Vermont College of Fine Arts old timers may remember the note taped the corner of a desk in Howland Hall: “Let’s put the fun back in dysfunctional.”
I was back rereading the Bible over the weekend, starting at Kings 1. The first verses are about King David in his dotage, losing power in all sorts of ways. His courtiers send out for a good-looking girl. They find Abishag the Shunammite (I think the word means virgin). She curls up in bed with the old man, but he still can’t get “heat” and he never “knows” her.
This passage reminds me of a much younger self reading Anatole France’s novel Penguin Island in the old Loyalist port city of Saint John on the Bay of Fundy where I was starting life as a newspaper reporter after abandoning my career teaching philosophy at the University of New Brunswick. Somewhere in the novel France has a little riff on Abishag and this couplet:
I am thy Abishag, I am thy Shunammite.
Make, oh my Lord, room for me on thy couch.
Here are the Bible verses.
001:001 Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat.
001:002 Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought formy lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.
001:003 So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
001:004 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.
Abishag stays around, apparently with Bathsheba’s acquiescence, and then comes in once more after David is dead as a point of contention between Solomon and his brother Adonijah.
The figure of Abishag has inspired poets and painters. Here is Rilke’s take.
She lay, and serving-men her lithe arms took,
And bound them round the withering old man,
And on him through the long sweet hours she lay,
And little fearful of his many years.
And many times she turned amidst his beard
Her face, as often as the night-owl screeched,
And all that was the night around them reached
Its feelers manifold of longing fears.
As they had been the sisters of the child
The stars trembled, and fragrance searched the room,
The curtain stirring sounded with a sign
Which drew her gentle glances after it.
But she clung close upon the dim old man,
And, by the night of nights not over-taken,
Upon the cooling of the King she lay
Maidenly, and lightly as a soul.
The King sate thinking out the empty day
Of deeds accomplished and untasted joys,
And of his favorite bitch that he had bred.
But with the evening Abishag was arched
Above him. His disheveled life lay bare,
Abandoned as diffamed coasts, beneath
The quiet constellation of her breasts.
But many times, as one in women skilled,
he through his eyebrows recognized the mouth
Unmoved, unkissed; and saw: the comet green
Of her desired reached not to where he lay.
He shivered. And he listened like a hound,
And sought himself in his remaining blood.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Might we hear a little applause for that “quiet constellation of her breasts?”
My feelings about this passage have changed considerably since that time in Saint John. I don’t really like David much. The books of Samuel seem somewhat of a public relations campaign to discredit Saul (one of the most interesting character in the Bible, to my mind) and authenticate David as the founder of the line of great Israelite kings. But David is a prima donna and a nudge and changes sides when he needs to and is death on women (I lost count of his wives–for Solomon, the Bible gives you stats). The editors of the books like him because they have a clear bias toward any king who promoted the temple cult. Saul is between the new cult and the more ancient religions. He falls into trances with Sufi like prophets and consults witches. God doesn’t like him.
David arranges the foul murder of his loyal officer Uriah the Hittite, but God doesn’t mind. There is a lot of tension throughout these pages between the cult enthusiasts and the more human and humane reader who might not find Saul’s confusions so difficult to understand and might be offended by David’s outright immorality.
Also, of course, the Bible is mostly about and for men. Women rarely show up as protagonists. What did Abishag think of all this? Lost to memory. (This is so obvious, it hardly seems worth mentioning.)
For example, here is one of those difficult white-washing passages about David. David is “perfect” with the Lord except for that tiny matter of adultery and murder. Hmmm. This comes in 1 Kings, after the kingdom has been split into Judah and Israel.
015:001 Now in the eighteenth year of king Jeroboam the son of Nebat reigned Abijam over Judah.
015:002 Three years reigned he in Jerusalem. and his mother’s name was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom.
015:003 And he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father.
015:004 Nevertheless for David’s sake did the LORD his God give him a lamp in Jerusalem, to set up his son after him, and to establish Jerusalem:
015:005 Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. [My emphasis.]