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Under the Knife

In Jenny Diski’s version of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s loyalty to God trumps love for his own family and becomes the ultimate betrayal.

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In After These Things, London-born, Cambridge-based writer Jenny Diski retells the story of the binding of Isaac to explore the psychological impact that cheating death had on the boy and his children. In her hands, Abraham’s family becomes a paradigm of dysfunction, of jealousy, insecurity, and rage—of the many ways love goes badly. Diski has mined the Bible before. Only Human (2001) traces the love between Abraham and Sarah as it grows and contracts, illustrating the essential humanity possessed by mythic characters.

You’ve said that Isaac’s ghostliness was what brought you back to writing After These Things, the sequel to Only Human.

DiskiIsaac is most intriguing because he’s invisible, the absent one in the Bible. I was intrigued to write about the Bible and the aftermath of the family catastrophe.

Is it a catastrophe?

It’s a tragedy for Isaac, and for Abraham, and, in my book, a tragedy for Sarah. In some cosmic way it’s a tragedy. It’s a symbol of the way people are damaged when they’re brought into the world by fallible parents, by parents who suffer trauma. The whole of the first section of After These Things relates to the aftereffects and nature of the Sacrifice. That’s really what the book is about, how what happened to Isaac had repercussions on Jacob, who is a tricky, devious sort of character. It’s not very good for fathers to threaten to kill their children—it’s not good for the children, and it’s not good for the fathers.

Is this like the sins of the father?

It has nothing to do with sinfulness, it has to do with psychology. The traumas of the father are visited on the children. I don’t want this to be so directly explained—the point of reading is that you get impressions.

What is the nature of Isaac’s ghostliness?

It’s in the first paragraph. He likes sex. He has a physical appetite, his appetite is for what is palpable. He’s spiritually dead. All that’s left for him is physical, nothing is left for him psychologically.

Thanks to a broken heart, yes? His father didn’t kill him, he broke his spirit.

In the midrash, there is a strong suggestion that the knife did fall. There’s also Sarah’s death. In Genesis it says she dies, and that was the end of it. The medieval rabbis are concerned with the way she died, that she died of heartache and horror and shock of what Abraham nearly did do to her son. Do you know Yom Kippur, the call on the ram’s horn? A story in the midrash relates that to the three cries Sarah let out, her spirit ruined. She died of hopelessless. She was brokenhearted.

Once brokenhearted—Sarah, Isaac—can somebody come back?

I suppose that was the emotional starting point of Only Human, this extraordinary love affair between Abraham and Sarah, the point at which her love is betrayed. Abraham’s interest in God is finally so much greater than in her or their son. It’s the ultimate betrayal.

Love involving human beings usually goes wrong. Even God can’t control it when it comes to his love for Abraham. He winds up needing Abraham.

It’s easy enough to be God if you’re God. It’s much more difficult running a life with human relations. Being human is much more difficult than being God.

Only Human and After These Things raise issues about human beings’ need for stories, and about the nature of narrative, and even the existence of an editor of the Bible.

The story is the framework for our existence—we’re fixed that way. My guess is animals don’t tell stories. We’re in time. You also need to know time is finite. The nature of the story is finite, it always ends with the end. Very powerful things humans do, they narrate themselves all the time. They narrated God. Human beings invented that story because the idea of an absolute end was intolerable, and the only fix for that is an afterlife. The thing about Genesis is that the only “world without end” doesn’t mean a life after death, it means having children. Everything Abraham was about was about having a child. If he didn’t have a child, who would be there to carry on his memory? The idea of posterity is what we have, and it’s been translated into God and an afterlife. What I did was make up a man called Abraham who found the idea of extinction intolerable and made up a God all his own, but I also invented a God who needed people, too. After Only Human, God doesn’t speak anymore; there I’m following the Bible. God only speaks in dreams—he doesn’t speak directly until Exodus.

Why the silence?

It’s an almighty sulk. Abraham beat God at his own game by being prepared to kill Isaac. His willingness to kill Isaac is cunning, not obedience. If God is only a figment of our imaginations, we can play him any way we want.

Is it a privilege of sorts to be able to focus only on the daily round and not be concerned with an afterlife?

I don’t know about privilege, but it might be more grown up to take what there is and focus on it rather than hope for what isn’t. On the other hand, look at all the music and art that has resulted from the daydream. Not much great art has come, so far, from the discovery of DNA.

If somebody were to ask about the difference between religion and spirituality, or where does God leave off and religion begin, do you consider those viable questions?

