To Fight a Brother

William Blake - Cain and Abel

William Blake - The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve


Amor di fratelli, amor di coltelli—love between siblings, love between blades, says an Italian proverb. This is too common an intuition to demand a gloss. We love our siblings at the time we measure our lives in comparison to them; soon this contrast turns into a competition—and often into a battle, perhaps deadly. One of the founding legends of the West focuses on this paradoxical tension, and though the conventional narrative of Abel’s killing leaves no doubt regarding the roles of the virtuous victim and jealous offender, the perspective of each sibling in real life will determine their take on the alleged crime, sometimes romanticizing Cain’s motives and actions. The favored child harbors a wretched identity.

Life is capricious and the outcomes of two siblings born and raised in a similar—never really the same—context time and again turn out extremely different. This could be seen as the goal of the more successful one: not only reaching a good life, but—understanding the other as the antagonist by fate of birth—reaching a better life. Cain lived, but cursed; Abel died, but blessed. In the extreme case of this legend, the killer must remain under the shadow of his victim, though—and this is my point of interest—the murdered brother has risen so high that nothing about Cain, not even the memory of the killing, could remain in him as brotherly love, because no rivalry is possible any longer. Almost as if part of Cain’s condemnation was to remain a brother, while Abel’s reward was to break away from that bond.

Reward? There is something sinister about both endings. Indeed the one fallen during this battle will inevitably look up towards the victor; that is his compass, and his curse. But if the victor will not bemoan the advantage, he will inevitably lament the lack of compass. A lone brother resting by the Lord is one without intimate enemy, and therefore in perpetual search of an identity.

If neglecting the legend, one might argue that Cain’s crime made him the victor. There is no God and no afterlife in this interpretation, but there are metaphors. There are always metaphors. Nobody looks down on him from the heavens, and there is no authority to punish the fratricide. But Cain goes on living without a defining rivalry—while literature’s chanting voice characterizes this lonely fate as divine punishment. A love between blades demands a sparking balance that would neither allow the definitive stab of one, nor the irreparable loneliness of the other.