Monday, August 2, 2010

An Interpretation of Adele Wiseman's The Sacrifice

Adele Wiseman’s 1956 The Sacrifice (1) follows the experiences of a Jewish family which has emigrated from the Ukraine and settled in Canada. The novel covers three generations, starting during the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and ending shortly after World War 11. The Sacrifice gains thematic and symbolic resonance from the Old Testament naming of its main characters Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Moses. That naming is accentuated by the withholding of their surname and by the generalizing of the setting to be a kind of every city in Canada. These characters are symbolic proportionate to their anonymity. Further, Wiseman includes certain Old Testament stories that relate to major events in the novel and seem to inform the significance of those events. So it may be thought that the biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac sheds meaning on the fictional Abraham’s slaughter of Laiah and on Isaac’s self-sacrifice to save the Torah.

Readers, therefore, may see The Sacrifice as a symbolic novel as such, as does Stanley G. Mullins in his essay Traditional Symbols in Adele Wiseman’s The Sacrifice. 2 Virtually by definition, Mr. Mullins’s approach deemphasizes actuality. Part of the argument in this essay is that Mullins’s kind of symbolic reading distorts meaning. For example, to see Laiah’s murder only symbolically loses sight of a deranged man committing a grotesque crime. More, such a symbolic reading may compel the conclusion that Abraham’s killing her reenacts ritual sacrifice so that Abraham cleanses himself through its purgative efficacy. But, in contrast, a literal reading of the novel that sheers off symbolic meaning denudes thematic amplitude.

The argument of this essay is that a comprehensive reading of The Sacrifice depends upon understanding Wiseman’s particular distinction between what might be called the biblical or mythical world—the world with God—and what might be called the historical world—the world without God. Further, goes the argument here, Wiseman redefines ritual sacrifice historically as an inexorable law of life in the world of history.

Some of Northrop Frye’s distinctions between the “mythical mode” and the “art of verisimilitude” are pertinent to Wiseman’s distinction between myth and history. The mythical mode, Frye says, is the art of a world of total metaphor in which everything is potentially identical with everything else, as though it were all inside a single infinite body.(3) Verisimilitude, by contrast, is the art of a world of implicit simile which evokes the response, “How like that is to what we know.”(4) And while characters in the mode of myth have the greatest power of possible action, in the world of verisimilitude they are necessarily limited by actuality.(5) The Old Testament story, as retold by Abraham to his family, of Abraham’s near slaughtering of his son exemplifies the mythic mode. The story’s pinnacle, in its retelling, is the union of man with God, when everything potentially identical becomes manifestly identical: “ is a point of mutual surrender…the completed circle…when the maker of the sacrifice and the sacrifice himself and the Demander…are poised together, and life flows into eternity, and for a moment all the three are as one”. (pp. 177-178) So, refining the argument of this essay, Wiseman uses apocalyptic meaning to limit by contrast the nature of the historical world and, again, to cast sacrifice into history as inexorable creation and destruction in human life.

Two key passages illuminate this notion of sacrifice and begin to suggest its implications. In the first, Abraham describes how as a youth he was forced to perform illegitimately the ritual slaughter. The experience rivets in him his first awareness of the mystery of life and death: “It was as though I too were sinking with the knife…as though I were somewhere between living and dying. Not until I saw that the creature was dead did I realize I was still alive.” (p.38) In the second passage, Abraham, speaking to Chaim, is poetically philosophical about death’s relation to good and evil:

…death is a seed that is sown, like life, inside of a person, and comes to fruition from within…

I think that death is sown in all of us when we are conceived, and grows within the womb of life, feeding on it until one day it bursts out. We say then that life is dead. But really death is born...

Every man carries his own death in him, but in some men death is so strong, so evil, that it must feed itself on the conquest of other lives besides its own…(pp. 143-144)

Abraham at the same time universalizes and particularizes human moral nature by rooting it in basic physical process. As every person lives and dies, so every person has innate moral and immoral tendencies. Evil springs from the impulse to death. Good springs from the impulse to life, which creates, enhances and preserves life. To be moral, one must be in awe of the mystery of life and death. That awe generates respect for life’s sanctity since death defines by tragic contrast life’s preciousness. Therefore, as the creative awareness of life’s worth is born of the experienced realization of death’s waste, good grows out of evil. This paradox goes to the meaning of sacrifice in the novel: always death and destruction accompany life and creation.

