the time), he banked, sluiced and ditched (just like the Roman legions setting camp after a forced march on the Roman way-network), and so his dams were tight and his ditches were sound. Conversely, all that righteous Abel can manage after his brother’s refusal to give him the water he cannot spare for anything but his crops, is to destroy Cain’s engineering prowess in a shockingly primitive way, turning a bull-goad into a tool with which to help his own body, holing a dyke with bare foot an’ hand, as a mere vulgar Tottenham hoodie looting around in London in 2011. Because Abel looted and spilled the water on the plain, wasted it beyond any rational handling of the scanty resource, for the sake of a single draught: could there be anything more contrary to the very British and imperial virtue of thrift?

What follows his death is pure irrationality under the guise of strictly animal havoc and pandemonium:

The Herd-bulls ran when they smelt the blood,
An’ horned an’ pawed in that Red Mud.
The Calves they bawled, and the Steers they milled…

Not a very edifying picture.

Carlos Sanchez-Fernandez


©Carlis Sanchez Fernandez 2011, All rights reserved