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Ancient Myths in the Making of Culture


Małgorzata Budzowska and Jadwiga Czerwińska

The reception of Mediterranean Antiquity heritage is one of the dominant research areas in contemporary classical studies. This issue has constituted the scope of the conference Reception of Ancient Myths in Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Culture, which took place at the University of Łódź (Poland) in November 2013. The volume consists of the selected articles based on the conference papers. They are divided into the main chapters: Literature, Visual and Performing Arts and Philosophy as well as Anthropology. The authors consider different methods of reception of ancient myths focusing on various cultural phenomena: literature, fine arts, theatre, cinema and pop culture.
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Cain, or the Secularization of Myth

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Tomasz Kaczmarek

Cain, or the Secularization of Myth

The expressionist theatre was a response to an ideological and religious crisis of values. Transcendence, rejected in the age of rationalism not only by science, but also, paradoxically, by religion itself, has become a reference point for renegade artists. The continuing secularization of the Church was a logical result of the rejection of the dogmas imposed by the fathers in charge of the ossified institutions.

“Ah! race of Abel, your carcass

Will fertilize the steaming soil!

Race of Cain, your appointed task

Has not been adequately done;

Race of Abel, your disgrace is:

The sword is conquered by the pike!

Race of Cain, ascend to heaven,

And cast God down upon the earth!”

William Aggeler, (Charles Baudelaire),

The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

There have been many different interpretations of the story of Cain over the centuries and the very character has been the inspiration for a number of literary works. Writers usually tried to copy very faithfully the biblical story, just like Victor Hugo in La Légende des siècles. With the crisis (at the beginning of the 20th century) which gave rise to ‘the physiological decadence of Europe’ as described by Nietzsche and ‘the ontological emptiness’ introduced later on by Ionesco, there was a breakdown in the scientific and religious values, and man was deprived of any refuge. Even his mental integrity turned out to be a very tenuous construct invented only for the mind’s use (Kaczmarek 2010). In those times of galloping relativism, the Biblical character of Cain gained a completely new quality. It was the expressionists who most frequently referred to Cain, as in him they discovered the germs of a New Man who they were fighting for, especially that the Bible, stripped of its message of love, ceased to be capable of conveying any transcendental values.

Expressionists create their work in the spirit of spreading secularization, which is based on two fundamental premises: ‘the death of God’ announced ← 125 | 126 → by Nietzsche on the one hand, and the harsh criticism of both religion and the fossilized institution of the official Church on the other.

The term ‘secularization’ has various meanings. In her book Le théâtre expressionniste et le sacré Catherine Mazellier-Grünbeck refers to the typology by Heinrich Lübbe, who distinguishes between three different meanings of the word. For us the most interesting definition is the one concerning the scientific concept which determines the emancipation of scientific reasoning from religious supervision (Lübbe 1975: 59). In this definition the primacy of ecclesiastical discourse is rejected, as it does not fit in with rationalist reasoning. Together with the fall of transcendence, secularization also manifests itself, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, as a hostile attitude to the Church and its religion abounding ad absurdum in dogmas maladjusted to the reality of that time. According to Heinrich Heine, the process of secularization was started by Luther himself, and it comes to an end with the materialism of Feuerbach who claimed that the essence of religion was its anthropological dimension; God was just a human invention and thus the Creator was dethroned by His own creation.

Certain hostility towards the Church is clearly expressed by writers, philosophers and even theologians themselves. The clergy are accused of material interests, abandoning Christ’s teaching, trading with the authorities; while Karl Barth, a famous theologian, does not even hesitate to profess that atheism was the true essence of the Church of that time (Zahrnt 1966).

Manifesting their aversion to official Church teachings, expressionists resort to parodying some recurrent Biblical motifs. Their favourite themes are free transpositions of the motifs of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement. However, it’s not only sarcasm we find in the works of the new generation, they also reveal the search for true religion, the original religion that catered for transcendence and not only worldly goods. This is clearly expressed in the works of Charles Péguy, one of the most popular French poets in Germany. A large number of authors (including such theologians as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth) criticized the teaching of God which had been twisted and contorted by men, and they indicated (mostly inspired by the Old Testament) the ruthlessness, brutality and even sadism of the Creator himself, who simply plays with human fate like with puppets. In many dramas of the time, therefore, we can find Biblical figures like Saul, Noah or Cain, as well as the Holy Trinity and the Nazarene himself, who for many was a symbol of a rebel, and not a guardian of conservative laws of the chosen social caste.