Consonant with this meaning of sacrifice, Abraham claims his ritual slaughter of the cow to be his real Bar Mitzvah instead of the ceremonial one. Although he is devout, Abraham submits to the authority of experience. For only the experience of sacrifice imparts history’s fundamental truth. Put into larger terms, Wiseman explores history’s dilemma—history as reality delimited by boundary and finite consciousness: finding meaning in a world without God as its source for values. Unlike the biblical Abraham who can speak with God and enter the divine circle of union with God, history’s finitude impales men and women on the paradox of sacrifice. As the novel’s Abraham tells Chaim, “our forefathers…made the sacrifice to renew their wonder and their fear and their belief.” (p.138)

“Mad Mountain” intensifies and expands the central theme of sacrifice. The mountain is identified with both dominant presence and frozen permanence. To Isaac, it is “…a great arrested movement, petrified in time...” (p.13) It suggests to him a constancy which contrasts with all human flux; and, ultimately, it is for him a kind of repository of all human experience: “…the city crawled about its surface in a counterpoint of life…it seemed…as though it were watching, absorbing every gesture in its static moment.” (p.13) The mountain’s two crests heighten this symbolism of it absorbing, solidifying and perpetuating all experience. They become an immutable symbolic backdrop for the flux of dualities in existence—birth and death, creation and destruction, good and evil and so on. The novel’s predominant imagery of light and dark, and vegetative birth, growth and decay expresses these dualities. Further, the folk tale of Iiog, the giant who attempts to crush the Israelites with a mountain but falls asleep and is himself crushed under its weight, is an exemplum of how the mountain’s protection and destruction are permanently buried within it.

The incapacity within history to unify or transcend the dualities of existence is implicit in the insane asylum lodged between the two crests and in the very name Mad Mountain. The implication is that what might seem to be ultimate meaning—the unification and hence transcendence of duality, the penetration of the mystery of existence—is more than sanity can bear. Thus, when Mrs. Popler’s younger daughter describes with her finger the proverbial circle of insanity to indicate the “crazy house” on the mountain, she unknowingly intimates that madness is history’s version of divine insight. Indeed, Abraham completes insanity’s circle when he murders Laiah. Rather than being encircled by a mystic union which he expects will “…enclose him in its safety, in its peace” (p.303), his madness shatters him. His subsequent wisdom through madness is divine insight in history. He exemplifies in history the superstition that the insane have been touched by God. The paradox of Abraham’s wisdom through insanity parallels the sacrificial paradox: Abraham can transmit his wisdom to Moses, but he only gains his wisdom from his madness leading to Laiah’s murder. So Abraham is left to remain on the mountain, as, in a way, the mountain itself remains separated from, but apposite to, society.

Wiseman sets the destructive side of the paradox of sacrifice by her descriptions of grinding physical decay. In contrast to the biblical Abraham and Sarah who can beget children at one hundred, the novel’s Sarah is withered and declining as it begins. Wiseman briefly but powerfully describes Old Rusen, wracked by years of sweatshop labour. And, from one perspective, the novel can be seen as the depiction of Abraham’s physical and spiritual decline, which is to say, it can be seen as a tragedy about old age. Deterioration, decline and death inexorably form an elemental part of the paradox of sacrifice.

In the novel’s rooting of human meaning and the meaning of morality in basic physical process, cancer is a symbol of malignant evil, the impulse to hurt and destroy feeding and growing on life. Abraham in his madness sees Laiah as an “invisible destroyer…malignant in his path”. (p.259) Mrs. Knopp, who suffers from cancer, repeatedly displays her malignant personality. (p. 233 particularly) While she arouses antipathy, Mrs. Popler arouses pity. Her emaciated body corresponds to her slight moral character, which is to say, her lack of moral weight. Her restlessness, imaged in the rabbit like wriggling of her nose, is of a piece with her nervous capacity to hover about, alight on, and then flit in and out of any point of view. Isaac’s heart sickness, in marked comparison, more deeply suggests his soul’s sickness, his agonizing inability to make sense of an ambiguous reality.

