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Capital letter U. Genesis 4:8

CAT 27  Capital letter U.  Genesis 4.8. Taferelen. BA 43..jpg

CAT 26. Capital letter U. Printed as the first letter of Tableau 5 (from Genesis 4:8) in Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament. The Hague: Pieter de Hondt, 1728, 1:9. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The depicted image is as dramatically compact as the cited verse: “ [8] And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” This primal scene—and its immediate aftermath—resonates throughout Melville’s writing: from Redburn to Moby-Dick to Pierre to The Confidence Man to Clarel to Billy Budd. In Clarel the thought of Cain and Abel “entangled . . . in deadly lock” reminds the narrator of the Gnostic belief that “Jehovah was construed to be / Author of evil, yea, its god; / And Christ divine his contrary: / A god was held against a god” (NN C 3.5.33-44). Such a reading of this engraving would identify Jehovah as the Cain-like aggressor, Christ as the Abel-like victim.

An earlier allusion to the Cain and Abel story in Clarel alludes to “Abel’s hound” (a creature that does not appear in the Biblical account itself): “So Abel’s hound / Snuffing his prostrate master wan, / Shrank back from earth’s first murdered man” (NN C 2.12.41-43). One wonders if Melville could be alluding to Abel’s “hound” as depicted in Hoet’s full-page illustration of Genesis 3:9 that accompanies this capital U in the Taferelen. Prominent in the foreground of the illustration, Abel’s “hound” is already “shrinking back” in the moment before the death-blow is given (see fig. 1 below).


Figure 1. Dog in Cain and Abel murder scene. Illustration for Tableau 5, Taferelen.

The name Saurin gives to Abel’s dog, Hontwolf, literally means “Dogwolf” or “Houndwolf”: “Hontwolf, his faithful sheepdog, barks frightfully to the arrogant fratricide because of his outrageous indecency” (1:9). Of seventy-one full-page plates in volume 1 of the Taferelen, this is one of twenty-five that depict a dog that is “extraneous” to its source in the Biblical text (by the count of the anonymous annotator in the copy of volume 1 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati). The shepherd’s crook depicted beneath the U in Melville’s engraving is immediately before the dog’s paws in the plate by Hoet.

The man with the club inside the Capital letter U cut from the commentary for Tableau 5 gave Melville a convenient, lightweight, handheld depiction of “the very first to stain the earth with fratricide” (in the words of Father Saurin).