July 26, 2006

David as Clinton, Bathsheba his Monica

David as Clinton, Bathsheba his Monica

I tried last night in the studio to describe Patrick Belton as “Open Source‘s favorite Irishman” and Chris reminded me, eyebrows slightly arched behind his computer and a microphone, that he has a brother in Ireland. Patrick Belton, then, who blogs at OxBlog, is our second favorite Irishman; you heard him on the shows Sports as a Leading Indicator, Hamas 2.0 and Paris Burning.

Patrick’s take on David for our show On David and Goliath: references to New Labour, Odysseus, Monica Lewinsky and Batman.

There were at least two Goliaths on the plain in the valley of Elah; the interesting question is were there any Davids.

It seems one of the countless mischievous things about David and Goliath is that not only does David become Goliath after vanquishing him — by the time of Bathsheeba he’s certainly acting as Goliath — but there’s this slightest hint of resume sexing-up, because it’s not even clear he ever was David, in the first instance.

In II Samuel 21:19, this tantalising fragment of biblical samizdat dissenting against the stately, orthodox political history of II Samuel 16-17, Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite is given credit for the giganticide. The poor wanker, G-d love him. Politely, the King James translators added the extratextual phrase ‘the brother of’ before Goliath’s name in that passage (they were English, after all, and it must have seemed unsporting after all that time).

There was something almost New Labour about him, rewriting his youthful martial c.v. as a portly office-seeker of the wrong side of forty, topping off the odd Elhanan along the way. Here, in scripture of all places, is a real, life and blood, stinking politician. Maybe in all mythical literature, he’s as close as we approach to a figure of Clinton. There’s something decidedly sleazy about David; he’s the sort of person who certainly would had the Golothian combo of might and bumblingness to quibble over what the meaning of is was. Like Clinton, he’s got a way with words; the publications section of his resume includes his stint as author of the psalms, which certainly puts ‘bridge to the 21st century’ in its place. Bathsheba was his Monica, and he made his public repentance, doing Jesse Jackson one up, with the 51st Psalm, the gorgeous miserere mei deus, with those beautiful words ‘wash me and i shall become whiter than snow,’ marking him a mastercrafter of rhetoric, if not of saintly conduct.

But there’s also a silence in the story. Here we have this tribe of Yahweh displacing original inhabitants who just by coincidence happen to be called Philistines (and who just happen to live in Gaza), but we don’t hear their side of the story, or Goliath’s. They lose, depart and vanish from the page, and that’s it for them. From Macbeth to Clinton, Profumo and anyone with the surname Kennedy, we like our politicians flawed, interesting. Saints are a touch boring, frankly. And they know that, in their sweater vests. Charles Kennedy went so far as to become an alcoholic to try to give a shot in the arm to his failing political career.

Apart from the Hebrew mythical literary tradition, I can really only think of the Greeks as giving us similar models of moral murk in their heroes: Odysseus, say, crafty and wily and again would have fit in rather well on the frontbench. Beowulf’s almost boringly square, following Fate with the meek resignation of a rather soulless tax accountant. There are hints of dodginess in Cú Chulainn; in his youth he was so beautiful the Ulstermen worried without a wife of his own he would steal their wives and ruin their daughters, so they searched all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him. He would have none but Emer, who had a father from hell named Forgall the Wily, which begins a war and lots of proper mischief. But this owes less to Cú Chulainn’s own moral ambiguity (these days in Dublin he’s a postal employee), and more the response of the jealous Ulstermen to him (because they’re like that).

We can have two sorts of heroes: Supermen (though in this country we have a Doctor, who licks things), with their moral clarity; and Batmen with their murkiness and almost moral poignance that comes out of it. David is a Batman — mask and all — and the Bible’s a damn sight better literature for him being in it. How many people read Beolwulf on a Sunday?

Patrick Belton, OxBlog, in an email to Open Source, July 25, 2006

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