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Cain’s Act by Massimo Recalcati, translated by Will Schutt

31 March 2023

Anthony Phillips looks at a psychoanalyst’s re-reading of the tale of Cain and Abel

THE Prologue to Genesis tells of repeated attempts of discontented humankind to know as God knows, to be like God. In this short essay, Recalcati offers a psychoanalytical study of the second attempt, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. Recalcati argues that “harming thy neighbour comes before loving one’s neighbour.” It is no accident, then, that the story of humankind opens not with love, but the brutal murder of the Other. It is all part of our desire to be like God, “Master of one’s own making”. Further “in terms of the unconscious, we have all been, and are Cain.”

The author contrasts animals, whose lives are controlled by instinct, with humankind subject to the Law, resulting in humans’ “fundamental inclination” to break it and culminating in “an enjoyment that leads to death”. By eating the forbidden fruit, the first man and woman discover their vulnerability. Expecting death, they learn that the Law is always on the side of life: God clothes them.

Throughout this study, the author uses psychology to illuminate the narrative, no more so than in seeing Cain’s relationship with his mother as incestuous, confirmed in her cry at his birth: “I have gotten a man.” With Abel’s birth, he can never be the One. “That is the origin of envy.” It is through Cain’s failure to have his sacrifice recognised by God that his jealousy erupts.

Similarly, Recalcati believes that the story of Narcissus is crucial to the understanding of Cain’s behaviour. In Abel, he finds the ideal image that he would like to be but cannot, and “lashes out at his unattainable ideal self”. While God tries to soothe his “narcissistic wound”, Cain cannot accept God’s apparent injustice and, in his depressed state, commits fratricide. While Cain is forced to accept his guilt and exiled, he yet acquires a new freedom and remains protected by God’s mark.

Any cross-disciplinary study is bound to challenge biblical scholars. Not all will find sympathy with Recalcati’s approach. Yet this profound and highly original examination of this well-known biblical text provokes the reader to consider the enigma of what it means to be human. That is something that we all need to do if we are to break the cycle of violence which all too readily embraces humankind.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Cain’s Act
Massimo Recalcati
Will Schutt, translator
Europa Editions £11.99
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