Sunday, June 28, 2009


Race de Caïn, au ciel monte, Et sur la terre jette Dieu!

Anyone who has read Kafka’s novels probably wondered at some point about their protagonists’ names: Karl Rossmann in Amerika, Joseph K. in The Trial, and especially K. in The Castle. From Brod’s first speculation that K. stands for Kafka, to Agamben’s latest suggestions that K. stands for kalumniator (slanderer in Latin) or even for kardo (a line traced by Roman land surveyors), interpreters seem to consider this letter as a crucial cipher to Kafka’s literary universe.

What follows is an attempt to advance an alternative hypothesis that, as far as I can tell, never received its due critical attention: that Kafka’s K. stands for Cain, Adam’s first-born son and the murderer of his brother, Abel. Even more specifically, I will claim that the letter K. functions in Kafka’s thought as the very “mark of Cain.”

Though the English (as well as Italian and Spanish) spelling of the biblical name refutes right from the start the linkage that I wish to establish, in Czech and German, the two languages in which Kafka spoke and wrote, Cain is spelled “Kain,” as I will do herein. In Hebrew--a language that Kafka did not manage to master despite his repeated attempts--Kain, Kafka, and the protagonists of his posthumously published novels are all spelled with kuf (reproduced above).

Another piece of circumstantial evidence that gets lost in translation has to do with the mark that God set upon Kain according to Genesis 4:15. The word for mark in Hebrew is ot, which could also mean sign or omen, though the most direct translation is simply “letter.” How, precisely, was Kain marked is anybody’s guess, and indeed wildly different opinions spread throughout the ages. Nevertheless, one of the most persistent suggestions is that Kain was marked on his forehead with one of the twenty-two Hebrew letters, hence “the letter of Kain,” though again there is little agreement which one. Branding a letter on the forehead was a common practice in the classical world: Greek slaves were often marked with a Delta (for doulos) and Roman slanderers, as Agamben points out, were marked with a K (for kalumniator).

On January 19, 1911, Kafka writes in his diary: “Once I planned a novel in which two brothers fought each other, one of whom went to America while the other remained in a European prison.” The novel about a brotherly dispute, those modern Kain and Abel (can you imagine Kafka retelling in his novel the parable of the Prodigal Son?) never materialized. But this narrative structure still survived in many pivotal compositions: the first is the short story “A Fratricide” (Ein Brudermord)--written in 1917 and published during Kafka’s lifetime in four separate places (a clear indication that it was considered by him as an essential text)--which gives a short and chilling account of a murder, though the title is the sole indication that the murdered is indeed the murderer’s brother. The second survivor is Amerika (Der Verschollene), Kafka’s first (though unfinished) novel about a young man who had been sent to the New World by his parents after he had an illegal child from their maid. The third possible survivor is the Letter to His Father, which is too often read under the sign of Oedipus, rather than under the sign of Kain.

God rejected Kain’s sacrificial offering of fruit and vegetables from his land, in favor of Abel’s nobler sacrifice of meat and fat from his flock. This was apparently the trigger for Kain’s heinous act of jealousy. His subsequent punishment was to become a nomad or a vagabond, to no longer be able to cultivate the land, though he soon settled, east of Eden, in a new city that he named after his son, Enoch. Humanity, however, did not descend from the inhabitants of Enoch, but rather from Seth, the third son to whom Adam and Eve gave birth after the death of their second son, and the disappearance of their first son.

We read the following entry in Kafka’s diary from May 27, 1914: “I find the letter K offensive, almost disgusting, and yet I use it. This must be very characteristic of me.” The ambivalence that Kafka had toward the letter K, which seems to both repel and lure him, is also present in its Hebrew cousin, the letter kuf, which in Judaism is considered above all else as an abbreviation for kadosh, or sacred--a deeply ambivalent word that can designate something that is either holy or accursed, though in either way the sacred entity must be excluded from the normal sphere. The mark that God cast on Kain is also quite ambivalent: though it is usually conceived as a sign of shame and disgrace (ot kalon in Hebrew), it was clearly meant to be a mark of protection, signaling to anyone who wishes to harm Kain that any act of retaliation will not pass unnoticed, but will in fact be punished by God with an exceptional vengeance.

