In this show, Bill Moyers explores the biblical tale of brother killing brother and the complex relationships among victim, perpetrator and judge.
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After God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, they joined together and Eve gave birth to Cain, who became a worker of the soil. And then to Abel, who grew up to be a shepherd of the flocks.
In time, Cain made an offering to the Lord of fruit from the ground. And Abel brought the firstborn of his flock with its fullness and fat. The Lord respected Abel’s gift, but had no regard for Cain’s. And Cain was angry, and his face fell. And the Lord said, “Why are you so upset? If you do well you will be accepted, but if you don’t do right, sin is waiting for you by your door. And sin will want you. But you can conquer it.”
One day, when the brothers were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.
The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”
And Cain replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And God said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are cursed! You are cursed from the earth, which opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand! When you work the soil, you’ll get next to nothing. You will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! I am banished from the face of the earth and from the face of God. I will wander without purpose, and whoever finds me will try to kill me.”
But God said to Cain, “I promise! Anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain so that whoever came upon him would not strike him down. And Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, dwelling in the land of Nod, wandering east of Eden.
And Cain took a wife. They had a son named Enoch. And Cain built a city. His descendants had cattle; some played the pipe and the organ and were the fathers of the players of the lyre, and some worked with bronze and iron. And Adam and Eve had another son named Seth. “For God,” said Eve, “has given us another son in place of Abel.”
BILL MOYERS: There are few stories that can match the longevity and the power of Cain and Abel over Western civilization. And I’m curious, asking a group of writers this, “Why do you think that’s so? How do you account for the popularity of this story?”
JOHN BARTH: I think the firstness of it. Cain is not made by God, etc. [He is] made by his parents. He’s the first fully human, human being. And his victim is the second fully human, human being. And it’s the first murder.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: It’s the first murder. It’s also, the first death. This is the way death actually, as a reality — the idea of death, concept of death — was hanging around in the first three chapters. But now death has actually entered into the world. And it enters into the world through a murder. So the reality of death and all the ramifications of that are here in the story.
JOHN BARTH: And still with us.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: And still with us.
FAYE KELLERMAN: When we also talk about murder, I think it’s also interesting to note, yes, this was the first murder. Did he actually realize he was going to murder? Remember, murder had never taken place before. Did he really mean to mortally wound him or was it- just happened that way?
JOHN BARTH: It seems to me that so much of it just doesn’t add up dramaturgically.
BILL MOYERS: As-
JOHN BARTH: To the –
BILL MOYERS: As literature, as a narrative?
JOHN BARTH: As a thing that hangs together. Poor old Cain. Presumably brought up by his parents, presumably sharing with — having his parents having eaten the fruit — some knowledge of good and bad. Poor old Cain — he invents religion. I mean, it’s his idea. Let’s send a sacrifice. Abel didn’t say, “I thought about it.” No, Cain said, “Look here. I’m a farmer. I’m going to bring in some of my fruit and give to God.” Nobody had ever thought of that before. Cain thought of that. I’m saying, you know, “Go Cain.”
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Go Cain!
JOHN BARTH: Brother one-ups him. God comes in, you know, and does the meat. If I was Cain, my face would fall too. No wonder Cain is “wroth” in some translations, upset in some of them.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: This is heavy duty rejection. Right?
BILL MOYERS: Heavy duty what?
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Rejection. Right?
JOHN BARTH: Right. This doesn’t-
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: From the Father who sees you completely. Right? It’s your essence.
JOHN BARTH: Right. This doesn’t exculpate the murder, but it certainly is some sort of extenuating circumstance for the wrath, and the disappointment, and the puzzlement.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.
JOHN BARTH: God, if this were an opera, God would be the baritone. (LAUGHTER) You know, God is the heavy who comes in at this point and says, “Don’t you etc.” And I’m looking at what God’s saying to Cain there. “If you do better …” Well, Cain did his be[st]- who told him this wouldn’t do? You know, God didn’t tell him.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: This is such a generous impulse. I mean, this is a- also, I mean, his father and mother have been cast out. Right? They couldn’t stand before God. Right? God- they were removed from the presence of God. And Cain is trying to engage God again. He is standing-
JOHN BARTH: Follows in his father’s footsteps. He’s a farmer like Adam.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Right. Prayer and sacrifice are a way of, you know, trying to engage with the divine presence.
JOHN BARTH: Yes.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: It’s almost as if he doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into. You know-
JOHN BARTH: This is one of a handful of things that don’t, on the face of it, immediately add up.
CHARLES JOHNSON: When he kills Abel, to me it’s not really about Abel. It’s about striking back at God. And think, for just a moment, because I think this is very interesting for a novelist, about the phenomenological, if you will, experience of envy. You know, what is that- who do you envy, really? It’s someone who must be enough like you with just a little bit of difference, right? You don’t envy somebody who’s totally different. You- you’re related. You have a relationship. Maybe you’re in the same profession? Right? I’m not going to envy a doctor. I’m gonna envy Oscar Hijuelos (LAUGHTER), as a novelist or John Barth. And the question is, why? Why is their offering, which is their self, received so fully and mine not? So, the envy’s gonna be really tremendous. Because there’s this relationship, I really think, between self and other. It’s almost like a doubling. Almost like a twin.
And yet, your- equality is not in the world. It’s something that we have to accept, you know, whether we like it or not. So that the only thing he can do is eliminate him. But by eliminating him, he gets rid of his better possibilities.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
CHARLES JOHNSON: His better possibilities of purity of heart and his sacrifice. He- that’s gone. And that’s always gonna be there, I think, to haunt him.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: When you’re a kid and you first hear a story like that, your only impression is — it’s not even narrative — but the main thing you hear is that it’s bad to kill your brother. If you were raised, as I was, as a Catholic, you sort of have this notion of the creation that things were set into motion, and that, in itself, [i]s a benevolent act. But, as I was saying, when I was a kid, I just thought that the story was about saying, “This is wrong.”