The appearance of the characters is based on two principles: most often they are settled in contemporaneity, and the texts they come from are deliberately modified to the disadvantage of Judaic-Christian teachings. Therefore, the most ← 126 | 127 → popular trend is to reverse the values; for instance Noah, traditionally depicted as an amiable character, in the play by Ernst Barlach, Die Sündflut, is a crazy old man who blindly carries out God’s commands. Saul, the title character of the drama by Franz Jung, appears to be nicer than in the Old Testament. The author in a way rehabilitates the first king of Israel making him a victim of human fate directed by God, and thus he also belittles the courage of David, who here is presented as a primitive cut-throat. The figure of Cain is also popular, which is seen not only in a number of dramas but also in the periodicals, such as the anarchistic newspaper Kain. Zeitschrift für Menschlichkeit (1911–1919) and Kain-Kalender (1912–1913) both edited by Erich Mühsam.

What is it that fascinated the expressionists in this rather negative character that had his brother’s blood on the hands? Biblical Cain was a crop farmer, whereas his brother Abel was a shepherd. They both were to bring the Lord an offering related to their occupations. Cain brought the offering of the earth’s crops while Abel brought the sheep. God did not treat them equally; he was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice but not with Cain’s. It is hard to comprehend the decision of the Creator, and the Bible does not explain the reasons either. As a result Cain grew angry, dejected and jealous, incapable of understanding why one offering was better than the other, if both were brought in good faith. After a quarrel with his brother; in a bout of fury Cain attacked Abel and killed him. God then sentenced him to eternal wandering and he forbade anyone to raise their hand against him.

The story of murder presented in this way has had numerous interpretations over thousands of years, and it has been interpreted on a few levels (Ratajczak 1980: 253). Some interpretations refer us to the ancient conflicts between the nomadic shepherd tribes and the tribes leading a settled life who were devoted to crop cultivation (Kosidowski 1967: 23). Other writers saw the desire to win a woman as the underlying reason for the conflict between the brothers (Sandauer 1977: 203–205), which was in an awkward way also somehow combined with patricide. The father-son feud was a recurrent motif in expressionist drama (Frenzel 1962; Richard 1993).

The legend of Cain is very popular in the Romantic era, in which, just like in the case of the Byronic drama, the character is compared to Lucifer and symbolizes the modern Prometheus. He is sentenced to suffering and rebellion, he defies God referring to His own paradigms such as love, hatred and crime. Wasn’t it the Lord who accepted favourably the offerings of blood? Didn’t He get delighted with burning bodies? Writers question the nature of patricide, and whether evil really derives from Hell. And so Cain-Satan will appear in many works of decadents like Przybyszewski (Szlakiem Kaina, Pierwsza pieśń ‘Cherubina’) who makes the ← 127 | 128 → protagonist doubt whether Satan is truly Satan and God is really God. The values here are completely reversed, which is typical of the world of twisted moral norms and illusory redemption measures. Nothing is certain anymore, apart from the certainty of uncertainty.

Although the expressionists derive inspiration from the decadent tradition (even though they deny it), in the case of Cain they place particular emphasis on his rebellious nature; he destroys the norms and rules, he personifies the rebellion and he disregards the outer form. “As a deeply stigmatised character, commonly condemned by everyone, rejected by society, regarded as the personification of evil, dishonour; he was most suitable for the revision of the fossilised notions” (Ratajczak 1980: 259). The new interpretation of the motif changed Cain into a new symbol, an analogy of a particular attitude to fate, thus granting him a universal dimension.

As this article is restricted in length, I am forced to limit myself to a few dramas that are most representative of both German and Polish expressionism, in which the figure of Cain is the best example of the secularization of myth in the theatre.