There is an ironic relation between Isaac’s and Mrs. Popler’s constantly shifting perspectives, with the difference between them going to the relation between awareness and morality. Isaac cannot hold any point of view. Mrs. Popler is “…able, by some marvelous act of synthesis, to hold…all points of view…no matter how contradictory.” (pp 307-308) Her ease at navigating a variable reality marks her noted lack of moral weight. And that is why, in contrast to Isaac, the ambiguities of reality do not afflict her, though she does suffer. Mrs. Popler’s self is so puny that she lives vicariously off others’ experiences and imagines threats and crises to enjoy the sense of importance she believes they imply for her: “Mrs. Popler, in sympathy, began to cry as well, tentatively at first, then with great sloppy sobs, rocking from side to side and moaning intermittently about the terrible fate of Jewry.” (pp 24-25) Contrarily, Isaac’s desperate search for meaning, to make sense of himself in the world, is a moral search. For morality is the human will dictating to itself a mode of being and acting in the world, whereby conscious effort is required to choose between various possibilities of good and evil.(6) Isaac’s search, though never resolved, marks his moral character and his ability to feel at times “…the mystery of life, its contradictions; to discover, perhaps, its possibilities…sense vaguely…that he was not her for nothing…that there was a purity somewhere…” (p. 68)

Isaac is the existential sufferer. His torment is a template of existential torment. Since there is no God for him as is there is for his father, he can find no absolute values and faces an absurd world. In contrast to Abraham’s stature, optimism, assertive self confidence and capacity to mould everything to his fixed view of the world, Isaac is sickened and perplexed by confusion, guilt and self doubt. He drives himself relentlessly in order to find a source for faith, and that drive shows in his constant reading, which in turns heightens his confusion and multiplies the questions he needs answered. His inclination to flee into books appears early, when, at one point, frightened by the realization that he alive and his brothers are dead, he buries his mind in a grammar book oblivious “…to the welcoming smile of his friend.” (pp. 15-16)

In line with the thematic connection between physical process and moral and spiritual being, Isaac lives out the paradox of sacrifice just by being alive with his brothers dead. As noted, however much existential doubts plague him, he does at times thrill at the sensation of being: “He began to experience such a feeling of aliveness himself that everything about him seemed to come alive.” (p. 141) Here, history gets closest to apocalypse. It is a matter solely of consciousness: one’s heightened sense of being bathes all things in the glow of that sensation in a kind of union of all things. But history is subject to the paradox of sacrifice. At the height of such exhilaration, Isaac’s weak heart and contingency itself subjugate him with their obtrusive limits causing him torment proportionate to his just experienced joy: “The sensation of misery, as pure and unadulterated as the unreasoning joy…doubled him over.” (p. 142) His joy is necessarily bought at the cost of his suffering. His ultimate attempt to achieve faith will cost him his life.

Isaac’s rescue of the Torah is more than just the “religious reflex” argued for by Mullins.(7) Rather, it is his culminating attempt at faith, at internalizing meaning by which he can define himself such that that meaning is taken as truth. Two important events help illuminate the motives and preoccupations causing him so to risk his life.

The first concerns his own son’s ability to jump off a world, which, in his childish imaginings, spins so quickly that it makes him dizzy. Isaac marvels at Moses’s courage, at how he can skip from thought to action, as Isaac sees it, without spoiling either. This over-interpretation, which clothes his son’s playfulness with unreal significance, shows Isaac’s inclination to over think everything, and, more exactly, shows his over thinking at the source of his own feeling that he cannot move from thought to action. Isaac contemplates a complex world, and his over thinking binds him in its straight jacket of too many alternatives, unanswered questions, logical dead ends and ultimate dissatisfaction. As Isaac asks Abraham, not expecting an answer, “Few things really matter in the way we think they do. There is always another way of seeing them…And if we can’t seem to see the same thing in the same way at different times…what is the true way of seeing it?” (p. 216)