BILL MOYERS: What about you? Did you hear this story growing up, as a Catholic?
MARY GORDON: Oh, yeah. Well, yes. We didn’t read it. We weren’t- I mean, that’s a really important – we weren’t allowed to read the Bible. In the ’50s, you heard the Bible. Because it was considered- you know, you weren’t trusted to be able to interpret. So I heard the stories. But I remember, as a child, simultaneously identifying with Cain and Abel. And I identified with the helpless position of Abel. That he did everything right. He gave completely. He gave from the heart. He was pure. He was good. And it didn’t matter. He did all the right things, and he was destroyed. And I think children often feel like that.
BILL MOYERS: So, what did you think when you heard this?
MARY GORDON: Well, it scared me. Because I thought being good was everything, and yet it didn’t matter. And then, I simultaneously- understood Cain’s jealousy. Because I think jealousy is an enormously strong passion. And I understood him.
Supposing, you know, you did your best, you gave something to your father, and he liked somebody else’s thing better. And, as a mother, I keep thinking of God as a Father. You know, like, you don’t give your kid all the information that they need. And then you say, “Oh, but you didn’t do it right.” And, again, it seems to me it’s the breakdown of justice and rationality and the triumph of grace. This story is really about the triumph of grace. Abel is full of grace.
JOHN BARTH: When is this triumph?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah!
MARY GORDON: It triumphs, because Cain is protected. And that’s an act of grace.
JOHN BARTH: Protected?
MARY GORDON: Cain is protected.
BURTON VISOTZKY: How would Abel feel about that?
MARY GORDON: Well, that’s the paradox of it. And in the post-Holocaust world, it seems to me, this story has new relevance.
FAYE KELLERMAN: See, I don’t feel any compassion for Cain, whatsoever. The way that I was brought up, and that I had learned- first of all, sacrifices were made a while back, and it wasn’t Cain’s idea, necessarily, to bring sacrifices. It was his father’s idea to tell them to bring sacrifices. And he gave the worst sacrifice. He gave from the fruit of the ground. It doesn’t say the fruit of the tree. It says the fruit of the ground. Lowly fruits. He did not give with his heart. Whereas Abel, as you said, the pure one, gave with his heart.
Actually, Cain — Cayen, “KEY-NAH” — is jealousy. So there’s an interesting play on the Hebrew words there. God took one sacrifice. He didn’t take the other. When Cain was- his face fell, God says, “What’s the problem?” basically. “Do better, and you’ll be forgiven.” And instead, he shunts his responsibility. To me, he’s a typical bigot. “There’s a reason you didn’t accept my sacrifice. It’s my brother’s fault.” He takes him out to the field. He starts arguing with him. He slays him. He shunts responsibility.
And even afterwards, when God spoke to him, and it said he spoke to him in a soft manner, trying to get him to do repentance. He still shunts it. “Am I my brother’s keeper? I don’t know where he is.” And he said, “Of course you know where he is. You buried him.” And not only does his blood, cry out, the blood of all the seeds cries out. So he’s constantly shunting responsibility.
JOHN BARTH: It’s an odd father who comes in and says- and doesn’t give Cain credit for his good intentions, credit for having, as far as I’m concerned, invented the idea of sacrifice that you tell me that in some variants, there are precedents for that. There isn’t in the text that I read. He doesn’t say, as I would have said to my first born, in this case, “Gee, you know, I understand you were trying to do a good thing. In fact, a pretty inspired idea you had here, you know, giving up an offer to Dad, and so forth. I really appreciate that. It has to be said that etc., etc.” Of course, there’s none of that.
You know, we’re not told. In fact, I think some of the commentaries say, point out, I think, somewhat characteristically, that God doesn’t exactly reject Cain’s sacrifice. He just doesn’t have respect for it, or regard for it.
CHARLES JOHNSON: You know, I heard this story when I was young, as we all did. You know, Cain and Abel. And, I didn’t really think about it. But, I do know one thing. I was reared to believe in the ideal of brotherhood. But looking at Cain and Abel, I find myself very troubled about what the implications of brotherhood-
BILL MOYERS: Brotherhood can be a curse. It can be a curse.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s very sad. Of course, in the Middle Ages, Cain becomes associated with the Jewish people, and then a little bit later, with black people. And the mark of Cain was skin color, or, in the 13th Century, the Jewish badge. You know, placed on them by Christians, and then later by the Nazis. You know, several hundred years later.
JOHN BARTH: Where it was certainly a brand and not a mark of protection, as it was-
CHARLES JOHNSON: Indeed. And yeah. And not-
BILL MOYERS: It was a judgment, not a mark of protection.
CHARLES JOHNSON: It was a judgment. It wasn’t protective at all. But I think, maybe what it is about — the intimates that leads to this kind of violence — is the story speaks to a deep fracture in our lives. I mean, you know, same and different are two themes, right? But no two things are going to be equal. And among those who look alike, who are twins, this is gonna be more vivid. And so there’s something asymmetrical and destabilized about human beings, in the story of these two brothers.
BILL MOYERS: Well, look. The first human act in Genesis is an act of disobedience. The second human act is an act of murder. Somebody’s trying to tell us something there.
MARY GORDON: It is a hopeless story. It says that jealousy and violence are in the heart. And- but what I’m awfully interested in is our mis-interpretation of the mark of Cain. It is a mark of protection. And-
BILL MOYERS: And God says, “I will put it on you, and no one will- and if anyone harms you, they’ll be avenged — you’ll be avenged sevenfold.”
