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Philosophical Reverberations

Learn more about philosophical reverberations.

The Meaning of the ‘Mark of Cain’

The Cain of Pagis’s attention is the big brother who is to be apprised of his mother’s message as soon as contact is made with him. But in such a short poem, the reader is behoven to fill in the gaps and interpret the pregnant meanings brimming in every word, phrase, person and picture in the six lines of the poem. And so it is with the name Cain, a synonym for the ultimate perpetrator and embodiment of the idea of evil in human relations.

From Genesis 4:15, the mark of Cain has become one of the most accessible and remarkable concepts in any society where the Bible is read. The prevalent idea of the ‘mark’ is to serve as a signpost that demarcates the permissible from the impermissible. The system of judiciaries, courts and prison frameworks is all part of the modern application of the mark of Cain. However, verse fifteen also includes the idea of protecting the murderer from those seeking to wreak revenge on him. Various options exist for interpreting this idea in the Bible.

The Bible student can understand this verse to indicate that Cain the murderer is promised protection. Pagis survived the Holocaust in which six million Jews were not afforded similar protection. His reactions to this trauma are difficult to gauge from this poem in which displacement of pain receives ultimate expression. Note that the only mention of the Holocaust is in the word Freight-car in the title, which is displacement at its extreme limit.

This concept – so central for so many, insofar as it demands our attention in this poem because of Cain’s looming presence – could be filtered through the lens of a Paul Celan statement made in 1958 about poetry:

“Reality for a poem is in no way something that stands established, already given, but something standing in question…”


The Brotherhood of Man

Another one of the elevated precepts, the brotherhood of man, bears examination through the prism of the poem and the biblical account. The word ‘brother’ doesn’t appear in the poem. The sibling relationship is only alluded to through Eve’s mention of her younger son Abel and in the next line her reference to her older son Cain. Explicit mention of brothers is absent, as is any interaction between them in the poem. The fulcrum of emotion and speech is projected to us through the mother of the brothers.

In the biblical version in verses 8-10, the word ‘brother’ appears five times, implying an idea and its immediate negation. With the seminal story of Cain and Abel, no brotherhood of man is forthcoming from the creation until the Flood and the refashioning of mankind. The fate of this brotherhood of man reaches the apex of its negation again in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides of the twentieth century. Pagis’s poem with its pointed omission presents a pained awareness of this reality.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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