A Sign for Cain: An Exploration in Human Violence
A Sign for Cain is indeed, as its dustjacket claims, a provocative book, though not so good a one as its wealth of material and the frequently stimulating insights of its author lead one to expect. It is certainly enormously concrete. Dr. Wertham’s catalogue is long, through every passion ranging; he seems to have total recall for every foul deed of this century, from high-school initiations to Guernica, and many earlier. He provides an annotated list of the concentration camps of Greater Germany in 1945—there were twenty-three, many with specialized functions—and his topics extend from comic books to the McNaughton—to use his spelling—rule for legal insanity. His writing is erudite but cranky, with occasional lapses like his reference to “.024 per cent per 100,000” persons who died in automobile accidents in 1952. But nothing seems to have been omitted. In spite of its very considerable redeeming social significance, if violence turns you on you’ll enjoy A Sign for Cain thoroughly.
The book’s most serious defect is that it is an exploration. It has no organizing principle; and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There is wisdom in it, like Wertham’s observation that “The greatest achievement of the civil-rights movement is that it has restored the dignity of indignation.” and his reference to it as “an underground of decency.” But he has neither an ideology nor a coherent social theory by which his detailed observations could be related to one another. His analysis of the role of violence in contemporary life is greatly hampered by his lack of interest in and limited understanding of how people are involved in society.
This is a pity, because his subject has become supremely important, and he avoids the most serious trap into which an indignant old psychiatrist might easily have fallen. He does not try to treat the widespread violence in our world as the collective expression of defective personality or emotional disorder. He is far too canny for that; but the absence of a theoretical frame-work tempts him constantly to go off the track to sniff among the flowers of evil.
Rather than try to follow him into these tangled thickets, it seems to me that it may be more illuminating, both to the book’s subject and to the problems it presents to the reader, to take one specific instance of such derailment, and do what seems necessary to get the discussion back on the tracks again, as an illustration of the kind of intellectual effort involved. I have chosen Wertham’s comment on the failure of the courts to punish two high-school boys who had seriously injured a young friend by rough hazing. In this connection, he quotes approvingly The New York Times‘s sad observation that “Young, unsophisticated minds may readily conclude that sadism and barbarism …are not really punishable.” and observes: “This is pricisely what happens. The Goddess of Violence usurps the place of Themis, the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.