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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Loving the Unlovely—2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 (Stephen Dawson)

Contrasting the characters of William Faulkner’s great novel Absalom, Absalom! with King David exposes the way in which the unlovely can be redeemed, albeit not without suffering.

5 The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.

15 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

31 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For theLordhas vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” 32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” 33 The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

2 Samuel 18 recounts the death of Absalom at the hands of Joab, and David’s subsequent grief upon hearing this news. The events leading to Absalom’s death stem from David’s earlier affair with Bathsheba and his bold (and successful) attempt to take Bathsheba for himself by arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle. Through the prophecy of Nathan, David learns that the punishment for his crimes would originate from within his own family. In short order the following tragedies beset David: the death of his first child conceived with Bathsheba; the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother (and heir to the throne) Amnon; the murder of Amnon by his half-brother Absalom; a revolt against David by Absalom, which results in David temporarily having to flee Jerusalem; and finally Absalom’s death. Despite the real political threat posed by Absalom’s revolt, David had ordered his commanders to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (verse 5). But, having found Absalom entangled in a tree, Joab acted expediently in the spirit of realpolitik, disregarding the king’s request and killing the young man. David’s response to the news of his son’s death is heart-rending: “O my son Absalom, my son; my son Absalom! Would I had died instead and you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (verse 33).

At one level, the story of David and Absalom is one of love, power, and desire, and in particular the ways in which the raw exercise of power and the selfish pursuit of desire can be checked by love and its cognates—compassion, pity, mercy, empathy, and the like. At its finest, love can even redeem the unlovely. David in pursuit of Bathsheba is a man possessed by arrogance and desire, a man whose lust leads him into adultery and results in his complicity in the murder of an innocent man. This David lacks compassion, mercy, pity, and all the cognates of love. Not until the next chapter does David even recognize his wrongdoing, thanks to the wily intercession of the prophet Nathan. David’s realization of the injustice incurred by him provokes his confession (12:13), and allows him to recover his humanity. David’s treatment of Uriah is despicable and unlovely—nothing will ever change that—but his redemption makes him, once more, lovely and capable of being loved (including the “tough love” of punishment). We readers of the text can love David without the moral fear of condoning his missteps and wrongdoings, without the moral ambiguity implicit in loving the unlovable.

The ambiguous moral dilemma of loving the unlovable presents itself in William Faulkner’s great novel, Absalom, Absalom! (which takes its title from David’s bitter lament upon learning of his son’s death). One of the main characters of the novel, Thomas Sutpen, is like David in a number of ways. Both are larger than life men whose drive to realize their ambitions is unquenchable. David’s exploits on the battlefield are well known to readers of 1 and 2 Samuel. Sutpen is a man born into poverty in the mountainous western part of Virginia (now West Virginia) who shows up in Jefferson, Mississippi, with little more than one set of clothes, a band of slaves, and a deed to one hundred miles of land outside of town, which becomes known as Sutpen’s Hundred. Through slave labor driven by his indomitable will, he constructs an enormous plantation house, clears miles of land for the cultivation of cotton and other cash crops, and marries the daughter of a local merchant. In the space of a few years Sutpen becomes one of the wealthiest, most powerful landowners in Yoknapatawphas County.

Both David and Sutpen are ultimately upended by their hubris and punished by the actions of their children. Sutpen, we learn, was married with a son prior to his coming to Mississippi. But he abandoned his wife and son because he discovered that his wife was of mixed-race. Later, Sutpen’s son Henry befriends at the university an older student named Charles Bon. Henry invites Bon to spend the Christmas holiday at Sutpen’s Hundred, and Bon and Henry’s sister Judith agree to marry. Sutpen investigates and discovers that Charles Bon is in fact the son he had abandoned in Haiti. Sutpen tells Henry the truth about Bon, and Henry responds by angrily renounces his birthright and leaving Sutpen’s Hundred together with Bon. They enlist and fight in the Confederate Army. At the end of the war they return to Sutpen’s Hundred, where Henry murders Charles Bon at the front gates.