No. I don’t believe in God. And I don’t have any notion of religion except as a human institution that has all sorts of uses, good and bad. I certainly don’t have any sense of a higher being but I’d hate to be proved that there wasn’t because it seems to be quite important to have an idea of God to think about—just the idea there’s something beyond the material, something we can’t touch. So I’m not a total materialist. I’m not only interested in things made up of molecules but I use the Bible very freely as a secular person. It doesn’t make sense to believe in God.

The narrator of Only Human says that in the beginning there was interruption.

Yes, the interruption of eternity, which is the creation of life. And the interruption of life is death, depending on how you look at it—and, of course, story is about interruption.

You once wrote that the “ultimate book is storyless and characterless and perfect.”

I always want to write it, the reality of books is that they’re things you try to get as close to the thing in your head, I have a kind of notion of emptiness and eternity, it runs through a lot of my books—it’s in Skating to Antarctica—about emptiness and empty spaces. Also in Like Mother, narrated by a baby without a brain, the idea being that an empty brain is universal. I’m intrigued by the idea of nothing, how it must be to be God creating the world, to lie back in eternity.

Do you have a relationship with Judaism?

No, I have a relationship to Jewishness. I feel like a Jew, a Diaspora Jew. I like pastrami sandwiches, I have a kind of cultural Jewishness. I’m most comfortable with Jewish people. When I first went to New York, I felt at home, and a friend said, “well, it’s a Jewish city.” My upbringing was Jewish, although not particularly religious. I’m completely baffled by Judaism as a religion. It seems to have very little in the way of transcendentalism. It’s very practical. When I ask rabbis about that, they get shifty-eyed: “You don’t need to worry about that, you need to think about the here and now.” The emphasis is on human relationships, mostly with the family and the community, the Jewish community. I think they just assume your neighborhood is the synagogue.

So Judaism falls short?

It doesn’t have the grand notions that Catholicism has, the sacrifices, the rituals, the theology, which is quite thick and interesting. But I don’t believe in Catholicism any more than I believe in anything else. Of course, why do you want to bother yourself about the infinite, but I suppose it’s something to think of while we’re waiting.

You sound cheery.

Well what am I going to do—cry every day? But everybody comes to terms. I don’t think there’s an hour when I don’t think about dying,

There would be a lot of commotion if people didn’t have comfort.

I think all religion is in order to prevent mass hysteria.

Besides Isaac, what else was behind writing a second book based on the Bible?

The idea that got me is that some people are lovable and some aren’t. Because those are the two things set against each other at that point in Genesis. What mattered was fertility. What mattered was that there was another generation. The woman who produced the children, Leah, couldn’t be loved—that’s extraordinary. If anyone says the Bible is boring, I point them there. The whole of Genesis is about fertility. It’s the absolute sort of power, and still doesn’t guarantee love.

Writing those books was finding the good stuff for me and reappropriating it, turning it back into a humane and extraordinary story. It’s what’s amazing about the midrash. Rabbis since the sixth century have been discussing and arguing the Bible, taking out bits and points, sort of like a hypertext thing, certainly not what fundamentalists do. Anyone who says the truth is what it says in the Bible, that’s a terrible misuse of reading. The whole point of reading is to read deeply and variously, not to look for a single meaning.

Will you being doing more of this unpacking the Bible?

No, this can’t go on forever. What those books now are, they cover the three patriarchs. I was interested in the first families, so what I’ve taken is the beginning of the generations of the original families.

Do you read the Bible?

Off and on, not the way I did before and when I was writing these. I read it as if it were a novel. I started to try and read the King James Version from beginning to end but it’s already known, you keep hitting great speeches, like Shakespeare, so I started reading translations and interpretations.

What did you find working with different translations?

Hebrew is very earthy—short syllables instead of rich, multi-syllabic words as in the King James. Wonderfully rich syntax. There are consonants and no vowels. You don’t know what a word means except in context. You have to put the word together. Hebrew couldn’t be more different than the King James. Take “And lo.” What you get in a direct translation is “Look.” Hebrew has repetition. It uses a rhythm and a beat but there’s not a richness of syntax—although I don’t know ancient Hebrew.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing a bit of a fake nonfiction book, about going nowhere as much as possible—an anti-travel-writer book. It’s got a lot to do with Montaigne, and what you know when you keep still.

I thought about travel when I got to the line in Only Human “When people stay still, war begins.”

That’s my quietly bitter grouse about Israel, to put it mildly.

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Under the Knife

In Jenny Diski’s version of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s loyalty to God trumps love for his own family and becomes the ultimate betrayal.

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