Monday, February 11, 2019

Emily, Abe and Isaac: Prologue

Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson walk into a bar. 

After a few sips of bourbon, they begin to discuss the story of Abraham and Isaac.

The bartender, Ed, triggered the conversation when he dropped a bottle of wine. 

As the bottle shatters at Ed's feet, Leonard grins, puts out his cigarette and exhales its smoke from his nostrils.

"That, Emily," he said, "Reminds me of a poem I wrote about Isaac and Abraham: 'We stopped to drink some wine. / Then he threw the bottle over. / Broke a minute later.' I think that yarn also inspired you to write a poem."

"Yes," she said.

"That story as it's told in Hebrew scripture is shockingly succinct  -- compressed, terse, laconic."

"But ample," Emily said.

"Minimalist, chiseled, lean, epigrammatic, stark, spare. It's a page and a half at best."

"Mine was less," Emily said. "But still excessive." 

"You're being modest, dear friend. In 'Anthem,' I said, 'There's a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.' The blunt Hebrew version -- as we now have it -- leaves plenty of cracks to let in light, maybe even The Light. 

"To cite one example, when God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac up to Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering, the narrative immediately cuts to the next morning when Abe is saddling up his ass.

"That long night -- it must've been! --  heavy with Abe's agonizing ruminations in the endless dark, now exists only in the reader's imagination. 

"Did he try to bargain, cut a deal, compromise? If so, those desperate prayers wound up on the editing room floor."

Emily orders another bourbon, Maker's Mark. She certainly is quiet this night. We would almost give up our first born to know what she was thinking.

"Bob Dylan filled that gap," she said.

"Between the command and the morning? I remember! 'God said to Abraham, Kill me a son. / Abe says, Man, you must be puttin' me on.' It's from 'Highway 61 Revisited."

"Why that title?"

"Why did you never give a title?"


"What do you think of Dylan's whimsical take on the story?"

"Deletes it. Makes the story disappear."

"I guess it does, if he's saying Abe refused to obey. The story is no longer a story. Even Stephen King couldn't find a publisher interested in a tale of a father hearing a voice telling him to kill his son, then refusing to do it."

"Abe demurs at stanza's end," Emily said.

"Yes, because God bullies him: 'You can do what you want, Abe, but / The next time you see me comin' you better run.' 

"But for the sake of argument, let's just say Abe refused to be bullied. What if, you know, what if Abe had said to the voice, or Voice, 'No! I love Isaac more than I love myself and more than the promised offspring 'as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore,' and more than the land of Canaan. Our covenant and your promises to me, compared to Isaac, are nothing more than gewgaw, knickknacks, gimcracks and baubles.'

"If God is love, and we are made in His image, then we must be love. Therefore, Abe could easily protest, 'Forgive me, O Voice, Invisible God. Thou hast created me in a way that prevents me, in this case, from doing Thy bidding. If I disobey, Thou hast only Thyself to blame, blameless though Thou may be. Hineni, hineni?* No. Non serviam!'"**

Ed tops off Emily's Maker's Mark. "So you wouldn't kill your child if your God Herself asked you to," she said.

"No," Leonard replied. "Never. Not for anything."

"You lack Abraham's faith."

"Maybe. Or I have adequate faith in a God who wouldn't make such a grisly request."

"Then you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting."***

"That doesn't sound like you, Emily."

"It had to be said. It was a test. I think it was Kierkegaard who said the text tested the reader just as Yahweh tested Abraham."

"The story's various authors placed the test reference at the beginning so the reader could sit back from a distance and watch the tale unfold. Still, when I read it, I feel helpless. I want to reach into the story and revise it, and I want to console poor clueless Isaac or, better, tell him his dad's intentions so he can haul ass before Abe can act out his obedience to a Voice he has chosen to regard as the Highest of the High, the One True God. I want the ram to ram Abe for even considering such an unspeakable crime. 

"But there's no penetrating the fourth wall. I feel like James Stewart in Rear Window helplessly watching from his wheelchair as Grace Kelly falls into the hands of a wife killer.

"And if God is omniscient, why would He need a test? He knows what's in our hearts. He counteth the hairs on your head. He knows when the sparrow falleth. Your frame was not hid from Him when you were made in secret, woven together in the depths of the earth!"

Emily finishes off her Maker's Mark. "Your response alone makes it an effective narrative," she said, dabbing her lips with a napkin. "Reaching from reality into fiction can change more than the story. It can alter history. I'm sure you've read King's 11/22/63 in which an English teacher goes back in time and tries to prevent JFK's assassination."

"Actually, I think that shows fiction reaching into reality -- or history. So how would Abe's 'no' alter history?"

"He would no longer be Abraham. He'd be just plain Abram. And without Abraham, according to tradition at least, there would be no Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Ponder what history would've been like without that heterogeneous triumvirate. And keep pondering while I go look for whatever passes for a chamber pot these days."

*Hebrew: "I'm ready my Lord."
**Latin: "I will not serve."
***See Daniel 5:27

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