The film, Titanic, is a story about ‘death’ on a large scale. Yet, in the most haunting stories of death, nobody actually dies, for it is the FEAR of death that provokes the most fearsome bloodletting. Wilfred Owen’s Poem, The Parable of the Old man and the Young, repeats a Biblical story from Genesis 22 6-12, and tacks on a final two lines:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In the Biblical version, Abraham passed God’s test by demonstrating a ‘readiness to kill’ his own son, Isaac. At the last minute, he is stopped by the voice of an angel and he sacrifices a ram instead. In Owen’s version, the child is killed anyway, and those last two lines of the poem grafts in the slaughter of millions from World War I.
Yet the story of Abraham and Isaac was already haunting enough, without the addition of those 2 lines, because life and death exist in the mind of the living, not the dead. Those Biblical times were hard times; not like these namby-pamby ones where people love the taste of sausages and dread the sight of butchered pigs. Yet, picture the young child, Isaac, freshly rescued from his father’s knife by the angel’s voice. How much trust for his father survived that trip up the mountain of sacrifice? How well did he slept that first night of the rest of his life in Abraham’s tent. No child could have been better loved than Isaac was loved by Abraham, yet, the lesson of higher loyalties must have been a hard one for any child to learn, trussed up on an altar.
Around the world today, millions will learn this lesson the hard way. Pity the citizens whose leaders are fundamentalist politicians with dried, constitutional, pages for brains, who will not hear the all-too-human voice of angels calling them away from the slaughter of innocents. (Pity their neighbours as well!) Modern Isaacs are daily trussed up as suicide bombers, as expendable soldiers shovelled into killing fields, as homeless, hapless victims dying from the annual fear-induced sacrifice of trillions of Defence dollars. For most of these Isaacs, despite the Abrahamic euphemisms of their leaders to the effect that “God himself will provide the sacrifice” and other manifesto lies, there will only be the knife and the shrapnel, the bomb and the bodybag. At some point we are all Isaacs, beasts of burden climbing the mountain of sacrifice, bearing firewood for leaders with higher loyalties than the well-being of their so-called electors. Yet the innocent Isaac that enters the field of battle does not long remain ‘innocent’. Because it is so latent, the alchemy of FEAR creates the most haunting story of death, the most destructive killing force in the world. So there comes that moment of transition when, primed with the cant of their leaders, the modern Isaac enters into battle, chooses a marketplace of Innocents, points a drone at a factory full of Innocents, and reaches his zenith of transformation as he goes from Isaac to Abrahamic dagger, from innocent to guilty, to bomb, to xenophobe.
In literature as in life, when death is piled upon death it ceases to ‘translate’. 50 Die in Church House Slaughter, 900,000 Die in Eight Month Campaign… we can read these statistics without tears, hear them on the news without cost to appetite… whereas the cat caught in our lawnmower blade may well traumatise us for life. Just one selfish, self-centred sermon is all it takes to move us from victim to victimizer. One bigoted politician’s where-the-shoe-pinches speech, and we are up in arms, ready to accept, to rationalise, to justify the extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocents to the modern god of Our Own Comfort. In these namby-pamby world it is not of course necessary for us to wield the dagger. Oh no. All it takes is for us to look the other way. To click the Facebook ‘like’ button on the atrocity of the day. Or to put an ‘X’ on the ballot paper of the hatchet-man of our Selfish Interests.