Friedrich Koffka, a playwright forgotten in our times but regarded by Ihering as ‘the dramatic hope’ of the expressionist theatre, wrote a few dramas which feature biblical figures such as David or Cain. The latter, quite contrary to the Biblical tradition, is a surprisingly positive character despite the act of murder which was perceived by the expressionists as a symbolic act only (instances of allegorical patricide and sometimes even matricide were treated in a similar way). The author presents Cain as a rebel against the unjust divine laws which he has to face. He is an outcast damned by God, but he is an extremely sensitive character who, furious in the extreme, kills his brother, but before the act he reproaches Abel for his cynicism: ‘Abel, there was a flower in the field - the flower was white, it was a beautiful lily […] I watered it every day. And you Abel, while walking across the field, you trod on it.’ (Koffka 1974: 170)

In this way Cain condemns his brother for crumpling up an innocent and beautiful flower as if the beauty has been destroyed by pragmatism, or in other words the ‘common sense’ which Abel stands for. Even though it is Abel who is traditionally regarded as a martyr, Koffka reverses the roles and depicts Cain as a character rejected by a cruel society which blindly obeys the will of God invented by themselves and forgets about any spiritual values and feelings that could potentially be found in every human being. As often happens in expressionist theatre, Cain personifies all the young generation of social outcasts doomed to solitude, but it is in the solitude that they discover rebellion against stale values and objection to the hypocritical world. This peculiar ‘cainism’ reveals the truth ← 128 | 129 → about the people who ‘think in the appropriate way’ and it presents them as a group deprived of ‘Souls’; and the Soul was what all the German young generation fought for under the banner of expressionism. That is why, paraphrasing Augustine of Hippo in The City of God, we can say that Abel is an earthly man, whereas Cain is certainly not a divine man but a spiritual type, a peculiar prophet of the new faith. The author preserves here the typically expressionist poetic language, however, we cannot talk about excessive gushiness, rather the elevation of style. This rhetoric comes from the romantic period, when a loner screamed to express his world-weariness. In many aspects the play refers to Byronic Cain, who also questioned the sense of life and his own fate in his monologues:

And this is / Life! Toil! and wherefore should I toil? - because / My father could not keep his place in Eden? / What had I done in this? I was unborn: / I sought not to be born ; nor love the state / To which that birth has brought me. Why did he / Yield to the serpent and the woman ? or / Yielding, why suffer? What was there in this? / The tree was planted, and why not for him? / If not, why place him near it, where it grew / The fairest in the centre? They have but / One answer to all questions, “Twas his will /And he is good.” How know I that? Because / He is all-powerful, must all-good, too, follow? / I judge but by the fruits – and they are bitter – / Which I must feed on for a fault not mine. / Whom have we here? – A shape like to the angels / Yet of a sterner and a sadder aspect / Of spiritual essence: why do I quake? / Why should I fear him more than other spirits, / Whom I see daily wave their fiery swords / Before the gates round which I linger oft, / In twilight’s hour, to catch a glimpse of those / Gardens which are my just inheritance, / Ere the night closes o’er the inhibited walls / And the immortal trees which overtop / The Cherubim-defended battlements? / If I shrink not from these, the fire-arm’d angels, / Why should I quail from him who now approaches? / Yet – he seems mightier far than them, nor less / Beauteous, and yet not all as beautiful / As he hath been, and might be: sorrow seems / Half of his immortality. And is it / So? can aught grieve save Humanity ? / He cometh. (Byron 1901: 215–216)

Expressionists seem to be inspired by the work of Byron published in 1822, especially when it comes to the figure of Cain, who symbolizes opposition to the divine laws considered not only unjust but also absurd. German writers must also have known the poem Abel and Cain (in The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, a poet worshipped by expressionists, in which outcasts rise from their knees and go to Heaven in order to banish God and his followers once and for all. Jerzy Hulewicz, a Polish writer associated with the expressionist magazine Zdrój published in Poznan, referred to the same theme.

