28 November 2011

One Definition of a Classic, and the Mark of Cain

A few extra days away from blogging (I hope, by the way, that those of you who were celebrating Thanksgiving in the US were able to do so happily and in good company and without too many of the distractions that pass for, and sometimes even become, 'the news')--a few extra days away from blogging and I lose my sense of direction, or am pulled in too many directions at once, which is almost the same thing.

But I just read a few lines by Italo Calvino (1923-1985) which express so clearly what I'd been hoping to express in some future post, that I can't resist quoting him for you here. The lines I'll quote are from the 1981 essay 'Why Read the Classics?', now the title essay in a posthumous compilation translated by Martin McLaughlin, and they form the ninth of Calvino's 14 definitions of 'a classic':
Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
Calvino puts his finger on the strange commingling of (supposed) familiarity and unheard-of-ness that, for me, is so characteristic of my experience of 'classic' works of whatever era.

We're far removed from 'Read this--it's good for you', 'Read this--after all, I [or: your parents, your grandparents, everyone…] had to read it', or 'Read this--it's really quite well done'.

Gustave Doré, The Death of Abel
The elements of originality and surprise were in fact precisely what I had in mind when I mentioned Thomas Paine and the Bible at the end of my Jane Austen post of a couple of weeks ago. They may not be the best, or the most effective, examples for any given reader. But, as an experiment, I would invite you to read, as if for the first time, the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1-16, paying particular attention to what 'the mark of Cain' becomes in this account. Contrast this with what many--let's say non-readers, or pre-readers--know or believe they know about the mark of Cain. Even if the passage doesn't surprise you, you'll understand it as an example.

I'd appreciate hearing from you about this experiment, or about similar experiences you've had with other texts…


Lauren R said...

I have always found it interesting that the focus has always been curiosity about the form of the mark, rather than the purpose of it. To me, it was a mark of God's protection in spite of being "cursed", but everything you read is always about the mark being a sign of the curse. There is similar misunderstanding (in my opinion) of the story of the Prodigal Son.

James Hulbert said...

Thanks, Lauren. I think we have similar views of both passages (the parable of the Prodigal Son is in Luke 15:11-32), each of which can be taken as including or implying (among other things) an injunction against passing judgment on others--this, specifically in the case of the Prodigal Son, in the context of the possibility of redemption. Both texts, and the traditions of reading or not reading them, are rich in complexities and ironies, from century to century and from culture to culture…