The Infinite Heart of Women

Greater than Guilt/24 - Real love does not resort to violence but stays around

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/07/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 24 crop rid“Verily, a polluted stream is man.  One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.”

Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spake Zarathustra (English translation by Thomas Common)

It isn’t only a genetic and then an economic heritage that we leave to our children. Our virtues and sins also become their inheritance. They are transmitted through our children’s eyes, with which they first look at us and then imitate us - a son of smokers is twice as likely to become a smoker than a son of non-smokers. Our relational lifestyle, the virtues and vices of our family, our generosity and avarice form a cultural and moral DNA that we pass on to our children, almost always without the benefit of inventory. And even when they manage to become better than our sins (and, thank God, sometimes they do), our ethical heritage always and very much conditions them. When we decide to give in to the temptations that await us readily at the crossroads of life, we are accumulating the first dowry that we will leave to our children and to the world of tomorrow.

Still disturbed by David's violence towards Bathsheba and Uriah, and seduced by the strength and beauty of Nathan's words, let’s turn the page now - to find ourselves in a similar episode. In a tremendous and wonderful scene, the main characters of which are Amnon, David's first-born son, and Tamar, David's daughter who was, however, born from another wife (Maacah) - if it weren't an ugly word, we'd say that Tamar was Amnon's stepsister. “Now Absalom, David's son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David's son, loved her. And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister” (2 Samuel 13:1-2). Amnon is in love to the point of falling ill. Like his father, he is attracted to a woman who is also "very beautiful" and forbidden. But Amnon knows Tamar very well, and his temptation is towards his younger sister, a person with a name and a story.

Tamar is strongly desired but unattainable for him because she is a virgin and therefore kept away from the males of the family, in a separate house: “for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her” (13:2). Unlike Bathsheba, who was married, the fulfilment of Amnon’s desire is a practical rather than a legal impossibility. The solution is found by his cousin Ionadab, “a very crafty man. And he said to him, »O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?« Amnon said to him, »I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister.« Jonadab said to him, »Lie down on your bed and pretend to be ill. And when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me bread to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, that I may see it and eat it from her hand’«” (13:4-5).

The text does not explicitly call into question the prohibition or taboo of incest (it was not yet condemned in Israel at the time: think of the marriage between Abraham and Sarah; Genesis 20:12). Amnon’s crime will be that of a man against a woman, which goes beyond the (already very serious) sin of incest. His deed would not have lost any of its gravity if Tamar had simply been a girl of the house with no blood ties. Amnon behaves in an evil way not so much, and not only as a brother, but as a man and a male - although the fact that Tamar was Absalom's sister will be a decisive element in the political consequences of his action.

David supports his son's desire to receive food from Tamar's hands, and sends to her saying, “Go to your brother Amnon's house and prepare food for him” (13:7). Tamar agrees to go and bring pancakes (his favourite food) to his brother; she trusts him, not knowing that the desired food was herself. Many sisters and girls of the house are evoked by her confident journey, naively and purely entering the rooms of males, and, sometimes, never leaving them again. Tamar goes to his sick brother: “And she took dough and kneaded it and made cakes in his sight and baked the cakes. And she took the pan and emptied it out before him” (13:8-9). So far we are in a familiar scene that we see many times in our homes, too. But here's the narrative turn: “but he refused to eat. And Amnon said, »Send out everyone from me.« So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, »Bring the food into the chamber, that I may eat from your hand.« And Tamar took the cakes she had made and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother” (13:9-10). Amnon uses his status of prince to create the right circumstances to achieve his goal.

Once left alone in the room with Tamar, “when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, »Come, lie with me, my sister«” (13:11). Tamar is ambushed. “She answered him, »No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing«” (13:12). This thing is not done in Israel; these things must not be done on earth.