MARY GORDON: And I think it’s interesting how our culture has garbled that message. So, when you say, “Oh, the mark of Cain,” we assume that that’s the mark of the criminal. It is simultaneously the mark of the criminal and the mark of protection.
JOHN BARTH: Simultaneously, so that God knows-
MARY GORDON: Yeah.
JOHN BARTH: -doesn’t He, or She, that it is a completely ambivalent mark.
MARY GORDON: Yes. Yes.
JOHN BARTH: I mean, every- nobody may touch you, but I sure do know that you’re a criminal.
MARY GORDON: And the whole point is impossible and ambivalent in that way. Which is why I think it’s so rich.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: My question is, what would have happened had Cain come back to, you know, the family, and said, “You know what? I was in the field, and I found my brother. He’s God”? And-
MARY GORDON: A line to God.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Yeah. Or he tripped, or whatever. (LAUGHTER) I mean, is the story about being discovered? Is it about guilt? Because we’re assuming- I mean, when you talk about a god, you’re talking about a being that is sort of supervising. What if- we’re living in a world, now, where a lot of people assume the absence of any kind of guiding spirit or morality that will watch you or catch you. Hence, people go out and murder each other.
BURTON VISOTZKY: See, what we have now, Oscar, the Biblical text says, your brother’s blood calls out from the ground. It’s like forensic evidence is gonna get you. Right? Okay. Okay.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: (LAUGHTER)
BURTON VISOTZKY: But that’s our conscience now. That’s what we’ve come to.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Okay.
MARY GORDON: I think this is a story that needs to be read with a post-Holocaust consciousness, in a new way, as well.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MARY GORDON: Abel is the innocent victim. Abel has been erased. God has not intervened.
BILL MOYERS: God is silent. God is not there at the hour of violence.
MARY GORDON: It happened. And-
BILL MOYERS: What does this tell you about God? I mean, personally. In your own faith?
MARY GORDON: That’s the hopeless moment, it seems to me. The hopeless moment is that goodness and purity of heart does not protect you. It did not protect the Jews. It did not protect the Indians. It did not protect those in Africa who were taken over to be slaves. It’s irrelevant to your fate and your punishment. And that, to me, is always the moment where doubt enters in.
How- I mean, every child- this may not be particularly interesting. But, to me, you know, it’s not original, but what is the thing that makes God hard to believe in? That he stands by and allows the innocent to suffer. And I think it can do all kinds of, you know, end runs around this story. But, in the end, Abel’s dead. And dead is dead. And God doesn’t do anything about it. And so, to me, this is the narrative moment when doubt becomes absolutely comprehensible — and almost inevitable.
BURTON VISOTZKY: What do you make of the fact that we make that our central text? In the midst of the search for God, the text we read is one that says, “Well, people die. Innocent people die. God stands silent.” What, I mean, how do you reconcile that?
JOHN BARTH: That’s where it’s saying, “nobody says it’s gonna be easy.”
FAYE KELLERMAN: The point is, if you have faith, that’s how you reconcile it. Because if you knew that purity and innocence and heroics were always going to win out in the end, where would the faith be?
JOHN BARTH: It makes the leap of faith more of a leap.
BILL MOYERS: A little more acrobatic.
FAYE KELLERMAN: It-
BILL MOYERS: Mary says it makes it a lot harder.
FAYE KELLERMAN: But that’s what faith is. You have faith even staring at the ovens of Dachau. Or all the other atrocities, and there have been so many throughout the world. That’s what faith is.
MARY GORDON: But faith requires that you get out of the story. Faith requires that you say that there is a larger story than this story, and it’s not narrative — that it’s somehow being-
JOHN BARTH: Despite the story.
MARY GORDON: Precisely. That despite the story-
FAYE KELLERMAN: If you-
BURTON VISOTZKY: I don’t understand what you mean, that it’s-
MARY GORDON: Because if you stay in the story of Cain and Abel, the only reasonable position is to say, “How can I align myself with this God, who allows the innocent to be punished?” If you are going to have faith, you have to say, “Outside the boundary of this story, there is a meaning, there is a plan. There is a God whom I do not understand.” A story assumes understanding. A story says, “We are- I’ll tell you this, and you’ll get what I mean.”
BURTON VISOTZKY: But- so Genesis actually does that, though. I mean, because Genesis starts by telling you that this character, God, is also the creator of the universe.
MARY GORDON: Right.
BURTON VISOTZKY: I think God’s a tough cookie, and I’m thinking here of God playing the role of parent. Sometimes you articulate what you fear most. When God warns Cain, you know, “If you’re not careful, this is going to erupt.” Maybe God’s warning God. We know just a few generations further down the line, God’s going to get so frustrated with humanity, that God will wipe humanity out entirely. You know, sometimes I imagine that maybe the reason God stays so far back, so silent, is so that God has a moment to compose. It’s like when I hear my kids bickering at home, sometimes I think the best thing for me to do is just go in my bedroom and shut the door for a while. So that I don’t come out screaming too.
BILL MOYERS: But this God comes into the bedroom. Says to the kid who has knocked the other one down, “Hey, I’m going to take care of you, young man. I’m going to put a mark on you, and if your brother gets up and hits you again? I’m going to avenge you sevenfold.” I mean, aren’t you made uncomfortable by a God who protects the murderer?
JOHN BARTH: May I check in as one who is made acutely uncomfortable about these matters, coming from no particular religious background. I can look at this forthwith, with all the advantages of a vacuum, let’s say. The mark is, as we’ve agreed, both an advertisement of Cain’s misbehavior and a protection. It’s– the most ambiguous kind of protection. He’s a marked man in both senses. We haven’t gotten-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Is he blessed by the fact- I mean, he goes off-
JOHN BARTH: He’s given the curse of a certain kind of exemption.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: But at least he has a kind of protection, would you say?
