Human beings are profoundly Cain and Abel both. They are divine and disgusting, blessed and cursed. The old story from Genesis is a perfect representation of this schizophrenic split in every man. In every moment we can chose to be Cain or Abel, we can take the high road or low road; we can chose narcissism or generosity, mediocrity or greatness, discipline or resentment, the lie or the truth, honesty or nasty subterfuge, the red pill of truth or the blue pill of the dream; we can chose to be inadvertent and evil or transparent and life-affirming.
Cain and Abel symbolise two different and opposite worlds: the world of the ‘broken’ and the world of the ‘whole’. Perhaps we can say that the artistic project is, in essence, the attempt to bridge these two worlds: to bring the divine down into the mundane, but also offer the mundane up to the divine. The best artistic representation is a synthesis of high and low, great and small; combining innocence and experience, divinity and spit, the prosaic and the poetic, song and image, the fleshy word and the ineffable spirit—or the shadowy Cain of existential doubt and the noble Abel who ‘makes all the right sacrifices’ and is favoured by God.
Cain’s self-pity and resentment, his murderous desire to destroy all that is good (his brother)—his ‘anger with God’ so to speak — lives in each one of us. Abel’s perfect unity with God and yet his tragic innocence is also part of our potential path and nature. In the tension between these two poles — the best and worst of our own nature — our naïve innocence versus our experienced bitterness—the sparks of creativity are born.
Cain could also be said to represent the left hemisphere of the brain, which Iain McGilchrist says is associated with anger, aggression and a certain narrow efficiency. Abel, on the other hand, is like the the right brain, which represents the embodied world of depth and wholeness, already perfect in itself. When the ‘controlling’ bureaucrat takes over, we become the emissary of the banality of evil, a left-brained tyrant; but it’s also true that we are also capable of perfection and self-sacrificing nobility. Strangely, the human being is simultaneously both contradictory characters: the good guy and the villain, and is always in conflict. The Cain and Abel story is perfect illustration of this eternal adversarial relationship.
Note: Whether or not this maps onto scientific descriptions of reality is not the most relevant issue here: it is the existential import. And that is: the ordinary human being is Cain and he is also Abel; he is darkness and also light. Of course, remaining in ‘the light of non-duality’—or Cain’s perfect world of unity without knowing the dark underworld of duality or division— is to remain incomplete. The journey to completeness is to know and transcend both Cain and Abel, the shadow and the image of perfection.
Cain represents the murky unconsciousness in the human soul in its dangerous inadvertence; Abel is light, consciousness, and perfect containment. However, the Cain and Abel’s story is not a simple-minded cliché about good and evil: you can’t have light without darkness, consciousness without sub-consciousness. Psychologically speaking, Cain is the shadow of Abel — and no man exists without his shadow side (except perhaps the fully enlightened individual who is the most rare being in the world).
It is our perception of being separate and divided— the separate good or the separate evil — wherein lies the origin and seed of the tragedy of Cain and Abel. To lead a good life, we need to get to know our own ‘inner Cain’. If we don’t know our own potential for evil, our good side is vulnerable to attack. Abel is blameless, and yet he is naïve. He hasn’t tasted the bitterness of betrayal, which is why he can’t survive.
Everyone has tasted some of Abel’s betrayal, perhaps from the moment we were ejected from the womb—and certainly after a love affair or two. We enter life believing ourselves to be Abel only to discover to our terror that we are in league with Cain. And we taste Cain’s bitterness, every-time we betray our better nature.
To repeat this astounding fact: you can’t be a fully aware person until you have lived through a betrayal or experienced a broken heart — because you only see half of the world. If you are too naïve, your destiny is to be crushed; if you only see heaven but don’t have a glimpse of hell yet, you are a lamb on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Some live in a terrible hellish realm, the world of Cain, and they are cursed by fate; others live in a heavenly bubble, but they are equally cursed because they are vulnerable. The bridge of redemption is to become conscious of both sides, and to finally transcend (but include) both Cain and Abel, in seeing that they are the same person.
The virtue of getting a taste of hell — or a taste of Cain — is that you can learn to ‘fear God’, which means to fear ourselves, for every person is a mischievous betrayer, but also part of the divine totality of being. And Cain is our ‘divine nature’ also because he shows us hell, just as Abel gives us a vision of heaven, or a reason to strive upwards towards greater unity and creativity. In other words, we are capable of much worse and much better than we think.
As Jordan Peterson has so eloquently pointed out—and this piece is a commentary on his various commentaries—Cain and Abel represents the most condensed story of the human ‘split’, or ‘fall’, or schizophrenic tendency in humanity. At any moment the individual, or society as a whole, can fall into ‘Cain’ or rediscover ‘Abel’. And one can quickly change into the other.
We first appear as Abel—or at least we believe ourselves to be innocent and apparently perfect—a blameless child of God. Actually, the seed of corruption lies in the innocent rose, as Blake pointed out in his famous poem. The apparently ‘perfect’ person is sacrificed to nature in the end. But the person who knows his inner Cain and strives towards transcendence, is one whose life is worth living and can indeed be called blessed before the holiest of the holy.
Note: As an experiment in creating a ‘song-book’, I have included my song entitled ‘Cain and Abel’. This is a rough version of the first song of a series that I have written and is based on the biblical stories in Genesis, influenced in part by Jordan Peterson's biblical commentaries. A painting or a video should accompany it as well, to make it a real Gesamtkunstwerk — Wagners word for a total piece of art — but that is beyond the scope of my talents. Any mixing and mastering, video work, or other collaborators are more than welcome to contact me. Note: this essay (and the song) aims to be an existential and mythopoetic rather than a doctrinal or religious one.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits