Cain and Abel: Or, Meaning and Story, the beginning

If you listen to enough Jordan Peterson you’ll eventually come across some of his takes on stories from The Bible. He has a fascinating method of treating them without concern as to their religious…truth. It’s an amazingly fine line he not so much walks as dances down. In so doing he’s found a way of talking about the mythological structures that have evolved forward into the dominant religious and philosophical framework of our age.

Now, I’m singularly unqualified to talk about the content of such things. Aside from my Tuesday & Thursday Bible Study group (where we’ve been reading Matthew since I joined back in February) I’ve got what’s effectively zero exposure to The Bible.

When Peterson talks about Cain and Abel (or Noah, for that matter) he invokes an amazing array of deep references to the struggles between chaos and order. Things that, upon reflection, seem patently obvious.

I was struck, on my trip down the hill today, by the strange polarity, not between chaos and order (though that can absorb a lifetime of cogitation), but by the balance between how short those stories are, how much information is in them and how well they communicate depths of meaning far FAR beyond what’s actually on the page.

The story of Cain and Abel is a bit under 300 words. There’s almost nothing there.

It seems as there’s JUST enough as far as verbiage to get the story across. Cain bitches out. Abel is honored. Cain gets bitter and kills his brother, lies about it, then is cursed by God. It’s no more complicated than that in the literal telling.

But what I find frustrating is how much is there compared to how little I’d gotten from it without the benefit of further exposition.

On one hand I can listen to any of several people (I’m not just a Peterson fanboi here) talk about the story and how much is there ad-nauseum and my first thought is: Well why isn’t that all there? Why not put all the exposition in?

On the other hand: It’s obvious why not. To preserve the story and its lessons through time and translation it is absolutely critical that the absolute minimum number of words be used to represent it.

I’ve been reading, listening to, and watching lectures and books on Jung for decades. From Joseph Campbell to Jordan Peterson and Jung himself (where I can. Jung is a pretty damned tough read.) I have a basic understanding of how stories of what I’ll call “mythological significance” are fractal in that they continue to divulge lessons in a way that may literally be bottomless.

And you can read all day about The Heroes Journey and such, and see elements of those stories strewn throughout modern culture: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.

Now, the Jungians would say that I understand on a literal sub-conscious level what’s going on when I read a story like Cain and Abel and maybe fucking relax about it because I’m actually absorbing it when I read it. And maybe that’s true. But I have trouble consciously seeing it, for its own sake, even as an important story. Now, it’s got so much front-loaded cultural significance that it’s tough to describe what I mean without anticipating a knee-jerk “well of course. It’s the story of Cain & Abel” reaction.

There’s just so damned much that I don’t see and it drives me absolutely bananas. Especially when it takes so little prompting for me to snap the part of my brain that is engaged in such things on to a story, which will cause me to lay those templates over it and allow me to see it suddenly as if I have x-ray vision, applying things I’ve well learned to it where I’d otherwise just have no thought to do so.

It just doesn’t come up on its own.

A parallel that comes to mind is seeing the twist in stories and movies. Well hell, it might not even be a ‘parallel’ now that I’m thinking about it.

Let’s take a couple examples, well worn in my head:

Devil’s Advocate with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino on one hand, and The Sixth Sense on the other.

When The Sixth Sense came out there was a huge cultural buzz about “the twist.” I was making cookies with my sisters in their Brooklyn Apartment when the commercial came on.

I looked at it for a second and said “So…he’s dead, right? That’s the thing? He’s dead?” My sister got pissed.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Yeah, that’s it. But it’s really good.”
“I mean, how is that not obvious? There’s ‘a bit twist’ and the kid keeps saying he sees dead people. Who doesn’t get that from the preview?”

I mentioned that scene to my Father who said “Mikey, of course. What else would it be?” In his inimitable tone. Well, okay, yeah. Duh.


Take Devil’s Advocate. I was enthralled by that movie. The whole thing. But…I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it coming at ALL. Not with the primary antagonist’s name being “John Milton” or, you know, the fucking title, the subway scene. None of it. Not until the ultimate on-screen reveal did I have any real idea what was going on. Not that Pacino was literally Satan, that Kevin Lomax was literally the son of the Devil. It all just hit me like a ton of bricks when they finally laid out exactly what the fuck was going on. Thinking about it now I seem to recall having a wide-eyed gasp moment as he walked out on to the completely bare streets of Manhattan on the way to that scene. But it wasn’t until the character realized it that I realized it. I was totally in the moment for the whole story.

On one hand I was kicking myself for not having seen it (priding myself overmuch as I am wont to do on my faculties in that regard.) But on the other I was just having too much damned fun to care.

To “remember yourself” as Ouspensky and Gurdgeiff admonish, is no small thing. And, quite like the Speed Reading issue (the runoff post I just put up when I sat down to write THIS one) it’s not worth being quite so…intentional all the time when reading or watching something. I don’t enjoy Devil’s Advocate any less on a rewatch with the understanding well in hand. (Well…maybe I do. It’s not like I can put myself back in the place of ignorance to remember viscerally how I felt about it at the time.)

If you read every line of poetry or story with the reckless deconstructionist perspective of the average high-school literature teacher, you’re going to blow by the whole thing in the search for meaning, never being able to get back to the initial beauty of the thing through the

Dammit. There’s something here. There’s a synergy between the appreciation of beauty and the conscious absorption of meaning. It’s just REALLY difficult not to miss one for the sake of the other at first blush.

It may very well be that I’m just encountering the limits of my ability, either as a function of background or (gasp) intellect.

I don’t know. This is another one of those little posts that leads to me having more questions for myself than answers for you. And, while I understand that can be pretty frustrating, I also find it more than a little exciting.