JOHN BARTH: Yes, he does.
MARY GORDON: But he has a protection that Abel didn’t have.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Um, hmm. Well, is this because- I mean, killing didn’t- murder didn’t exist in the world this way before. And God wants to stop this cycle of one killing another, killing another, killing another. It seemed to me, that’s the way I read this-
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that God forgives, where Cain didn’t?
CHARLES JOHNSON: I’m not saying forgives. But doesn’t want this blood-letting, maybe, to go on and on and on. And there’s a sense in which the crime of Cain is more of an original sin, I suspect, than the kind of sexual mistake that’s made by Adam and Eve. Murder enters into human experience for the man who becomes the first builder of a city. Almost as if to say that kind of violence, the elimination of the brother, of the other, of the double, is foundational, in a way, for the rise of civilization. And the brother — the eliminated other, who is very much the- who reflects the possibilities of a survivor — is always there to haunt. His blood is in the soil to haunt that civilization. There’s a lot of things you could do very interesting with this, in terms of, “Do we need an act [of] violence and the elimination or destruction of our so-called brother, whoever he might be?” I mean, if American, someone else- in order to found a city or a civilization.
FAYE KELLERMAN: I think that there were imperfections that needed to be ironed out, because everything was so new. It’s exactly like John said. Everything was the first. And we went through several drafts before we found a civilization that actually continued to exist.
MARY GORDON: I think that whether or not you say Cain meant to kill, he had a murderous impulse. He had an impulse to do harm. That legacy of Cain, for good and for ill — again, what I love about the story is its ambiguity, its impossibility. The impossibility of being human does not end with the line of Cain. The impossibility of his being human — the murderousness at the heart, which is somehow tied to creativity – that goes on-
BILL MOYERS: The murderousness at heart is tied to creativity?
MARY GORDON: It is-
FAYE KELLERMAN: I have a problem-
MARY GORDON: -because Cain — the descendants of Cain, the descendants of the murderer — is the inventor of civilization.
FAYE KELLERMAN: He is the only seed that is there. He wiped out his brother’s seed. I have a real problem with saying that creativity comes from violence. Or violence is stemmed by creativity. It’s sort of as an apologia forviolent behavior, if you have creativity within you.
BILL MOYERS: But some creativity comes from unbridled passion, does it not?
FAYE KELLERMAN: I think they are the same drive. But you can lead it in two paths. I don’t think you necessarily need to have an evil path to be creative.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: But it might not have been because of the murdererousness in him. I mean, he’s on this earth alone now, right? God has withdrawn. God, with all of his power, has withdrawn. And that might have something to do with his creativity. I mean, that he’s his own potential, [that] his own powerfulness– can come forth.
BILL MOYERS: What about-
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Also, that death has entered, right? That he now knows death. I mean, death is- Luther had said, you know, “You don’t know anything until you taste death on your lips.” Well, Cain has tasted death. And this might have something to do with it.
MARY GORDON: But Abel was not creative. No civilization came from Abel-
MARY GORDON: Virtue, virtue-
JOHN BARTH: I think to come back to the point that Charles made-
JOHN BARTH: -certainly, part of the power of the story, whether we like it or find it simply deeply unsettling, is in that most poignant line thus far in Genesis, the “Am I my brother’s keeper?” line. It is, of course, not only a murder but a fratricide.
But in that series of famously disingenuous questions that run through Genesis, God and others asking questions to which they know the answer, you know, where are-
BURTON VISOTZKY: Why do you assume God knows the answer?
JOHN BARTH: Where are you Adam and Eve?
BURTON VISOTZKY: Why do you assume God knows the answer?
JOHN BARTH: Well, because we assume that the author of the script is on this end, after all. So when he’s walking in the Garden, and He says, “Why are you naked?” we don’t think that is a naive question that he’s waiting for an answer for. He knows very well why they’re naked, I presume.
BILL MOYERS: But don’t you take the answer-
JOHN BARTH: Where is your brother? (LAUGHTER)
BURTON VISOTZKY: But you presume, Jack. I’m not so sure, early on in Genesis, that God has the same high qualities that later theologians, and later Books of the Bible, impute to God.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Cain is an interesting character in the story. Yes, he is the murderer. And- you almost watch him kind of grapple with this, with what it means. First, when God confronts him, he says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Which for him, is kind of a, you know, “Leave me alone.” But, in fact-
BILL MOYERS: Sort of a sarcastic comment.
BURTON VISOTZKY: It is sarcastic. But ironically, it turns out to be the seed of all of our ethics. I mean, because the answer to all, the reader’s answer, is yes, of course you’re your brother’s keeper. And, eventually, I think he comes to learn that his crime is going to haunt him. He says, in Hebrew, “Gadol avonim meenso,” which is often translated, “My punishment is too great to bear.” But in fact, that’s not what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew says, “My sin is — or my inequity is – too great to bear.” I think that this is a guy with caring within him — enormous feelings of guilt. He destroyed his brother. And as a result of that, he comes to be able to answer his own question. Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. And maybe that’s the good side of the foundation of civilization. Once he knows that, he can build a city.
JOHN BARTH: That’s a pleasing and sort of optimistic brush-
BURTON VISOTZKY: I’m a rabbi-
JOHN BARTH: -to the story- (LAUGHTER), I have to say that. It’s refreshing that the Hebrew says, “My sin– my inequity is greater than I can bear.” One wants to say that this is the seeds of remorse and repentance. And what he’s saying is, “Oh my God, look what I’ve done. Poor Abel,” you know, “life’s more than I can bear.”