The author of Ego eimi builds the action of his drama around three ‘apparitions’ which appear like visions from the border between dream and the real world. The first one is dedicated to the conflict between the first two brothers. Abel demands that Cain bring God an offering in order to confirm his faith. Cain ← 129 | 130 → seems not to understand this requirement, as he constantly keeps praying to and worshipping God in his heart and the Lord does not need any superficial signs of love. It is clearly seen that Hulewicz resorts to creating characters who are not human-like but incarnations of certain ideas. There is a clash of two worlds: Cain carries God in his heart, whereas Abel needs signs to legitimise his faith, not in front of the Lord but in front of other people. That is why Cain does not have to expose his soul, whereas Abel does. In the character of Abel ‘we sense the criticism of the formal Church, which not only favours superficial religiousness, but treats it as the basis for the rites and rituals, which as a result supplant spiritual life, contemplation and the direct and immanent contact with the Spirit’ (Ratajczak 1980: 262). It is the religiousness for show that Hulewicz criticises, reproaching Abel for searching for God outside and not in his heart as though all the signs of his presence were to come from the outside world. Cain has God inside, which makes him, according to the work by Paul Kornfeld, a spiritual person; whereas Abel represents a psychological person. ‘The psychological person’ is perceived from the outside and as such is the subject of scientific analysis. ‘The spiritual person’ is sensed from the inside in his unique originality (Kornfeld). Following Martin Heidegger we could say that Cain represents authentic existence, whereas his brother is an example of inauthentic existence (Sokel 1962: 98). And so we have here, as often happens in expressionist theatre, a symbolic murder, which shows the victory of the Spirit (Cain) over matter (Abel). The symbolism of the murder goes even further in the play. Both Cain and Abel are not real characters but they represent elements existing in man. Therefore, Cain-Man in his act gets rid of his opportunistic and indolent nature for the sake of his individual and spiritual development.

The next apparitions are not associated in any way with the Biblical story, they describe the descent of Cain on Earth, as if he were a Messiah. He is banished from the Earth, but he manages to sow the seed of his teaching in a boy, who later on as a Man-Cain will be looking for a New Man. His descent is preceded by the burning of the city of shadows where no true man can be found. In the two last apparitions Hulewicz reveals his attachment to the idea of reincarnation and to the rebirthing of the spirit thanks to constant self-development.

Perhaps the most ironic and amusing interpretation of the story of Cain can be found in the novel by José Saramago (2009), in which the author pinpoints numerous mistakes made by God and therefore he questions the logicality and validity of Church traditions. The rejection of Christian dogmas did not mean, though, for the expressionists the rejection of Christian mythology. On the contrary, they were extremely interested in it. However, in the light of the inevitable secularization of the Church and its teachings, the mythology was revised and ← 130 | 131 → critically interpreted, and the incongruity of the one and only holy exegesis endorsed by the clergy was exposed. Expressionists, who advocated allegorisation, focused on Cain, who, over the centuries, was perceived as an envious fratricide, and in him they discovered the story of the descendant of the first couple on earth anew. They were far from overinterpreting or reading à rebours, they meant to search for a New Man who would fight for his own spirituality, getting rid of the fetters (such as religion, the industrialisation of society, etc.) that prevent him from being free. That was the goal that expressionists wanted to attain, believing quite naïvely that the New Messiah would wake up one day in the form of a real man, or even in mankind. Were they really so gullible, of which Brecht accused them later on? The author of Mother Courage and Her Children may have been mistaken, which is reflected in a number of works presenting apocalyptic visions devoid of any illusion. Nevertheless, it should be emphasised that it is the search for the spirituality of man that is the essence of humanity, even though, or perhaps especially if, the efforts resemble Sisyphus’ struggle described by Camus.


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Kaczmarek T., 2010, Le Personnage dans le drame français du XXe siècle face à la tradition de l’expressionnisme européen, Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego.

Koffka F., 1974, Kain. Ein Drama, in: Horst Denkler (Hrsg.), Einakter und kleine Dramen, Stuttgart: Reclam.

Kornfeld P., 1971, L’Homme spirituel et l’homme psychologique, in: L’Expressionnisme dans le théâtre européen, Paris: Editions du CNRS.

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Richard L., 1993, L’Expressionnisme, Paris: Somogy. ← 131 | 132 →

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