Page 27 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

Basic HTML Version

ew ish
ew ish
bility in the twentieth century. Modern Knights of Faith, die
ardent advocates of genocide and mass murder, have passed “the
test of crime” all too gloriously. Sammler seems to accept the
ultimate humanist limitation that Melville had anticipated in
The Confidence Man,
which is to say, “No trust!” In a world of
confidence men, better not to wait for messiahs.
Sammler, however, seems somewhat superficial on this point.
Taking the liberal humanist position, he dissolves the Abrahamic
paradox and ignores the complexities that Kierkegaard had pointed
out. I t is true that in recent history “Knights of Faith” have
asserted their heroism through murder, placing no value on human
life and the individual, arrogating to themselves Godly authority.
But Sammler himself thinks, “One had to learn to distinguish.
To distinguish and distinguish and distinguish. It was distinguish-
ing, not explanation, that mattered.” And here, truly, one must
distinguish. Abraham, to begin with, does not sacrifice Isaac,
though he shows his willingness to do what is required of him.
Moreover, Abraham is tested, not to prove that he is capable of
committing a crime, a “superman testing himself with an ax . . .”;
he is asked to give up the son he loves more dearly than his own
life. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Abraham’s relation to Isaac, ethically
speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall
love his son more dearly than himself.” The Biblical text specifies
that Abraham is told to “Take, now, thy son, thine only son,
thou lovest
. .
The point is not that Abraham proves himself
a superman, but, on the contrary, that he proves his subservience.
He must reside in the paradox that his hope for the future lies
in his sacrificing his hope for the future.
Sammler, in comparing Abraham to the modern megalomaniacs,
lapses into the attitude of Kierkegaard’s comfortable tongue wag-
gers “who will not labor, and yet they would understand the
story. . . . What they leave out of Abraham’s history is dread.”
Sammler’s historical imagination fails him here. If God is dead
for modern man, Sammler assumes that He must also have been
dead for Abraham, thus banalizing Abraham’s sublimity (as Han-
nah Arendt had attempted to banalize Eichmann’s evil). Earlier,
Sammler had disapproved of his niece Margotte for over-intellec-
tualizing, for “making use of a tragic history to promote the
foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.” This is what Sammler
does now.
Nevertheless, Bellow’s novel ends with a prayer. Elya Gruner,
whose creeping death suffuses Sammler’s perambulating mind,
finally dies, whereupon Sammler says, “Remember, God, the
soul of Elya Gruner. . . . He was aware that he must m eet. . . the
terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each