Amnon, David's first son, makes his appearance in the Bible immediately after his father's adultery, and continues his crime. David used his power to take Bathsheba, his son uses the trust between siblings to achieve the same result. All this is to tell us that the intimacy between those who are close to each other, which is among the most beautiful things on earth, creates a space that can be filled by tenderness and respect, but also by violence and abuse. It is not the closeness that makes us neighbours to each other as the Good Samaritan reminds us, and it isn’t enough to open the door to be hospitable. Even in the most intimate spheres there are temptations inscribed in power relationships, and the wisdom of families and communities lies in knowing how to spot these possible temptations and thus protect the weaker part - a wisdom that was lacking in David’s house, and is all too often lacking in ours.

The girl finds herself in a trap, first trying to draw upon compassion ("my brother"), then on reason: “As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you” (13:13). She also reminds him of his condition as prince, and the possibility of asking and having her legitimately from their father ("he will not withhold me from you": another element suggesting that the crime of incest is not central in the story). But Amnon doesn’t listen either to the reasoning of the heart or that of the head, because he is not interested in having a relationship with a person in the ways and times of real life. He wants to eat his different food he was hungry for, and he wants to devour it right away. And so he commits his crime: “being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her” (13:14). Another tombstone that the Bible erects so that we can remember. Another victim, another woman, used as an object to satisfy the misplaced passions of powerful males. Another guest devoured, by another Polyphemus, in another cave.

Then, with a surprising psychological finesse, the text shows a strong narrative twist: “Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” (13:15). Amnon's reaction reveals his true feelings. He was not in love with Tamar, he was only sensually attracted to her body. It was completely and only eros, without philia and especially without agape. And when eros is not accompanied by the other two sisters, it becomes perfect selfishness. Like a beast, he eats the meat of his prey until he is full, and then escapes from the carcass. Amnon behaves like those who after a sexual intercourse escape from a hotel room with their shirt still unbuttoned, or make a half-dressed woman get out of a dark car in a hurry. Because it is not eros, but the intimacy of friendship and tenderness that keep the male close to the woman after the sexual act. We distinguished ourselves from chimpanzees and lions when we learned to stay close to women after satisfying our appetites, and then helped them raise our children - if you don't know how to stay close after eros you won't even know how to stay close to a cradle keeping vigil, and in the end you won't know how to stay there during the last, endless nights. Only the kind of love that is greater than eros can teach us to stay there.

Amnon chases Tamar away because he didn't love her as a woman, as a sister, or as a person: “But she said to him, »No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me«” (13:16). A tremendous and beautiful phrase, which opens our hearts to many raped and expelled women, who, unlike Tamar, cannot speak up and remain in a dumb cry - the Bible continues to give us words when ours are choked by too much pain. In the Bible and in life the second pain of rejection is added to the first pain of violence and it multiplies it - but how great is the heart of women?

“But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, »Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her«” (13:16-17). This woman: the executioners never call the victims by name: pronouncing it could create a wound in the soul where a breath of humanity could ooze in. They call them "economic migrants” instead of Mustafa, Joe or Maria - so that they could save them later.

The Bible not only calls Tamar by name, as it had done with Hagar, Dina and Hannah; it also sees her clothes: “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves” (13:18). A colourful dress, the beautiful dress of the young princesses. A long-sleeved dress, like the one Joseph wore when he was sold as a commodity by other brothers. Joseph came out of his cistern, left the room where he suffered violence, and became first the salvation of his Egyptian hosts and then his brothers, too. Tamar was not saved by anyone. After this violence she leaves the Bible, and will not return there any more: “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went” (13:19). Tamar rips her long-sleeved robe. She throws ashes on her head, and begins a mourning that will never end. She became a widow without ever being married. Since that day Tamar has not stopped screaming. We can decide not to hear her cry and forget it; but we can also decide to embrace it and never stop hearing it, so that we can recognize it in that of the many sisters of Tamar.

The many beautiful princesses like her, with their torn gown like hers, who continue to scream with her in our streets.

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