But alas, his speech goes on to say he’s copping a plea. He says, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Because look: everywhere I go, people are going to kill me, etc. What people were not told?”
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Perhaps because he knows that he really is deserving of death.
JOHN BARTH: Perhaps so. It’s an interesting- it’s the second wonderful human moment after “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a moment where I think he shows some courage. I think he’s throwing this back to God. He’s saying, “You created me. You made me this way. If you don’t like the way I’m behaving, you should have stopped me. And what is your responsibility, Lord of the Universe, creator of all of us, the precipitator of all action? Where is your responsibility?”
MARY GORDON: Well, this-
BILL MOYERS: And God is silent.
MARY GORDON: The implied question is, “Aren’t you my brother’s keeper, am I my brother’s keeper, or are you my brother’s keeper?”
JOHN BARTH: Who’s show is this?
MARY GORDON: And you know, yeah. Who’s in charge here? Who’s the one with the power? And, in fact, you can say that if we are contemptuous of Cain for not being his brother’s keeper, why should we not then be contemptuous of God for not being the keeper of his sons?
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah, but Mary-
BILL MOYERS: But God is not accountable. God is not accountable-
BURTON VISOTZKY: That’s no more acceptable to God. If your kids are fighting and the kid turns to you and says, “It’s not my fault– you should have stopped him.” You’re not gonna accept that as an answer.
MARY GORDON: No, no. If my kid- if I know that my kid- I mean, this isn’t to make it vulgar, and I don’t like doing this, but I’ll just meet you for the moment: if one of my kids- okay, they’ve both just made a clay model for me. And I say to one of them “That’s really good. I really love that.” And I say to the other kid, “It really doesn’t cut it.” And I say that to the vengeful kid and then I see the vengeful kid walking around with a big stick, and I say, you know, “I gotta go get my hair done.” That is the analogy. God knows the nature of Cain. He knows the nature of Abel. He knows the nature of the situation. There’s nothing that he does not know. He has given Cain all the equipment and all the ammunition that he needs. The one thing that he’s given him is the warning: sin is at the door.
FAYE KELLERMAN: Well, that’s a big “if.”
MARY GORDON: You can stop it. But consider it in one’s own life. And it is, I think, the crisis of liberalism. Liberals believe that if that tiny whisper says, you know, you can stop this, what we all believe is that rationality and virtue will triumph. But, in fact, passion is enormously strong. Jealousy is enormously strong. Rationality and morality in the face of passion and violence are rather weak.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re saying, here God comes and offers the moral voice of reason, but it isn’t enough?
MARY GORDON: No, it’s not enough.
JOHN BARTH: I would go a step farther than that and say, just to be the devil’s advocate for a moment, that God almost plants the idea in Cain’s head. It’s God who says to watch out for sin. It’s a little like saying, “Don’t eat that fruit over there.” Or, “Don’t open the seventh door. You can open the first six. But don’t open the seventh.” In Chekovian terms, it’s one more pistol hung on the wall, you know, that we know isn’t going to get fired.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: You say that God knows it all. And I actually am wondering whether, at that point, he does. I mean, hey, we all know what it is to create characters and have them take off with a life of their own, and we do not have total control, and they surprise us, right? We’ve somehow this element of subjectivity of Cain that enters in here. It’s hard to know exactly what was going on in him. I mean, extreme anger, extreme jealousy, something of this sort. And God says, “The choice is yours.”
BILL MOYERS: “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door.”
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Exactly.
JOHN BARTH: I think that God’s question,” Where is your brother?” is certainly disingenuous. I mean, I don’t want to read it as other than disingenuous. “I do not know,” is utterly disingenuous. And for him to follow that with the innocent question, “Am I really my brother’s keeper?” I think, robs the story. It may be true, but it robs the story of a good deal of the character Cain — of a good deal of his psychological complexity. And it’s that psychological complexity that’s carried over in the ambivalence of his being spared, but stigmatized, at the same time, and keeps the story interesting — if we’re talking about just a story.
FAYE KELLERMAN: I think just going back to the original narrative, what are we trying to see in this story? Violence is in all of us, even in God’s original creatures.
BILL MOYERS: It wasn’t in Abel, was it?
MARY GORDON: No, unh-unh.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Well, it could have been.
FAYE KELLERMAN: It could have been. He didn’t live long enough to know-
MARY GORDON: We have no evidence of that.
FAYE KELLERMAN: We have no way of knowing yes or no. We have no way- his life was cut short.
MARY GORDON: The one thing we see to-
FAYE KELLERMAN: But I think- what I take away from the story is that violence is in all of us. The ability to do bad is in all of us. And we have to confront our own ability to do evil. It lies at our doorstep, just as the text said.
CHARLES JOHNSON: I really think you’re right, that we cannot overlook this sense that God takes his child aside and says, “Look, you do it this way, it’ll turn out better. You don’t do it this way, there is something outside the door that is really going to cause a great deal of disaster.”
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: What’s interesting is after the flood, I think, the rules get much more precise, right?
FEMALE VOICE: Um hmm.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Laws — as if he kind of realizes what he has here.
CHARLES JOHNSON: So God’s on a real learning curve here.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: I think so — like a new parent.
BILL MOYERS: What’d you say?
CHARLES JOHNSON: He’s on a learning curve-
BURTON VISOTZKY: I’m with Rebecca on this, too. God has no clue what the experiment of free will is all about. God grants this creature enough Godlike characteristic to do as the creature pleases. And the creature then turns around and does evil. And I think God is shocked. God is trying to figure out what God’s relationship to the creature is all about. And doing it kind of in a hands-off way. Eventually, God says, “Well, this isn’t working quite as I thought.” Starts all over again. Right? New draft?
JOHN BARTH: I don’t know whether you mean that as extenuating circumstances for God. It’s a terribly expensive experiment.
