Squid Game, Cain & Abel, and Where We Go From Here | Reflections

 


Reflections


Capitalism as murder, and greed as a determined and inevitable dystopian ruse are perhaps the most obvious messages of Squid Game, an allegory of our modern society consumed by consumption. If we are perceptive and receptive enough, we may actually embrace the gore porn of the production as the unfortunate means by which we are to be awakened from the stupor of our complicity in the capitalistic system. The great irony, of course, is that we watch the program via channels and services that are themselves the corporate gamers, and we—the watching audience—are the consumeristic players in the game of increased revenue and growing wealth. This fact is made more painfully obvious by the dizzying speed at which costumes and other items from Squid Game are put on the market for sale as the result of the great success of the show’s debut. Yes, it’ll be one wildly bizarre showcase of sardonic idiocy to see lots of people dressed up as characters from Squid Game for Halloween. Perhaps we really should wonder just how many people quite literally died for the privilege afforded us to consume such a program and its effects.

I remember the first time I realized that our entire economy is predicated and established upon shopping, the buying and selling of stuff. It was a shocking and dumbfounding realization leading me to question—still to this day—how in the world is this possible? That the only reason why I have the money to put food on the table is because we all are in the business of purchasing goods and services, the former of which end up ultimately in landfills, and the latter of which are only accessible to the wealthy and privileged? We truly have constructed some kind of hell in that regard and there are many victims and very few winners. Squid Game, therefore, in good prophetic form, exposes this truth. The players of the “game” were actually living real life. Those in society were living the delusion. The question of which is better is splattered in the face of the watching audience. Poignantly and painfully, the answer is that there really is no difference. On to the next episode.

If that is the comedy—and a twisted comedy at that—here is the tragedy. Squid Game will not change anything about the capitalistic game we are playing. There is no unscrambling this egg, at least in the near generations to come. Why? I propose the following explanatory thesis. The idea that the desire to acquire results in death is an ancient one found in the wisdom tradition of Genesis. Except in that story the drama laid out is an existential awareness of our temporality; we are here and gone tomorrow. To avoid the chasm of dread that results of this fact, our instincts have evolved an impulse to gain and get. Desire is both the hero and the enemy. From desire we get both tragedy and meaning.

In Chapter 4 of Genesis, there is a story of two brothers who bring their offerings to God. Cain, the older of the two, brings “the fruit of the ground,” a theme that, like others, connects us to several other elements and motifs (for example, humanity is also—etymologically—”of the ground.”) Cain’s sibling, Abel, brought the firstborn of his flock and the choice portions, namely, the fat. God approves of Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Distraught, Cain takes advantage of being “in the field” with his brother and “rises up” and murders him. When God speaks to Cain to inquire of Abel’s whereabouts, reminding him (Cain) that he (Abel) is his brother, Cain replies with the now famous retort, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

There are dozens of interpretations of this passage from this being a story about blood-lust and revenge ethics to an etiology—an explanation—of the Kenites. Some have even suggested this is a commentary on farmers and shepherds, the ancient equivalent of the “Hatfields and McCoys,” a quarrelling that begins over something innocuous that persists through generations of bloody rivalry. None of these interpretations has taken into account the meaning of each character’s name which, when understood, reveals other possibilities that speak to the inner workings of our human psychology.

The name “Cain” in Hebrew means “acquire.” [קין] In modern Hebrew, if you want to buy something, you would use a derivative of the same root (“liknoht”). The name “Abel” means “merest breath” or “vapor.” [הבל] It is the same word used generously in the book of Ecclesiastes that many translations awkwardly render as “meaningless.” All said, Abel’s name, and therefore existence, speaks to temporality, here today and gone tomorrow, a future fate of non-existence that manifests itself in present despair. Read with these definitions, this story is also a commentary on how our impulse to acquire is the very thing that kills our meaninglessness, the chaos we all feel and sense inside. In other words, we cannot quite accept the offerings that “merest breath” provides. It is unacceptable to us that God would look favorably upon such existential insignificance. And so, we live by acquisition. In modern terms, we live by buying, and selling, and growing ROI, and getting more and more. And by that behavior, meaninglessness is defeated. Or should we say, murdered.

Consider too, that this is a continuation of the same theme found with Cain and Abel’s parents. What disrupted the perfect shalom that Humanity and Life (“Adam” [אדם] and “Eve” [חוה]) had with God, each other, and their environment? The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Note the “fruit” of the tree with Adam and Eve with the “fruit” of the ground with Cain). That fruit looked good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for wisdom. Again, there was something to be “acquired.” If you have an impulse to appeal to depth psychology at this point, you would, in my humble opinion, be fully justified. Here, in the Genesis narrative we have the reality and conflict within ourselves of the impulse to overcome existential angst through the activity of acquisition. And someone, somewhere, is going to be murdered as a result.

Squid Game is no ancient mythological wisdom story, but it is not far off from the deep thread of tension that has existed in us since the very beginning. And, just like Genesis, the visceral nature of the “blood crying out from the ground” is a necessary component of the storytelling, just like Squid Game‘s gory splatters of blood. What else could evoke a violent awakening other than violence itself?

[Very minor spoiler alert here.]

But that leaves us still with the question of where we go from here? How shall we now live in light of this realization? In Squid Game the protagonist returns to the game. For what reason, we don’t know. Perhaps it is to redeem that hell? Perhaps it is to “beat” the game again, to prove his own superiority over the system. Perhaps it is an acceptance of the truth of the reality we have built for ourselves. Regardless, what Squid Game leaves us with is…concession, a brutal consent given to this reality. And we play yet again.

Fortunately for us, while Squid Game concludes after nine episodes, ancient wisdom traditions chart an imaginative, redemptive, and hope-filled way forward. The tragedy of Cain and Abel is just barely four chapters in. There are hundreds of chapters left to go. To find out how to “win” at that “game,” well, you’ll just have to read through rest of the book.

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

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