|Los Angeles Review of Books|
William Flesch on Cain and The Lives of Things by José Saramago
The Evil of Banality
June 30th, 2012
“I'M BLIND, I’M BLIND” is the “inevitable cry” of the stricken in José Saramago’s great novel Blindness, as a strange milky-white opacity spreads among rich and poor, young and old, good and evil, selfish and selfless. “I’m blind” the opthamologist attempting to cure the blindness of others has to admit, though he tries to keep it to himself; “I’m blind” the already quarantined victims hear the announcer suddenly declare on the radio that is their only source of information about the outside world, “I’m blind, I’m blind” cry lecturers stricken in mid-sentence at conferences convened to discuss the plague. Saramago narrates this terrible fate with the dispassionate clearsightedness that is always the hallmark of his style:
This passage isn’t from Blindness but from Saramago’s last novel, Cain, which retells a lot of the stories of suffering and slaughter in the Old Testament, in this case the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you’re not well versed in Genesis you won’t recognize the moment. This sudden blindness was the Sodomites’ first, almost casual, punishment, followed the next day by the fire and brimstone rained down upon the cities of the plain. Here, the men of Sodom, both rich and poor, have demanded that Lot allow them to have their way with the two strangers to whom he has offered his hospitality, men who are really angels. He refuses, and when the would-be rapists attempt to break down Lot’s door, the angels he has sheltered
In the King James version, we see the depths of their depravity, since despite their blindness, they are still mad with the desire to carry off the angels and rape them. A similar scene occurs in Blindness, in one of the wings of the asylum where the blind are quarantined: smitten with blindness the men become rapists, and Saramago clearly understands the horrible plausibility of this efflorescence of sexualized rage. Saramago knew plenty about the human capacity for violence, having been a dissenter under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. His 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is in part about the 1936 Spanish Civil War and the aid that Salazar gave to Franco in neighboring Spain, while setting up prisons for Portuguese dissenters at home. Likewise, “The Chair,” the first story in the The Lives of Things (a collection of short stories originally collected in 1978) is a slow motion exposition of the 1968 collapse of the chair that Salazar was sitting in, resulting in a contusion and a cerebral hemorrhage (affecting the optic nerve, insists Saramago) which caused Salazar to be removed from office. There Saramago describes Salazar’s anxious minions as a bunch of “Cains [who] appear from everywhere, if it is not unfair to call them by the name of the wretched fellow on whom the Lord turned his back, [so that he took] human revenge on an obsequious and scheming brother.” Saramago is always on the side of the afflicted (even, perhaps, Salazar in “The Chair”), and so Cain’s emphasis is on the lamentations and tears, the suffering undergone by the sinners who are punished for attempting a terrible wrong – but a terrible wrong that God does not prevent them from attempting. The door is gone, in Saramago’s version, because everything is gone. The sinners’ experience is one of sheer bewilderment, not Genesis’ irrepressible desire to rape no matter what.
In Saramago’s story, cain witnesses this scene: he and abraham have come to visit lot at just this moment. In his last novels, Saramago writes names in what you might call ontologically democratizing lowercase (the effect is a little like Cormac McCarthy’s eschewal of apostrophes and inverted commas); here I’ll use lower-case to refer to Saramago’s characters, and upper-case to refer to their sources, as Saramago himself does in the epigraph to the novel, with its odd, ironically clarifying addition to the name of its New Testament source:
So much for the Bible. This is nonsense because what Abel actually obtained was his own murder, thanks to God’s testifying of his gifts. But whose nonsense is it? God’s or man’s? (STET man’s, please: Saramago’s complaints about humans are never gender-neutral.) Atheist though he was, Saramago’s narratives are intent on believing in god’s existence, the better to blame him for our condition, for the behavior of the world’s cains and joshuas and Herods and Salazars.