MARY GORDON: Because Abel is dead.
BILL MOYERS: For Abel has paid the price-
JOHN BARTH: For human beings-
BILL MOYERS: And there’s no justice for Abel in there, is there? I mean, you think there’s any justice in this story?
JOHN BARTH: And then comes the flood-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: One would hope there would be. But I was just thinking that you can’t, I mean, I guess the whole idea of- why one over the other? When I was a kid, and I first heard these stories, I thought they were, in fact, about real people, even though, you know, you learn that it’s more allegorical, whatever, but I mean-
FAYE KELLERMAN: You don’t think it’s about real people?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Going back, again, to this notion: does it convince you or persuade you that good is in fact better than evil? I mean, that’s why-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: -the story of Cain and Abel, for me, never went on beyond the fact — maybe it’s a personal psychology — that one killed the other. I mean, it’s funny. Like, when I re-read it not so long ago, I was surprised that it kept on going, and that it had different (LAUGHTER)- you know, the kind of implications. And again, I have to- I’m very nostalgic, obviously, for childhood, but I think they form you. And I think the function of stories like this are to give people, like, some moral foundation.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a moral lesson in this story? Now that you’ve gone back to it?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: I kept thinking, as I was listening to everyone, that a more cynical person would say one of the morals of the story is: don’t get caught. But, obviously, in that world you get caught.
BILL MOYERS: Is there any redemption in this story?
MARY GORDON: There’s no redemption for Abel, certainly, because Abel is dead. I think that the challenge that a moral person has to be is always to be a witness to Abel. And that is what it is to be an ethical human being, to say, “I am in the place of that person who is unjustly cut down. That is, I am a witness to that.”
Now, what happens after that? Do you say, “I then will try to create a world, having witnessed this, where this is going to happen?” That doesn’t happen in this story. There is no moment of ethical moving forward in this. It’s not an ethical story. And I think what Oscar said is really important. We forget what happens after, after “I am my brother’s keeper. Bye.” That’s all I remember.
BILL MOYERS: Are you offended that God becomes the protector of the murderer? That Cain doesn’t really pay for his sin?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Yeah, I am offended, I would say. I mean, but what else could you do with the guy? I mean, he had to live with his conscience. And he had to- Does anyone here think that Cain had a conscience? I mean-
FEMALE VOICE: Yes. Yes.
BURTON VISOTZKY: On one hand, maybe it’s not so terrible that God protects the murderer from human vengeance. Because human vengeance just reduplicates murder. There’s just more murder in the world. And the only one that has the right to give life or give death should be God. I think that Cain, in some ways, suffers terribly. This guy’s a farmer, and he has the worst of all possible fates for the farmer: he’s uprooted from the land. He’s put into exile. He has to wander.
MARY GORDON: To be dead is the worst fate. And that-
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: Why can’t you live with remorse?
MARY GORDON: No, to be dead is dead. And remorse allows for change. Death does not allow for change. Remorse allows for change. And that’s why I think the moment in which God protects Cain, and why I love the story, is because it’s so complicated, and so contradictory, like life.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: I was thinking, if I may say, about modern times. And like the kind of rage that we’re sort of forgetting about.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see this as a modern story?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Absolutely. Yeah. But I just find any discussions sort of, you know, the Old Testament and so forth, that the Bible should have to address issues like, why are people so angry in this day and age? And why do people commit murder? And why do people even get away with it?
JOHN BARTH: Does it seem-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: This is going back to-
JOHN BARTH: Does it seem to you that the Cain and Abel story does address that? It doesn’t seem to me that it addresses the question of-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: I just-
JOHN BARTH: Why are we now- except in that mythic sense of once upon a time there must have been-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: I mean, I grew up- you know, there were people who- I had •friends who actually were notoriously cruel and violent people. And-
BILL MOYERS: Where did you grow up?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Oh, I grew up in Manhattan, uptown, on the Upper West Side when- I guess now it’s more known as Columbia University neighborhood. But back when it was a real neighborhood, if you’ll pardon the expression, and-
BILL MOYERS: Real neighborhood being-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Just working class. There used to be buildings instead of academic structures. And so forth.
BILL MOYERS: Were there more “Cains” or “Abels” in it?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: We had a mix. A thing we used to say to each other is- you know, we’d see cops, and we’d say,”How’s law enforcement?” And the cops would say, “How’s crime?” So (LAUGHTER)- I believe, personally, that the world is divided into two camps (I know that it’s a generalization): people who are introspective and people who aren’t. And if you ask me, if Cain had sort of sat around and thought things over, he might not have gone off and committed this, you know, killed his brother. And I think-
MARY GORDON: That gives a lot of power to the rational over the irrational, I think
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Well, no, I’m not talking about rational. I’m talking about people who respond emotionally as well as intellectually, and actually take the time out to think things over and weigh it. Not that you can all the time, but-
BILL MOYERS: So, Cain is on the side of the impulsive?
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Yeah. He’s a hothead. And he’s the kind of guy who’ll shoot a guy for sitting- You know, I remember, now it’s a more fashionable street, but there was once upon a time when West 80th St. was the highest murder-rate street in the city, you know? And I think a guy was sitting on a garbage can, and some man came along and said, “Get off that garbage can. It’s mine.” And the guy said, “No.” And he just pulled out a gun and killed him for sitting on a garbage can. I mean, well, if the guy had been more introspective, chances are he wouldn’t have shot the guy.
FAYE KELLERMAN: Introspection is moral development.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Yeah. And–
MARY GORDON: But why has moral development had such a lousy track record?
FEMALE VOICE: Yeah.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: Because people who are empowered tend to confuse physical strength and superiority with the right to do as they please.
