The figure of Abraham is multidimensional and polysemantic, both simple and inscrutable at the same time. Abraham is the father of many peoples (Arabs claim descent from him), and he is the first Jew, which is why in Jewish tradition he is called “Avraam-avinu” – “our father Abraham”. The word “ivri”, which later became an ethnonym, first occurs in Genesis 14:13 in combination with the name of Abraham. It derives from the same root as the Hebrew verb “avar” ̶ “he crossed” and is taken to mean either “he who crossed the river” or “he who crossed the divide between the heathen and those who believe in One God, or sometimes both at once. This Biblical subject is the basis of Alexander Korotko’s profound and original narrative poem “Abraham and Isaac”.
Abraham is a rebel who has overturned the heathen beliefs and idols of his father Terah and has left his native town Ur of the Chaldees, which is in Mesopotamia, for the land of Canaan, as the One God, who had revealed Himself to him, had ordered. God did not name the country Canaan at once. He merely said to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Genesis 12:1). Then Abraham (still Abram at the time) set off for Haran. Here, in Haran, the rebel became a leader and a creator for, when the time came to move on further, from Haran to Canaan, he already had property acquired in Haran and people who had joined him (Genesis 12:4).
However, now a leader and burdened with property, Abraham left Haran as uncomplainingly as when he left the house of his father in Ur. God’s power over him was absolute. After the epithet “absolute” the word “indisputable” is, as it were, automatically understood. However, in the case of Abraham this rule does not obtain. He was prepared to dispute with God, to try to challenge His decisions. A clear testimony of this is the attempt of our forefather Abraham to save as many people as possible from the unholy city of Sodom which had been condemned to destruction, when he questioned the Almighty: “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23).
It is striking the Abraham was prepared to argue with God in order to save people whom he did not know. When it was a matter of the life of his beloved son Isaac, when the Almighty instructed Abraham: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of”, Abraham without complaint “rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him” (Genesis 22; 2-3).
Thus we have before us another artistic attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible and to describe the indescribable. And every attempt to comprehend and describe the Biblical subject of the sacrifice of Isaac is another commentary on the immortal Book of Books. The figure of Abraham in Alexander Korotko’s narrative poem is multidimensional and polysemantic, which means there can, in essence, be countless numbers of such commentaries.
Within the framework of Jewish cultural tradition the poem concerns the archetypal Jewish patriarch who, submitting to the will of the Creator, consciously risks the life of his son, performing on him the rite of circumcision, raising him as a Jew and aware as he did so that, as it is said in the Jewish Passover tradition, in the Haggadah that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us”. Needless to say, in Jewish literature there is no small number of the most varied works devoted to this subject. However, not only is Abraham the forefather of the Jewish people; he is also the “father of many peoples”, and everyone, regardless of nationality, who faces a dilemma or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “the anguish of Abraham”, involuntarily tries it on themselves: “How would I have acted? Would I have been able? Should I have been able? Do I have a choice?” – Alexander Korotko has reduced these and many other unanswered questions to one broad question which he has put in the mouth of Abraham: ” Lord, tell me why the time has been appointed by you. Why does it flow like a black river?”
At first sight it seems that Alexander Korotko’s poem deals with the excruciating pain of expectation. “Tell me sooner the hour by which I must come to the appointed place, and let me drink in to the full the mountain air which so attracts me to it,” says Abraham. He’s an ordinary father, for whom the idea is unacceptable that his son should leave this life before him. But the fact that he himself must sacrifice his son fills him with intolerable, unimaginable pain. Life is a burden for Abraham. “. I am stifled and cramped on earth!” he cries silently, addressing a pitiless Creator.
However, as already stated, the Abraham of the poem is multidimensional and polysemantic. His personal tragedy is only one measure of what is happening. What is happening here and now – on the slopes of Mount Moriah – to him and his beloved son Isaac will recur many times to sons, to distant descendants of Abraham in a future which the Creator has mercilessly revealed to him. ” while detachments of crusaders are naïve from head to foot and sleep a childish sleep somewhere beyond the seven seas”, however, the day will come when “unknown envy and restless spite” will inevitably ” give poison to the earth to drink.” The exaltation and glory of the “stiff-necked people” of the sons of Abraham will become intertwined with persecutions, humiliations and sacrifices.
From the point of view of Abraham there was no need for time which “flows like a black river”. In the mediaeval piyyut (a liturgical poem written to embellish Jewish worship) the “Song of unity” there is the following line: ” a thousand years are as yesterday for Him”. The author, whose name has not come down to us, had God in mind, but the words could apply to our forefather Abraham, to whom, as is described in Alexander Korotko’s poem, the Lord revealed the future, having compelled him to live in the past, the present and the future simultaneously.
Alexander Korotko’s poem opens up before the reader a “big question” linked to the original biblical subject. This in itself bears witness to the fact that this is a philosophical work. It is not only an artistic creation, but also a tribute to the philosophy of being; it is therefore important to be able to pose a question and not find an answer to it, although the answer may lie in the question itself, as posed by the author. It is not the answer which is important but the search for the possibility of posing the question.
In the poem I sense the Russian literary tradition, which penetrates the Biblical roots and has much in common with sacral knowledge. It is precisely Russian poetics which is uniquely innovatory, something I have not seen in works which revisited the Jewish theme of sacrifice. At the level of memory of the genre, memory of the situation, the roots of which go back ton the Torah, a traditional vision is given of the sacrifice motif. Traditional precisely from the point of view of Jewish vision and Jewish tradition.
But here is innovation in legend, in Russian poetic tradition, in metre and rhythm, which are immersed in the flat surface of the Torah and recreate the effect of uncoordinated existence, when matter gives way under the feet. And the question is raised not only at the level of words (language), but also at the level of sound, rhythm, specific vibrations (language), speech itself, which goes from existence to the eternity of the universe, where there is no time, and, consequently, no hurry. I have never seen or encountered anything like this in literature.
It seems to me that in this lies the artistic and philosophical innovation of Alexander Korotko’s poem. It leaves a powerful emotional and psychological impact. And in order to emerge from this condition, it is essential to build one’s own world, to find what creation brings, to find what can recreate the uncoordinated foundation of time and space, as in the Biblical subject.
The uniqueness of Alexander Korotko’s poem “Abraham and Isaac” lies, in the first place, in the fact that it serves as a kind of bridge between cultures, presenting as it does, in Russian, (and therefore accessible to non-Jewish and assimilated Jewish readers) a traditional Jewish vision of this Biblical subject which has become, in a certain sense, a key feature of Jewish self-awareness. This poem makes one involuntarily call to mind the words of the Ukrainian poet of Jewish descent Abram Katznelson: “I am a bridge between Jews and Ukrainians”.
Alexander Korotko’s poem is, without question, a mighty monument of world literature.
Translated by Michael Pursglove