Saramago has cain and abraham go into lot’s house through a back door as the momentarily bien-pensant narrator muses that “the lord blinded all the men of sodom without exception, which proves that there could not have been even ten innocent men in the whole city.” No matter how well you know Genesis, you won’t remember cain and abraham together: they belong to different eras, and the biblical Cain disappears for good after founding the city of Enoch, which he names after his son, fifteen chapters before the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Saramago has always had an exhilarating sense of novelistic freedom – the sort of thing that makes Kafka exhilarating as well. Nothing is forbidden, and most fictionists are constrained only by their own superegos. Grim as Saramago and Kafka are, there is nothing grim in their exuberant liberty of invention and exposition – think Tarantino’s version of history in Inglourious Basterds. In Cain, Saramago‘s titular protagonist is forced in his exile to wander through time as well as space, and to witness scene after scene of oppression and cruelty. Like everyone else, he has his love affair as well, here with a woman named lilith, queen of a city and married to a man named noah, not the noah we know, but a hesitant and compliant and secretly bitter cuckold. Lilith gives birth to cain’s son enoch, who corresponds to the biblical Cain’s son as well, but there not by any Lilith. And after his affair with lilith cain wanders into abraham’s story just as abraham leads isaac to a mountain in the land of moriah to be sacrificed. The Cain of the Bible, the murderer of his own brother, can’t believe what he’s seeing, nor can Saramago’s angry narrator, whose deductions about god’s behavior are here as bitter as they will be in the scene in sodom quoted above:
Erich Auerbach’s famous reading of this scene (“Odysseus’ Scar”) finds it “fraught with background,” horror and despair everywhere in its depths. But Saramago won’t allow Auerbach’s darkness to remain unplumbed: he judges abraham and the lord and condemns them. You’ll remember the angel too, of course, who stays Abraham’s hand in Genesis. In Saramago as in life, there is no angel (true he comes blundering in a few minutes later, but too late to have saved isaac), only the outraged cain, who grips abraham’s arms and starts screaming at him before he can slit isaac’s throat.
Cain, like the doctor’s wife in Blindness, is generally appalled by the world, and by the god who takes responsibility for its structure. But unlike the doctor’s wife, unlike Jesus’ mother Mary in Saramago’s 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, cain can hardly be considered innocent. As in Genesis, cain’s sacrifice is rejected by the lord; what’s worse, here, is that abel mocks cain for being rejected. Finally cain kills him with the jawbone of an ass (Samson’s weapon in Judges, not Cain’s in Genesis), whereupon, moments too late to save abel, just as the angel will be too late to save isaac, the lord appears to condemn cain for his crime:
The lord and cain have a conversation about who’s to blame for abel’s murder, and cain says, very reasonably indeed, that the lord could easily have stopped this disaster: “You are the one who is really to blame, I would have given my life for him if you had not destroyed mine.” The lord offers the standard explanation for evil: that the possibility of evil is the cost of free will. But cain says that he killed abel because he wanted to kill the god who set things up this way, who created the world as a systematic organization of pain and sorrow. “Cain may be a murderer,” we hear towards the end of the book, “but he’s an essentially honest man,” unlike his creator. He “had more principles than most.” He misses his brother terribly – some of the most moving writing in this odd fable is about his regret for the family life they used to have, the future they might have had “if the lord had not crossed his path.” Caught in a rainstorm he thinks to himself: “If it’s true what they say, that the lord knows all and can do all, then he could have removed that jawbone and then I wouldn’t have killed abel and we could be standing together at the door of our house watching the rain.” After the destruction of sodom and gomorrah, cain can’t get rid of the idea of all the innocents who must have been killed also. Abraham assures him that the lord would not have destroyed the city had there been any innocents there. “What about the children,” asks cain, “surely the children were innocent.” “Oh, my god,” abraham replies, and Cain agrees: “Yes, your god perhaps, but not theirs.”
The end of the book might lead you to think of Inglourious Basterds again, as cain takes steps to make sure that the terrible post-diluvian history we have all experienced will never occur (such a happy ending is called “fiction”). He does this because he knows how great the human capacity for violence god has constructed is, starting with god’s arranging things so that cain will kill his brother. A murderer but essentially an honest man, his life can be summed up in stark outline: “for cain there can never be any joy, cain is the man who killed his brother, cain is the man born to witness the unspeakable, cain is the man who hates god.” He hates god and so does Saramago, who accordingly insists (in his fiction) on the existence of such a divinity.
If there’s a god at least there’s someone besides humanity to blame for our unspeakable suffering, the sufferingwe experience precisely because we also impose it. We are oppressors and victims both. Christian theodicy insists that this is a just system, since the suffering we experience is punishment for the oppression we commit and which punishes others. But only a cruel God would insist on this endless cycle. Saramago doesn’t see any punishment as just, and hates the God who has linked justice and violence. Saramago’s god is very much like the God in the great series of videos you can find at MrDeity.com – a good example of the evil of banality, since he just can’t quite take the trouble to think through the consequences of his decrees to get human existence right. For Saramago, the God of his fiction encapsulates the thoughtless evil of all humans possessed of power. They too are afflicted (like Herod in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – Saramago seems to have Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita in mind in both these books) but God stands for the structure of all human power as the afflicted too attempt to divert their own afflictions onto others.