Many commentators assume that Kain actually repented for killing Abel and was therefore forgiven by God. As a matter of fact, Kain is not considered as a particularly negative or dark character in many accounts. It was only after the Gnostics elevated him to the rank of a heroic figure and a victim of injustice, that the Jewish and Christian establishment reacted polemically by casting him in later texts as the pure incarnation of evil. In modern depictions of the story, Cain regains from time to time his Gnostic position as a positive figure that resents and resists the fallen world in which we all live, as in Byron’s Cain: A Mystery, and Hesses’s Demian.

But no one is responsible for the “re-branding” (in every sense) of Kain more than Baudelaire, who “defines the face of the modern, without denying the mark of Kain on its brow,” as Benjamin puts it. His poem, “Abel and Kain” from Les Fleurs du mal, is a perfect manifestation of the currents that seek to interpret the story from the fourth chapter of Genesis in a radical way. Humanity is divided into two groups or classes: the race of Abel and the race of Kain. The race of Abel is the successful one, the ruling class, the lucky throw, comprising of the favored sons or the bourgeoisie, if you like, on whom God smiles complacently (in Hebrew, abel simply means "vanity"). The race of Kain stands for the downtrodden, disinherited, and dispossessed, for the pariahs and the proletariat, if you wish. Nevertheless, it is in the hands of the race of Kain that at the very end of the poem Baudelaire entrusts the task of going up to heaven, grabbing God, and throwing him down to earth.

Even though, statistically speaking, the race of Kain is the source for a disproportionate amount of murderers and other garden-variety criminals, populating to our day the ever-expanding prisons around the world, no one assumes in his right mind that their crimes are the cause for their wretched condition, since the overwhelming evidences point to the exact opposite. God addresses this unfortunate injustice in Genesis 4:7, probably the most difficult sentence in the whole chapter, which should be translated thus: “If you are doing well [i.e., you are from the race of Abel], you will be forgiven and your honor will be upheld, no matter what you do; but if you are not doing well [i.e. you are from the race of Kain], sin will lurk at your threshold, desiring to have you, and so you must be its master.”

At the very end of Kafka’s final letter to Felice, after their engagement was annulled, he finds it appropriate to tell her about his polemic against Brod’s idea that he is “happy in his unhappiness.” Though Kafka does not accept this simplistic judgment of his own condition, he nevertheless elaborates: “‘Finding happiness in unhappiness,’ which means simultaneously ‘finding unhappiness in happiness’ (although the former may be the more decisive)—these words may have been said when Kain was branded. It means being out of step with the world; it means that he who bears the mark is the one who has destroyed the world and, incapable of resurrecting it, is hunted through the ruins. Unhappiness, however, is not what he feels, since unhappiness belongs to life and this he has disposed of, but he sees the fact with inordinate clarity, and in this sphere that amounts to unhappiness.” One of the interesting ideas in this extraordinary passage is that Kafka insists that the forsaken or marked person does not pretend to be innocent (like Job or Jesus), that he is indeed the one who destroyed the world, and is now “hunted through the ruins” of his own making.

In the biblical world, a state of lawlessness is not uncommon. Certain crimes, like murder, did not necessarily result in an official trial or punishment, but rather with a permission to kill the offender with impunity. In the Jewish tradition, such condition is best expressed in the phrase damo mutar, “his blood is permitted.” The homo sacer of the Roman world is in fact a native of various biblical heathscapes, beginning with Kain, who was doomed to “be a restless wander on the earth” who could be killed by anyone who found him (Genesis 4:14).