In the second key scene, Abraham, as noted, tells his family the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Despite some obtuse concerns which violate the spirit of the story, Isaac is profoundly moved by the vision of faith his father describes. Isaac thinks, “And yet…there’s something in the idea itself…the three of them bound together in their awful moment…” (p.179)

From these two scenes, the interpretive argument emerges that rather than a religious reflex, Isaac in trying to rescue the Torah tries to assimilate what he over thinks is his son’s capacity to move from thought to action, and by that tries to achieve the kind of faith evident in Abraham’s dutiful willingness to slay his son in sacrifice at God’s demand. But his act resolves nothing for him. It only heightens his confused fear and embitterment:

If there was…a moment of absolute truth…should not this feeling have remained with me, a new purity…Why didn’t I die then, before I had time to awake, to be afraid, to realize that I don’t want to die? (p. 212)

This interpretive argument contradicts Mullins’s view that “symbolically” Isaac finds his faith and dies in the religion of his ancestors.(8) Isaac’s rescue and death are a kind of anti sacrifice, where all is ventured and all is lost. Isaac’s death is the inhuman thematic limit of the destructive side of the paradox of sacrifice. His death is meaningless and absurdity made concrete. When Hymie Polsky reckons on his cash register the dollars and cents infeasibility of the rescue, Isaac becomes the victim of a pitch black cosmic joke.

Abraham is the central figure of The Sacrifice. He is symbolically the Jewish patriarch in recent modern history as at the time of the novel’s publication—1956. His journey from the Ukraine to his settling in Canada, seen against the background of Pogrom persecution and the slightly etched background of the Depression and World War 11, is in broad outline a central movement of nearly a century of Jewish history. Of course, though, Abraham is much more than a symbolic figure. His literal reality defies reductive symbolic significance. Wiseman gives him concrete psychological individuality coexisting with his patriarchal symbolism, which marks his richness as a literary creation. She paints a picture of a man with great physical strength and spiritual stature, sensitive gentleness and of a poetic sensibility. At first view of Abraham, evident are his commanding presence and the almost violent nature of his will. His decision to get off the train and begin to reorder his life is made with “a sudden rush of indignation” as his thoughts sweep through him angrily. He “imperatively beckons” the train conductor who likewise feels “summoned”. Yet Abraham is gently sensitive to the needs of Sarah and Isaac and tells him, “Come boy, we must wake your mother—but gently. How weary she is.” (p.6) At a point later, Ruth marvels at the gentleness “…in a man as forceful in his outward manner as Avrom.” (p.119)

Mildly against these positive traits, Abraham has a tinge of indulgent self consciousness. After one bit of poetic oratory, he pauses “to consider his words with pleasure.” (p.6) Further, his judgment is sometimes weak. He greatly respects the mediocre mind of Chaim Knopp, which, in one instance, “…riffled half-heartedly through its file on death...” (p.144) Like Othello, Abraham’s inclination to grandiloquence can blind him to humble realities. So, in contrast to his glowing accounts of his two dead sons, they, in one flashback, are in normal boyish heat over the girl next door. Abraham’s most striking characteristic is his intense religious faith, and correspondingly—since faith is the internalization of an assumption by which one defines one’s self—his absolute faith in himself. Paradoxically, as shall be seen, this strength of faith becomes an equivalent source of weakness. His single mindedness lapses into narrow mindedness. Abraham’s sense of himself becomes brittle in its absoluteness. When he condemns the brilliant student who helps Hymie Polsky cheat, and uncompromisingly condones the justice of the student’s expulsion, he betrays a lack of sympathetic judgment which in turn flows from his imperfect understanding of his own weakness.

In line with the central argument of this essay, the paradox of sacrifice in the world of history, Abraham is different from the biblical Abraham. The biblical Abraham can become one with God. The historical Abraham believes in a God he can never know, never see, never be with. Only, as will be argued, by marking this difference, can Laiah’s murder be understood to be a sacrifice. In the novel’s world of history, a world without God, a world informed by the implicit simile evoking the response “how like this is to what we know”, it is the bitterest of ironies that Isaac should die in his attempt at grasping the unquestioning singularity of his father’s faith, should die by reason of his attempt at a leap of faith.