MARY GORDON: But think of one’s own life. I mean, I find just trying not to be a murderer completely grueling. (LAUGHTER) I think it’s quite remarkable that I’m not behind bars.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MARY GORDON: Well, everybody irrit- you know- (LAUGHTER)
OSCAR HIJUELOS: You should see her when she gets angry.
BILL MOYERS: People are no damn good?
FAYE KELLERMAN: I’ve gotta tell ya’, this doesn’t speak to me.
MARY GORDON: You know, I feel like I have enormously violent impulses. I have enormously selfish impulses. I think the struggle to be a moral human being is really, really tough. I don’t- I mean- and I’m not in jail, because I’ve had family. I’ve had enormous good fortune.
BILL MOYERS: You had a church, did you not?
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Well, that’s what I was wondering. Do you identify this as human consciousness? Or is this really the “Catholic” in you?
MARY GORDON: What? That thinks people are bad?
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah. I mean, I’m just-
MARY GORDON: I think that if we choose this narrative as a center, it does tell us that the murderous impulse is a pretty old thing in the human story. If you want to say it’s the tragic flaw- There’s something wrong with people.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: It’s interesting, you know-
MARY GORDON: I mean, there really is something wrong with people. Or else the world would be a better. Why is there so much violence?
FAYE KELLERMAN: Do you take your creative- your violence- and channel it into something creative? That is very, very right.
MARY GORDON: But why is the violence there in the first place?
FAYE KELLERMAN: Because it’s all mixed up in one kind of-
JOHN BARTH: The question you’re asking is the question of responsible-
CHARLES JOHNSON: What do you have to make every story go? What’s its fuel? It’s usually a conflict. There has to be displacement from some kind of original equilibrium or nothing’s going on. You get a character who’s very spiritual and at one with everything, there is no conflict. I mean, there isn’t. There’s nothing going on. There’s got to be some alien element that comes into the world that has to be pushed out; or something that’s not in that world that has to be brought in. And that just might be God’s favor.
But, you know, as you were talking, you know, when I heard you saying to a large extent that Cain’s problem is egotism. I mean, he’s very much anchored in himself. And why do you want to kill somebody? It’s because there’s this self, and there’s that other self. And there’s this conflict and tension that’s set up. And it’s all based on dualism. And if we were to sort of go over to the Buddhist context for a moment, we would kind of see, oh, that is illusion.
CHARLES JOHNSON: So, it’s “maya”. It’s, I’m sorry, but this is the West, and there you have your anchorage in evil. It is probably a sense of dualism.
MARY GORDON: What does maya do for Abel?
BILL MOYERS: Maya is?
CHARLES JOHNSON: Maya is illusion.
MARY GORDON: If Abel has a body, and we believe in a corporeal life and a body that suffers, the body of the victim is not a construct of someone else’s mind. I guess, it-
BILL MOYERS: It’s a reality.
FAYE KELLERMAN: Doesn’t Catholicism deal in another world, too?
MARY GORDON: Well, that’s a big problem.
FAYE KELLERMAN: That’s a problem that you have with the story.
MARY GORDON: A pr[oblem]– But Catholicism-
FAYE KELLERMAN: He’s going from a bad place to a worse place.
MARY GORDON: -tries to have- I don’t think that’s Catholicism. I think any relationship with any religious tradition with an afterlife has to have a dual consciousness — that if you just believe that everything was going to get all fixed up after death, well, what’s the difference? You might as well, you know, act like a complete creep, because if you steal somebody’s land, well, they’ll go to heaven. It’ll be okay. You have a dual consciousness. Yes, perhaps, injustice will be rectified after death. That does not take away your responsibility not only to fight against injustice, but to bear witness to injustice.
FAYE KELLERMAN: But that’s also what keeps people in line — the sense that if they do good, they will be rewarded.
MARY GORDON: It hasn’t worked really well.
FAYE KELLERMAN: Well, if everything was made right, and there was a sense of justice in the Bible, and there was a sense of justice in the world, then everything would make sense. And it would be no moral attribute to do good, because, you know, you would be rewarded. The condition to do good when you don’t know whether you’re going to get rewarded or punished, I think, elevates the act.
MARY GORDON: That’s-
BILL MOYERS: It’s the-
MARY GORDON: That’s from the position of the prosperous and the position of the non-victim. From the position of the witness to the victim, it often seems like a pretty unfair deal.
BILL MOYERS: I think I hear you saying that sin is a preoccupation with myself and my desires and my impulses.
MARY GORDON: And it’s an inability to identify with the body of the other, the suffering body. And I think that that is sin. And where- what’s the source of that? How do I know? I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: Faye, do you teach your four children that their incentive for doing good is a reward in heaven?
FAYE KELLERMAN: I teach them- First of all, I have teenagers, so I don’t teach them much at all. (LAUGHTER) I try to instill in them that there is a sense of morality in this world, and doing good should be done for its own sake — not for something tangible. Life isn’t fair. Maybe it’ll get straightened out in an afterlife. I don’t know. But doing good is its own reward.
BILL MOYERS: Abel would tell you that’s foolish advice to give your children, because look, “I was good. I did righteous things. I offered my best offering to God in the purist of hearts, and look what happened to me.”
FAYE KELLERMAN: Maybe living a righteous life was his own reward. And who’s to say what happens in the afterlife. But without even going into an afterlife, there is some degree of joy in trying to live a moral life.
JOHN BARTH: And I thought that’s what Cain was trying to do when he brought the offering in the first place — when he thought it up-
CHARLES JOHNSON: You think he got a bad rap.
JOHN BARTH: I think he got a bad rap.
Again, not to exculpate his subsequent behavior (LAUGHTER).