The usual way to deal with a lawless zone, with this state of legal exception, is to circumscribe it, to try and contain it to very particular events, places, or circumstances. The Bible, however, tells us of a very different way of coping with this situation in which everything is permitted. The mark of Kain, let us remember, is a way to protect him from random acts of violence. Instead of abolishing the state of exception in which Kain found himself, in which it is permitted to spill his blood, God decides to create an exception to the exception. To explain: the rule is that (a) killing a man is considered as homicide; the exception to this rule is that (b) certain offenders, like Kain, could be killed with impunity; the exception to the exception is that (c) a person marked like Kain is no longer forsaken. This final condition (c), however, should not be confused with the regular order (a).

The mark of Kain is not an isolated case. It first reemerges in the Bible during episodes in which offenders flee to the exceptional zone of the altar, holding one of its four corners, and thus saving their lives, because it was agreed that anyone who entered the sacred space of the altar was untouchable. This practice was then institutionalized and codified in the shelter city (ir miklat). If you killed someone by mistake and without premeditation, any member from the family of the dead was still permitted to “make justice” by killing you. In order to avoid this fate, you had to flee your home and enter the shelter city, where you were protected, and you could not leave this city as long as the High Priest was alive. Upon his death you were pardoned, and were permitted to return home safely. (The Talmud relates that the mother of the High Priest used to visit the shelter city and give alms to its inhabitants, with the request that they will not pray for her son’s death.)

The ancient shelter city is the inverse image of the modern concentration camp. Though they are both exceptional zones, the camp (an exception to the rule) allows killing, while the shelter city (an exception to the exception) prevents it. In the same manner, while the tattoo on the arm of the camp inhabitant means that he is forsaken, the mark of Kain means that he is safe.

If the exception becomes the rule, if anyone is a potential homo sacer whose life is bare life, then the best strategy to resist such a predicament is not to reverse the process backwards, but to work with it, to take it to the extreme, by creating an exception to the exception, or a real state of exception: marks of Kain, shelter cities, where the forsaken can be safe. Sometimes, for some people, a shelter city is an actual place (for blacks, Irish, Jews, homosexuals, and so many others, New York used to be precisely that). But the notions of “city” and “mark” can also be understood metaphorically. They stand for essentially any time or space, any constellation or configuration, in which your life cannot be separated from its form. For Kafka, for example, the mark of Kain was simply called “writing.”

The Jewish psyche has always feared the flood. In order to be protected, its main strategy has always been to build an arc. The State of Israel is an elaborate attempt to construct such an enduring arc, or a permanent shelter city, where being Jewish (the mark of Kain) is no longer a mark of shame but of power. Today, this place is ruled by the race of Abel, in their relentless oppression of the Palestinian race of Kain.

If today every war could be conceived as a civil war, if it is true that we slowly but surely enter into a global civil war, then this also means that every war is essentially a family dispute, and every homicide is a fratricide. This is not to say that humans are ever going to live in brotherly love. As we all know, there is no dispute that is as bitter as the one between members of the same family. But only those who can see themselves as an extended family (as Loraux demonstrates in The Divided City) could also somehow forgive one another for, and even forget, any deed, as terrible as it may be, in order to continue and share their lives with each other.

However one imagines the coming community, whatever the coming politics may be, a single questions must always persist, like a thorn in the flesh of each and every person: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

1 comment:

Simon Holloway said...

This was a fabulously written exploration of Kafka's (possible) motivation, but I'm not entirely sure what happened to it in the final few sections. I wouldn't be so quick as to reduce the Arab-Israeli concept to a Biblical stereotype, and I'm also not so sure what relevance your final point had to the argument that you developed in the first half of your piece. Nonetheless, your overall study was excellent.

A couple of small points, if I may. The Hebrew אות means "letter" in post-Biblical Hebrew, but in Biblical Hebrew is simply a "sign" of some description. God produces אותות for the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, for example.

Secondly, I'm not familiar with any rabbinic sources that cast Cain (Kain) in the role of pure evil. Perhaps this is strictly a Christian phenomenon? That would make sense in terms of your Gnostic comparison. I know of no reason why the Jews should have responded polemically to Egyptian Gnostics, given that they were of no threat to the propagation of orthodoxy within the Jewish world.

Those are two very minor points. I found your article extremely interesting and, as a fan of Kafka, it has given me a lot of food for thought.