The various narrators of the novel speculate as to why Henry killed Charles Bon. One speculates that Henry learns that Bon has a mixed-race wife and child in New Orleans. Henry thus murders Bon in order to uphold his sister’s virtue against the moral stain of polygamy. Another theory is that Henry learns that Bon is Judith’s half-brother, and so murders him to prevent the moral corruption of incest. In the end, however, the scenario closest to the truth is that Henry knows and accepts all of the above—the wife and child in New Orleans as well as the fact that Bon is Judith’s half-brother. What Henry refuses to accept, what he cannot abide, is the simple fact that Bon, being the product of miscegenation, is a black man. (According to the conventions of that time, to have even one drop of “Negro” blood was enough for that person to be declared black in the eyes of the white population.) The rotten core of the Sutpen saga is the fact that Charles Bon is rejected by his father and murdered by his half-brother for the simple reason that both considered him (Bon) to be black.

The great difference between David and Thomas Sutpen is that the former is ultimately redeemed by the (get ready for the cliché) power of love, while the latter remains ensconced in moral blindness. Sutpen is unlovely—his amoral ambition tends toward immorality at every turn because he fundamentally lacks compassion, pity, forgiveness, mercy—love, in a word—for others. He is unlovely because he is incapable of love. This inability to love manifests as moral blindness. There is no redemption for Sutpen, no recovery of his humanity.

Sutpen’s unloveliness becomes morally problematic when Faulkner makes Sutpen symbolic of the South: proud, ambitious, defeated, and morally blind. One of the most potent symbols, even today, of the South in this mode is the Confederate battle flag. The latest conflict in the unending struggle over this symbol took place last month when the battle flag was removed from the grounds of the state capital in Charleston, South Carolina. For most Americans, the Confederate battle flag is simply a symbol of hatred and intolerance, one that conjures images of Ku Klux Klan rallies and opposition to civil rights legislation by southern politicians. For a relatively small minority, however, the battle flag is “heritage,” the meaning of which is strictly restricted to the virtue of honoring one’s local history and the valor of one’s ancestors.

Love of the South, love of one’s native place, often becomes intertwined and confused in the symbols of that place. But surely the stark choice between loving or hating the unlovely is, logically speaking, a false dilemma. A third attitude to the South and its symbols is provided by Quentin Compson, one of the narrators of Absalom, Absalom! At the end of the novel he is asked whether he hates the South, despises it in all its unloveliness. The moral dilemma posed by this question is that the unlovely by virtue of the fact of its very unloveliness is like a moral contagion. If one loves the unlovely, then one seems to be implicated in its unloveliness. Blindly loving what is unlovely—what is devoid of love—seems to be nothing more than a slippery slope filled with rationalizations and excuse-mongering. Quentin (like Faulkner) is no mythologist of the Lost Cause, no blind lover of a history warped fatally by racism. But the stricture against loving the unlovely seems to suggest its corollary, namely that if one cannot—must not—love the unlovely, then one is morally obliged to hate it. But Quentin can no more hate the unlovely South than he can love it. The novel ends dramatically with Quentin’s anguished confession: “I don’t hate it. I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”

What seems to be lacking in all three instances—loving blindly, hating, or simply refusing to hate—is the wonderworking power of redemption. What David experienced in his exchange with the prophet Nathan—redemption born of critical self-awareness of the immorality of his actions—is lacking in all of the characters in Absalom, Absalom! Even Quentin, perhaps the character most sensitive to the racism at the heart of the South’s identity, finds himself irredeemable. (We know from The Sound and the Fury, which was written before Absalom, Absalom!, that Quentin commits suicide shortly after his impassioned confession.) That is the fundamental difference. While David finds redemption (though not without personal tragedy and suffering), the characters in Absalom, Absalom! all die in despair. The wages of loving the unlovely are high indeed, but the simple failure to love is even higher.

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