Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

Okay, and on a (mostly) totally different topic, I also just read Lord Byron's Cain, a Mystery. He did roughly what I was expecting him to do: turned Lucifer into a tragic hero, removing all of his more unpleasant aspects, and inventing excuses for any remaining faults. I think he went a bit too far in making Lucifer a sympathetic character, but he did have some really nice points, too. It's just that he missed out on some equally nice points, because he was too worried about not making Lucifer a villain.

His Lucifer claims to have wanted only the best for man, and says that he would, given the ability, have created a world of happy creatures, free of suffering, not to be punished for their free will or their choices. He ascribes all evil intentions to God, as well as all misery. And I think he's perfectly fair in doing so -- but why should Lucifer have to be innocent, in order for God to be evil? Doesn't evil come through God either way, even if it comes through Lucifer by way of God? Wasn't the temptation and the Fall of Man part of God's divine plan anyway, so that Lucifer's guilt or innocence is irrelevant?

It seems to me that absolving Lucifer's guilt by simply removing from him the sins which Christianity ascribes to him just muddies the issue, making it look as though the question is Lucifer's guilt (a totally speculative topic), rather than God's.

Cain's complaints put me very much in mind of Paradise Lost: did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me? Innocent of sin (before the murder of Abel, that is), why should Cain be made to suffer? Why should he be an outcast from Eden? And why should he be obliged to make offerings, to the very God who is punishing him for his father's sins, out of the fruits for which he has been forced to toil and labor as punishment? What does he have to thank God for? For having brought him into an unasked existence, to sweat for a living, beget a few children, multiplying the sin and misery of the world, and then return to dust in death? Is that anything to be thankful for? Why should Cain worship God?

But even though Cain was intelligent and thoughtful, he also seemed rather insolent and haughty, and his behavior toward Lucifer made him not entirely preposessing, I thought. He seemed to take it for granted that he should not have to work for anything. Not only did he seem to think God should give him an easy life, but Lucifer, too, should indulge all his requests, consider him his equal, respect his intellect and integrity, pity him in the lowness of his condition... I mean, sheez, he could have at least been a little grateful that Lucifer took the time to pay him a visit. Lucifer was pretty long-suffering, but even he seemed to start getting irritated at Cain after a while.

I did think Byron kind of missed the point about the Cain and Abel story, though. The point is rejection, envy, bitterness, a desperate crime, and an eternity of penance. But Byron's Cain felt no jealousy; he didn't even want God to love him. He didn't want to sacrifice anything to God in the first place, and when he finally did make a sacrifice, he basically cursed God while he did it. Small wonder God liked Abel better! And his murder of Abel had a completely different motivation, and seemed more like an accident than an act of spite against God. Which is the whole idea in Genesis: Cain doesn't hate Abel; he hurts Abel in order to get at God. The Cain in the Bible wants God to love him. Byron was stretching things a bit there.

I liked his commentary on how ignorance (innocence) breeds faith, while knowledge breeds rebellion. God does not want mankind to know, because if men know, they will defy him. That is rather significant. The serpent is the wisest, subtlest of beings, and also apparently the least godly -- which says something about what kinds of beings are faithful and subservient to God.

And I was impressed that Cain refused to bow to Lucifer, or to worship him, although I thought it was too bad that Lucifer didn't applaud him for his independence, but decided to simply let it pass. I would have thought Byron's Lucifer would have differed from Milton's at least in that: he would not desire to rule, but to release; not to withhold wisdom, but to offer it to everyone. Lucifer should be a street vendor discreetly distributing forbidden apples to passersby, free of charge, disseminating truth throughout heaven and earth at whatever personal risk, and asking for no one's allegiance. What does he need with worshippers?

I'm not sure what Byron's intent was, there. He seemed to want to say that truth is pain, which is why God is so miserable and why the wise (like Lucifer) are so melancholy, and why to know is to lose faith and to become bitter and resentful... and he also claimed that Lucifer was not the serpent. Is he saying, then, that Lucifer would have preferred to keep man ignorant? He seems to think that only in ignorance could man be happy. But does that make ignorance good? Rather than giving man the Tree of Knowledge without forbidding it, would he have withheld the tree altogether? I don't think that's the idea. But it's hard to make out what he does want, or believe -- or what he thinks knowledge is, apart from a knowledge of the villainy of God.

Speaking of which, it's also, I think, a bit futile to try to make God out as the villain, unless one is simply making an argument for atheism. Byron is right, on the one hand, that for one to be omnipotent does not guarantee that one will also be benevolent or all-merciful; but on the other hand, if we aren't going to judge what constitutes "good" according to the terms of our omnipotent, omniscient creator, then what should we judge "goodness" by? And furthermore, why should God owe us anything, including His own good will, simply because He created us? Why shouldn't he test us and punish us? Isn't that His right? We're not obliged to thank him for it, but that doesn't make it unjust. By whose law is He obliged to establish a permanent place for us in Eden? Or to love us? Who can say what God's moral obligations are?

No, after all I think Paul was right: it is God's own prerogative to make us as He chooses, some for glory, others for the fire. We're not bound to be happy about it, or to worship or love Him; but all our wailing and gnashing of teeth will not alter the fact that God owes us nothing. How can one talk of justice between the potter and the earthen vessel? The one is subject to the will of the other; that is all.

You'd think I was a damned Christian, the way I'm going on, wouldn't you? But what I really think is interesting is that we've created a God in such a way as to imagine that He has to love us, and that we have to serve Him. "Does the clay say unto the potter, 'Your work has no handles?' Does the son say unto his father, 'What are you begetting?'"

Anyway, I liked the play, and Byron had some lovely cutting lines in there. He talks of a God who loves blood and suffering and martyrdom, who prefers the death of a lamb to an offering of the first fruits. "Perhaps He'll make one day a Son unto himself, as He gave you a father, and if He so doth, Mark me! that Son will be a sacrifice." Damn, Byron. Nice.

But I also think Steinbeck had the right idea about Cain, and what the story in Genesis means. Cain and Abel's message is not about God or about Satan at all. It's about favoritism and jealousy and spite; it's about the other son who can by no means win the favor of the father, because he does not know how -- it is not even in his nature -- to make the kind of offerings his father could appreciate. He's trying, but he can't succeed. Is he any worse than his brother, who has no spite because success has always come easy for him? And can the father forgive him?

Interestingly, in Steinbeck's view, it took not a Christian but an outsider, a taoist sort of Chinese fellow, to lift the curse, to show the brother how to grieve and the father how to forgive. Steinbeck made some mistakes, but I think he got those last few chapters of East of Eden very right. He got them right because no one was innocent. Byron wants to let everyone off the hook except for God, but his problem is that he tries to do it by actually making everyone except for God blameless. But we know better than that. If you want to make a case for the innocence of men, the first thing to do is to show them in all their guilt -- and then show why they have no other choice. One wins forgiveness for them not by making them perfect, but by making them real.

But then, I'm also forgetting that Byron was writing with all the intentional, adolescent naivete of the Romantics, whereas Steinbeck was right on the brink of postmodernism. Byron was still looking for a hero, even if it had to be the Devil. He was still looking for something higher and grander and more beautiful, some reason, even if it couldn't be God. With Steinbeck it's all earth and wind, and there is no glory, and maybe there isn't even truth. And I guess that's what Byron was getting at, too. So much for the joys of knowing. The more we know, the more there's nothing to talk about but dust.
Tags: books, john steinbeck, literature, lord byron, religion, romantics, satan

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