In the last few years of his life Saramago, who always courted controversy, was pilloried for his absurd comparison of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation to Buchenwald. Readers of Cain might see an anti-Hebrew, if not anti-Jewish, animus in this book too. But that would be a mistake: Cain is anti-religious in general, anti-Christian in particular. It forms a diptych with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (condemned by the Vatican and by the government of Portugal) and it’s clear that cain and Jesus (Saramago doesn’t give lower-case proper names in the earlier book) are brothers. Not that Jesus is Abel, any more than cain is (after he kills abel, cain seems to try to keep him alive in himself by introducing himself to everyone as abel). Rather both are absolute representatives of humanity.
Saramago underscores the connection by making both of them the possible offspring of adultery with a perhaps evil angel: Joseph fears that Jesus is the son of the mysterious angel (of the Annunciation) who occasionally appears to Mary and who will come to rebuke Joseph for saving only Jesus from Herod’s butchery; cain seems to be the son of the angel posted at the gates of eden to prevent adam and eve’s return. It should be noted that Saramago has an encyclopedic knowledge of religious mythology and folklore: Lilith, of course, is from the Zohar, where she becomes the consort of Cain; and in Midrash Cain himself is said to be the offspring of an evil angel, and not Adam’s son. In fact the conversation between god and cain which Saramago reports is almost verbatim from that systematic compendium of Jewish folklore, though needless to say the Midrashic Cain is just making excuses for himself. For Saramago, though, he represents, as do all people, the human condition: blind, blind, in a strange negative-sum world where despite the fact that we all sin against each other at every moment, we are all more sinned against than sinning. But this structure has its hopeful side too, especially if we give up God and so give up a sense of the legitimacy of power. To quote The Gospel According to Jesus Christ once more: “When all is said and done, we can confidently say that destiny exists and each man’s destiny is in the hands of others.”
The converse of this dictum may be found in the terrific epigraph Saramago puts at the head of his collection of stories, The Lives of Things: “If man is shaped by his environment, his environment must be made human.” This is Karl Marx in Marx and Engels’s Holy Family, and is the focus of Saramago’s Marxism as well as his fiction. The Lives of Things, though, is often too tendentious to give the pleasure to be found in Cain, let alone the even greater novels of Saramago’s maturity. In this relatively early collection of fiction, Saramago is testing some of the techniques, conceits, and inventions that will be at the heart of those later works. They’re worth reading just for that – for the odd mixture of tones which sounds like a combination of the SF writer Gene Wolfe with Isaac Babel. Where Wolfe and Babel overlap is in a kind of clinically moralizing presentation of a bizarre fantasy world. The more overt the moralizing, the less effective the result, and here Saramago tends to err on the side of the overt. The most obvious example occurs in a story called “Things” which offers a dramatization of what Marx called “the fetishism of commodities.” In Marx, and so in Saramago, commodities or “things” come to life, lead lives of their own, make use of us when we think we are making use of them. We become their servants, in fact their commodities. Saramago literalizes this idea and ends the story with an uneasily utopian prediction, made by one of the story’s strange revolutionaries: “Never again will men be treated as things.”
Three of the six stories in the book – “The Chair,” “The Centaur” and “Revenge” -- can stand on their own, and approach something like greatness, especially “The Centaur.” I doubt I’ll ever read the other three stories again, but you can still learn much about the relation of politics to the deepest questions posed by fiction, the seriousness of the fictional or literary world, the world great writers take seriously. In all his fiction, Saramago establishes strange premises but then follows through with scrupulous consistency and accuracy, unceasing fairness to the human nature of those who find themselves confronted with those premises. He never forgets that these arebeings faced with the transfigured environments he invents are human, not matter how inhuman what they confront. In all his fiction Saramago realizes, faster than you do, the bewildering but inevitable complications that will ensue from the situation. Those complications are constraints, and it is we who are constrained. In a way Saramago’s fictions, especially the ones which are most fascinating on their own, are expositions of constraint, and of the way it touches all human experience. Needless to say, our economic and ideological and political systems constrain us just as much. But all these constraints also bring out what it means to be human. This is Saramago’s constant theme, and what makes him one of the truly great writers.