BILL MOYERS: But he did win mercy. And this connection between mercy and justice for the murderer still is a baffling conundrum for me.
MARY GORDON: Burt, you know, justice is, simultaneously, absolutely essential and impossible — thatthis moment at which the child, however narcissistically motivated, cries out, “It’s not fair,” is a very important human moment. And yet, as Hamlet says: If we were all treated after our desserts, who would escape whipping? None of us really wants a world where justice is triumphant over mercy. So, I think the great, and most beautifully mysterious moment, again, is when God says, “Okay, it’s about mercy now. It’s not about behavior anymore. It’s about something else.”
BURTON VISOTZKY: Mercy is an essential part of the universe. But what do you do when mercy seems to override justice so thoroughly that you’re left with the creepy feeling someone’s walking scot-free. I mean, you know, maybe Abel’s wife is still pretty unhappy about all this.
FEMALE VOICE: Mmhmm.
JOHN BARTH: Pretty sore. There’s a city rising over there, and Nod and children coming, and so forth.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: But the very next chapter is the flood. Right?
FAYE KELLERMAN: Right.
REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: I mean, this is not mercy. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it’s almost as if he’s going to start again.
MARY GORDON: See, I think one makes a mistake trying to make narrative sense of something that is absurd — that somehow, the position of the survivor of a victim is in an impossible position, because you simultaneously want punishment for the murderer. And if the cycle of vengeance goes on, that’s hopeless, too. You can only say,”Stop. Stop. There’s no answer to this, so we’ll stop.” And that moment, when you say, “Stop,” is the moment of mercy. And that seems to me- that ability is one of the most mysterious and beautiful human moments, when you just say, “Stop. I give up my own desire. I stop my own desire for bloodshed, for vengeance. It is not about me.” Why could any human being do that? That’s a moment of grace. That’s a moment of mercy. I think it’s greatly mysterious, and that’s the moment in the story that I love the most, and that I find completely inexplicable.
JOHN BARTH: Though it does end on that minor chord, doesn’t it — that the dynasty then ensues and culminates in murder? And never mind Cain, never mind Abel. God is on his learning curve, I guess, as a modernist author who’s also a member of the cast.
CHARLES JOHNSON: I think when I was much younger, maybe 20 years ago, history seemed like a slaughterhouse.
FEMALE VOICE: Uh-huh.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Things in the world seemed inexplicable. And you do want reasons for that. You do turn to moral philosophy for that. I don’t know if you necessarily find a satisfactory answer. I think the rage is there, but, you know, I think that’s what the religious impulse is about. I mean, there are no other doors-
OSCAR HIJUELOS: You’re mellowing it out.
CHARLES JOHNSON: -we can go through. No, not mellowing it out. But there are no other doors we can go through. Not science. Not so many other secular disciplines, where we can even grapple with the questions, either analytically, or through narrative stories like Cain and Abel. It’s hard for me to believe that undeserved suffering is redemptive.
CHARLES JOHNSON: It really hard for me to emotionally wrap my mind around that.
FAYE KELLERMAN: It’s very nice to be egotistical and give in to all our passions and be the id baby, and I want, I want, I want. It takes a much higher level of development to delay ego gratification. And I think that’s what moral education is all about. Not necessarily religious education. Moral education.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Which you can find in fiction.
FAYE KELLERMAN: Yes. Yes.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Just as well.
MARY GORDON: Then how come people in English departments, who have read all this wonderful fiction, aren’t the best people in the world? (LAUGHTER) We-
MALE VOICE: The book of philosophers-
FAYE KELLERMAN: And I think that’s the whole point of the story. To recognize this rage that exists in all of us and to try the best we can, as fallible human beings, to overcome it. We’ve all felt rage. Afterwards it doesn’t feel too good either.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah. I mean, like if you had a choice, who would you be? Cain or Abel?
MARY GORDON: Cain.
BILL MOYERS: Oh?
MARY GORDON: I’d be alive.
BILL MOYERS: You’d be alive.
MARY GORDON: And there would be a possibility of rewriting the story. There would be a possibility of remorse, moral education, reformation of life, starting a dynasty.
BURTON VISOTZKY: So there’s no nobility in dying innocent?
MARY GORDON: There’s no nobility because Abel didn’t choose it. Abel’s nobility came in the purity of his sacrifice, not in the manner of his death. So I think nobility only comes with a moment of choice.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Are those not the same thing?
MARY GORDON: No.
BURTON VISOTZKY: The purity of his sacrifice and the manner of his death?
MARY GORDON: No. He could have made a sacrifice with a pure heart and that would have been the same sacrifice. He would have had that same moment of purity and giving. And Cain could not have killed him. It wouldn’t have retroactively wiped out his purity.
BURTON VISOTZKY: So Abel’s not the blood sacrifice himself.
MARY GORDON: No.
JOHN BARTH: One of the things that seems endemic to human consciousness — in the face of this kind of moral complexity and the rest – is just as the brain seems to have evolved to make up scenarios in order to make sense of all the in-flooding of data, we couldn’t even cope if, we didn’t say this must be part of that.
I mean, in a sense, the brain is a scenario, story-making mechanism. So, Heaven knows, in the face of this moral complexity and perplexity and the pain and the injustice of it, one of the things that cultures do — not to mention us professionals at it — is make up stories. And these stories may give small, cold comfort if any. They may be full of problems and not answer questions. But they are as human a response, I think, to moral complexity and moral difficulty — not to mention the complexity of just keeping your balance and walking down the street– as anything could be. What we’ve been analyzing, whatever else it is, is one culture’s effort to make some kind of sense out of the on-streaming data of injustice — and those fathomless questions of how do we get here, what are we here for? And how come it’s such a half-mess alongside its transcendent moments?. .