Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The evil dynamic of lust: the story of Amnon, son of David

"David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister named Tamar, and David's son Amnon loved her. He was in such straits over his sister Tamar that he became sick; since she was a virgin, Amnon thought it impossible to carry out his designs toward her. Now Amnon had a friend named Jonadab, son of David's brother Shimeah, who was very clever. He asked him, 'Prince, why are you so dejected morning after morning? Why not tell me?' So Amnon said to him, 'I am in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister.' Then Jonadab replied, 'Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick. When your father comes to visit you, say to him, "Please let my sister Tamar come and encourage me to take food. If she prepares something appetizing in my presence, for me to see, I will eat it from her hand."' So Amnon lay down and pretended to be sick. When the king came to visit him, Amnon said to the king, 'Please let my sister Tamar come and prepare some fried cakes before my eyes, that I may take nourishment from her hand.'

"David then sent home a message to Tamar, 'Please go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some nourishment for him.' Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was in bed. Taking dough and kneading it, she twisted it into cakes before his eyes and fried the cakes. Then she took the pan and set out the cakes before him. But Amnon would not eat; he said, 'Have everyone leave me.' When they had all left him, Amnon said to Tamar, 'Bring the nourishment into the bedroom, that I may have it from your hand.' So Tamar picked up the cakes she had prepared and brought them to her brother Amnon in the bedroom. But when she brought them to him to eat, he seized her and said to her, 'Come! Lie with me, my sister!' But she answered him, 'No my brother! Do not shame me! That is an intolerable crime in Israel. Do not commit this insensate deed. Where would I take my shame? And you would be a discredited man in Israel. So please, speak to the king; he will not keep me from you.' Not heeding her plea, he overpowered her; he shamed her and had relations with her. Then Amnon conceived an intense hatred for her, which far surpassed the love [desire/lust] he had had for her. 'Get up and leave,' he said to her. She replied, 'No, brother, because to drive me out would be far worse than the first injury you have done me.' He would not listen to her, but called the youth who was his attendant and said, 'Put her outside, away from me, and bar the door after her.' Now she had on a long tunic, for that is how maiden princesses dressed in olden days. When his attendant put her out and barred the door after her, Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long tunic in which she was clothed. Then, putting her hands to her head, she went away crying loudly. Her brother Absalom said to her: 'Has your brother Amnon been with you? Be still now, my sister; he is your brother. Do not take this affair to heart.' But Tamar remained grief-stricken and forlorn in the house of her brother Absalom" (2 Sam. 13,1b-20- underlined and emboldened emphasis mine). Of course, two years later Absalom, whose issues emerge when he usurps his father's throne and dies while fleeing David's guard, arranges to have Amnon killed to avenge the shame of his sister.

I was really struck by this story this morning, especially in light of The cinema on sex, Life as a dirty joke: one post-feminist perspective, Re-paganization, and Baise Moi- literally, pardon my French. Lust has a deep, strange, and evil quality. It sinks a person into himself, into the darkness. This darkness permits no other subjects, only objects of desire. It objectifies and uses other people to gratify one's fleeting desire, like Amnon forced Tamar to do, then casts them aside, like so much trash. Speaking of her experience in the pornographic film industry (industrialized, commodified sex, to satisfy your lust), Karen Bach said, after a graphic description of the state of the de-humanized woman, reduced to a used commodity: "Once you've finished your scene, you aren't worth anything anymore." In Sting's song, from his album Dream of the Blue Turtles, If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, sings:

"Forever conditioned to believe that we can't live
We can't live here and be happy with less
So many riches, so many souls
Everything we see we want to possess"

Amnon could not accept the beauty of Tamar without wanting to possess her. His violent reaction against her is but a recognition that he cannot possess her beauty. To be possessed is to be cherished. Hence, the only way we can participate in beauty is as a gift freely given and freely accepted. So, here is the big question: Can I give myself to beauty without wanting to possess that which is beautiful, especially knowing that I cannot possess it? After all, participation in is not possession of.

In this scenario from 2 Samuel, Tamar is not willing, she is genuinely a victim. According to the culture in which they lived, Tamar was willing to give in to Amnon, but only if he gives in to her: "So please, speak to the king; he will not keep me from you." In other words, it has to be a mutual, free exchange, wherein the two make gifts of themselves to each other, and the value of each person, which is infinitely precious, is fully recognized, and the union is publicly acknowledged and acceptable, blessed by the congregation, not a secret, inappropriate affair that occurs behind closed doors. True love does not merely cost you something, it costs your whole self.

Speaking about pornography a few years ago, Archbishop Niederauer, perhaps with ancient stories like this in mind, observed: "Pornography is not a new challenge to single-hearted human love and to respect for the dignity of human persons and human sexuality". Indeed, as this ancient narrative shows, it is not. There is nothing new under the sun, quoth the preacher (Eccl. 1,9). He goes on to succinctly describe lust: "What should motivate us most profoundly is not the amount of pornography there is, but the kind of harm it does. Pornography assaults human dignity and commodifies people and human sexuality. Porn starves the human soul in its spiritual dimension . . . The human person, an irreplaceable gift, becomes a throwaway toy."

To come: Don Giussani and desire, emotion, and judgment.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Scott. I look forward to the post on Don Gius and Desire, and judgment.