Isaac dies fulfilling Abraham’s highest expectations for him by saving the Torah. As such, it is thematically telling that his death is the point from which Abraham’s insanity proceeds until it culminates in his slaughtering of Laiah. The weight of Isaac’s death upsets finally the equilibrium Abraham sustains between his forcefulness and his gentleness. His capacity for murder is evident when Mrs. Popler arouses his fury almost near to losing control. Mrs. Popler’s misery, however, arouses his pity and salves his fury. During his argument with Ruth, Abraham begins to fulfill his own definition of evil—one person’s death feeding on the conquest of other lives—by “…aiming words like blows, not to enlighten or to persuade, but to maim, to hurt.” (p.292) After that argument, he is struck by an unprecedented sense of his own evil, which gradually grows as extreme as his previous sense of his own absolute morality: “Never before had he felt this way, this internal accusation, that he himself was not worthy, that it had all been his fault.” (p. 292)

The dislocation of Abraham’s poetic sensibility goes with his descent into madness. His use of highly imaginative images and metaphors to apprehend reality causes him, in his madness, to sever symbol from reality and respond to symbol as reality. So he sees Laiah as the embodiment of his own evil. Any thought that Abraham’s murder of Laiah is sanctified mimics seeing Laiah through his derangement. By responding to Laiah as symbol which he takes to be reality, Abraham becomes oblivious of her actuality. Before she is murdered, Laiah contemplates the possibility of marrying Abraham. She feels long dormant emotions stirred and flowing. Most pathetically, she pleads for dignity: “ ‘Say you love me’, she urged…Above everything else she wanted now that her moment should not become absurd.” (pp. 301-302) By urging sexual union, by urging life itself, Laiah points to the life creating, life enhancing side of the paradox of sacrifice. When Abraham murders her, he inverts his insane desire to purify himself through purgative slaughter by making real in himself the evil he so intently wishes to purge.

Northrop Frye again is instructive. Frye says that in ritual we strive voluntarily to regain a lost bond with the natural cycle. The poet, in anagogic literature, unites total ritual, or unlimited social action, with total dream, or unlimited thought, into apocalypse—the world of total metaphor at one with the mind of man.(9) During the murder scene, Abraham becomes absorbed into the motions of ritual sacrifice. At first it is unconscious, as when in a flourish of professional pride, he wipes the bread knife clean of its clinging tomato seeds and unthinkingly obeys the ritual dictate that the slaughter knife be immaculate and dry. Then, consciously, he recites the blessing and feels himself being lifted out of space and time. In Frye’s terms, then, Abraham’s expectation of total dream is his expectation of “some wonderful revelation.” His attempt at total ritual is his slaughter of Laiah. Again, in Frye’s terms, Abraham is like the poet attempting to author, through his dream and action, an anagogic poem of apocalypse, his entry into the circle of divine revelation which will “enclose him in its safety, in its peace, “since, keeping to this simile, the union of ritual and dream in a form of verbal communication is myth.”(10)

But it is exactly at the point of murder, when ritual and dream should merge into myth, that history, actuality itself, takes over. Instead of ascending to union with God, Abraham understands terribly that he has killed. Instead of the mystic circle peacefully and safely enclosing him, the word “life” shrieks through his mind. Immediately after stabbing Laiah, he cradles her death in his arms. He tries to close the gaping wound in her throat, hopelessly trying to staunch the blood flow with his hand. Most pathetically, he begs her to live. But the inexorability of actuality imposes itself: death is irrevocable. Laiah’s death triggers Abraham’s perception of her life’s, life’s, preciousness. This sequence of death and consequent awareness images the essence of sacrifice, that, as argued throughout, waste and violation are necessary to the renewal of awe for the mystery of life and death, which, in turn, generates respect for the sanctity of life.

