Commentary Magazine


The Rape of Tamar, by Dan Jacobson

Desire & Gratification

The Rape of Tamar.
by Dan Jacobson.
Macmillan. 224 pp. $5.95.

One danger is that Dan Jacobson’s new novel will be taken by those who do not know his earlier books as a costume drama or a laboriously researched period piece. The narrator (Yonadab, King David’s petty-courtier nephew and Amnon’s “friend”) has anticipated this particular danger: “I don’t intend to linger over our furniture, our clothes (broad vertical stripes in purple and white were very fashionable in my day, I might mention in passing), our utterly inadequate sewage systems, our weapons, our games, our primitive sacral rites, and all the rest of the ethnographical junk you may be glumly expecting me to inflict upon you.” Another danger is that those who give themselves the pleasure of reading the book will enjoy it simply as a tour de force, an archaic tale wittily told in a modern idiom. But The Rape of Tamar, while certainly all that, is more: indeed, it is a mordant presentation of the timeless structures of desire and gratification, as well as an implicit comment on the way these structures illuminate the nature of. politics in our own world today.

The tragedy of Amnon and Tamar (II Samuel 13) is the classic statement in the Biblical tradition of the post-coital tristitia that makes a hollow mockery of the importunate lover. “Then,” says the Bible after Amnon, the son of David, has raped his sister Tamar, “Amnon hated her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.” Shakespeare in speaking of lust simply condenses: “Past reason hunted, and no sooner had/Past reason hated.” But it is not only Amnon’s vanity (van-us, empty) that is exposed when he uncovers his sister’s nakedness: the whole miasma of desires—including his father David’s and his brother Absalom’s and even Tamar’s—that surrounds the rape and revenge is shown to be but a shadow. Considered on this level, Jacobson’s retelling of the story is a chilling reexamination of the vanity of human wishes. As Melville’s Ishmael says, “‘All is vanity.’ ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet.” We have not yet, truly; the current notion seems to be that desires are legitimated by their force: if someone demands something loudly enough you should give it to him. But the barrenness of Amnon’s passion reminds us—just as Jacobson wishes it to do—of the old saying that you should think carefully about what you want most because you’re so likely to get it.

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There is a tragic aspect, certainly, to wasted and broken lives, futile struggles of father and son, disorder radiating from throne-room throughout kingdom. But horrors, as we know, can be funny: like the maiden in the Song of Songs, Jacobson’s humor is black but beautiful. Amnon’s death-scene in particular is unequaled in contemporary fiction since Humbert Humbert put guilty Quilty to his purgation. Absalom had planned a majestic assassination, almost a sacrifice, but his followers bungled it into a Keystone-Kops romp. After an uproarious series of misadventures in laying hold of Amnon, the thugs corner him under a table. “His executioners prodded and fished about beneath the table as if after a cowering, recalcitrant dog they were trying to drive out of a room. Finally they lifted the table bodily and threw it aside; but Amnon held one of the chairs over his head, tugging it down like a hat over his ears, while blows rained down on his back and two of the attackers tried to wrest the chair from him. The two men heaved at the chair, Amnon clung to its legs; they might have been insane bargain hunters fighting for possession of it.”

Such a death suits a man whose grand passion for incest turns out, the morning after, to be not shameful but just empty to him. Amnon’s crude attempt to seduce his half-sister, tempting her with metaphysical visions of human laws outdared, is so stunningly inept as to make clear that rape, not submission, is what he’s really seeking. Simone Weil called the Iliad the “poem of force,” reading it as a fearful homage to that power by which one human compels or humiliates another. With a similar insight, Jacobson shows us that his story is shot through with the secret attractiveness of using force. Thus he brilliantly resolves the problem in the biblical text caused by Amnon’s insistence on force even when Tamar appears willing (if it can be cleared with David, and she’s sure it can be). Still more shrewdly, Jacobson portrays Amnon’s juvenile fantasy of power-through-violence as basically envious and imitative; it develops that his desire was born in the moment when he saw David and Absalom, his powerful rivals, look lustfully at Tamar. (For more on the point of “imitative” desire, see René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.)

“Princes do what we dream,” Yonadab realizes, but they are thus not masters so much as “slaves and bondsmen, compelled to act out every whim of ours, every fleeting impulse, every lewd desire. . . .” Amnon is the obvious case of a man tempted to ruin by vertiginous freedom, his self-conception as a prince making it inevitable that he will act out his fantasy. But David and Absalom are equally examples. David, in this version of events, is acting out a fanatic’s dream of rule, from goatherd to king. Absalom’s power-fantasy is more troublesome since David is in the way, so he masks it with radical chic. He makes himself known as “left-wing prince and landowner, radical millionaire, aristocratic populist”: thus stealing the hearts of men of Israel.

For Absalom was—excuse me—a progressive. He was a hater of injustice. An enemy of established authority of every kind, not least that of his father and the priests. A friend of the poor. A bold planner of schemes for the redistribution of land, new codes of law, new methods of government. A maximizer of happiness. A firm believer in the future . . . [which] would somehow retrospectively balance up or cancel out all the evils and pains of the past; it would give meaning to them, prove them to have been ultimately worthwhile. It goes almost without saying that that would apply in particular to any evils Absalom himself might have to commit in order to bring the future about.

Yonadab is clever enough to see that although Absalom and David are implacable enemies, they are fundamentally the same. The son is his father’s image: he is “the man, in short, who wanted to be David . . . just like the daddy he would have to kill in order to become king.” These brilliant characterizations should need no further comment, except perhaps to wonder if they’re not more timely than timeless.

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Finally, it should be observed that Jacobson gets more fun and profit out of his narrator than many better-known novelists ever manage to do with theirs. Yonadab is a supreme creation; in the abstract a mere figure of envious, impotent, voyeuristic desire, he is still the most substantial character in the book (much as he doubts his own substantiality). Condemned to a Sartrean hell of himself, he must suffer the further indignity of acting as a guide for groups of tourists—us—through this hell. In some way he is a permutation of guided tours of the holy places. The conception of Yonadab is in fact the most nihilistic, ironic statement in Jacobson’s set of put-downs.

Jacobson sets an example not only for current fiction, with its obsessive wrestling with “historical truth,” but also for imaginative responding to the Bible, a way not limited to the suffocating pieties of orthodoxy nor to the carefully limited insights of scholarship. The more you know about the Bible, the more resonant Jacobson’s book becomes. Consider simply Yonadab’s “revelation” that the Court Historian, he who wrote the essence of II Samuel and thus invented history, was Abiathar: when you know what happened to Abiathar under Solomon, you realize how The Rape of Tamar points forward: for while Abiathar was inventing history, Solomon was importing a “culture” for Israel, and we have lived in uneasy tension between history and culture ever since. The eventual outgrowth of Abiathar’s history was the Bible itself, and the Bible, as we should know, is most ambivalent, sometimes frankly hostile, to culture, deeply questioning its innate tendencies to pride. Moreover, secular history cannot tolerate mythologized culture heroes any better than biblical history: it will judge the Kennedys as surely as Jacobson (and Abiathar before him) has judged the Davidides. As Yonadab notes, “Before Abiathar the illustrious slept more peacefully in their caves and groves and pyramids than they have been allowed to since.”

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