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Questioning dualism through the figures of Cain and Achilles in Don McKay’s poem Matériel

vendredi 7 avril 2017, par Léa Michaud

In Matériel, Don McKay, defines religion as the source of many interpretations. Nonetheless, he insists on the importance of not categorizing concepts and he explains it through the characters he mentions in his poem, Cain and Achilles.

Thus, McKay engages with these two mythological figures to destroy the image they are immediately associated with so as to underline the ambivalence of humans and of religion.
In The man From Nod, McKay portrays Cain differently than in the Bible. Cain is considered as a representation of evil, tattooed by his father’s sins, Adam. He is described in the Bible as jealous and violent. McKay offers a different Cain : a farmer “Born to Lose”, because of his parents, and that only faces the consequences of their acts, as a spectator of his own life. In Fate Worse Than Death, Achilles, who is also associated with violence and cruelty, similarly appears as a victim of gods. The atrocity coming from Achilles is glorified because the gods asked for it. Atrocity is presented as a lesson to learn and, in some way, as a means to purge the sins through this process of “catharsis”, as it is called in Greek theatre. In The Death of Hector (from the Iliad) by Homer, the emphasis is on the fight not only between humans but also between gods. Indeed, humans seem to be the tools of gods. So, in both situations, the mythological heroes are victim of a fate they can’t avoid and of external forces they can’t control.

This perception of these mythological anchors in Durkheim’s theory of the sacred as it redefines the frontier between the sacred and the profane. What is considered profane can become sacred if we change our approach of these concepts. Durkheim claims that the sacred and the profane are part of the same entity and that they are complementary as they establish the equilibrium of the world. This is why McKay denounces the image given to Cain : Cain is considered as the evil and Abel as the good one. In fact, Cain is defined as the evil because the Bible needed an evil figure to teach a lesson. This reinforces the idea that Cain is more of a victim than an aggressor. So what is profane is sacred and what is sacred is profane because both concepts are present in every other thing. In the same vein, Achilles desacralizes the figure of Hector because the gods, representation of the sacred, asked for it. Indeed, Durkheim’s theory of the sacred helps understanding McKay’s poem because McKay wants to demonstrate the ambiguity of the sacred. McKay also draws inspiration from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden that both paint a similar picture of the sacred where the main characters fight against something bigger than them and against whom they can’t do anything.

To conclude, Cain and Achilles play key roles in the development of McKay’s theory of the sacred because they are the perfect example of the ambiguity of the sacred and the profane. They validate Durkheim’s theory of a complementarity between these two concepts that are often separated. This approach questions our entire perception of the world and religion that we often construct through antagonism and raises the question : How should we see the world if we don’t see it through the process of relentless duality ?

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