This notion of sacrifice controls the novel’s meaning. It is the reason why Abraham’s slaughter of the cow is such an intense experience for him. It is the reason why Isaac at the point of death from typhus rekindles Abraham’s love for him and inspires him to fight God for his son’s life. (p.71) It is the reason Isaac’s concern for his dying mother precedes his joyous sense of aliveness. It is the reason why the time between his discovery of his mother’s dying and the last time he has “really seen” her is “…a long stretch of time in which his relationship to her had been dimmed by his inattention.” (p. 165) It is the reason why, following Sarah’s death, Isaac resolves “never to lose another lifetime” and feels “so much more alive.” It is the reason why Isaac’s death-dealing rescue of the Torah provides “…a momentary jolt for the imaginations of a handful of people” and stimulates “…them beyond themselves.” (p. 212) It is the reason why Isaac’s resulting illness and foreboding of death intensify his desire to live and make him hungry to embrace the living presence of his family. It is the reason why the simultaneity of Ruth’s birth and her mother’s death, like Hagar’s birth in The Stone Angel, precisely images the paradox of sacrifice, and its inexorability in the world of actuality.

By the workings of the novel’s theme, sacrifice as moral meaning means good is only known by contrast with evil. Abraham’s murder of Laiah, while never assuaged, gives him experienced realization of his manifest capacity for evil: “…I have taken life…it was in me, womb of death, festering in no one else.” (p.326) It instills in him a kind of moral hindsight: “I could have blessed you and left you. I could have loved you.” (p.344) Abraham not only comes to understand his innate capacity for evil, but as symbolic patriarch in the world of history he reveals all Jews’ potential for evil. Dreiman, therefore, is incensed by the implications of the murder:

In the papers it says …as if he had discovered America, “the first time in history of the district that a Jew has committed murder”…What Jew would kill? But no. He had to go and show them that we have murderers too, just like them. (pp. 314-315)

Understanding this, is it not plausible to argue that Abraham himself is a sacrificial victim? Driven by pressures and events beyond his control in combination with his very nature, he commits a heinous crime for which he must bear the humiliation of imprisonment and a deep and heavy burden of guilt. He wishes to die but believes that God will not let him die like the innocent. (p. 344) From what he has done, is the implication, all Jews may better know their capacity for good and evil, be, accordingly, better be able to act morally, and better be able to know themselves.

As Abraham’s Bar Mitzvah is the slaughter of the cow, so Moses is born into moral awareness when he visits his grandfather on Mad Mountain. Moses learns from Abraham the nature of moral disparity, its existence in him, and thereby learns to begin to get past his own self fear, self hatred and self unknowing, which all have their source in the in the personal and social legacy of Abraham’s murder of Laiah: “It was with the strangest feeling of awakening that he saw their hands fused together—one hand, the hand of a murderer, hero, artist, the hand of a man.” (p. 345)

Along with this transmission of awareness comes the related ethic of compassion. In religious terms, to deny compassion, to harm another human being, is “to turn away God himself”. Indeed, in these terms, Abraham’s murder is an act of hubris: “I was not content to be as He willed it. I wanted more. I had to be creator and destroyer.” (p.326) For Moses, who does not believe in Abraham’s God, the religious moral of compassion still has profound application. Pity, as Aristotle says, moves one’s soul toward another, and fear, it may deduced, moves the soul inside itself. Compassion, therefore, stems the soul’s capacity to fear and feel within itself another’s suffering and thus identify with that suffering. As a result compassion is the source of identification and mutuality between people. To deny compassion is to deny one’s own humanity. This moral, the novel intimates, is the humanistic commandment the historical Moses brings to his people. From the awareness Moses absorbs from Abraham, he grows into manhood. He gets unlocked from himself. He begins to share his grandfather’s erectness and pride. At the end of The Sacrifice Moses starts to take his place among “his fellow men.”

1. Adele Wiseman, The Sacrifice, (New York: The Viking Press, 1956);
2. Stanley G. Mullins, "Traditional Symbolism in Adele Wiseman's The Sacrifice, Culture 19 (September 1958);
3. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, (New York, Antheneum, 1969), p.136;
4. Frye, p. 136;
5. Frye, pp. 135-136;
6. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, (New York: Delta, 1966) p. 18, as adapted by me;
7. Mullins;
8. Mullins;
9. Frye, p. 120;
10.Frye, p. 106.