Sometimes I feel I am a ghost, haunting used bookstores and library sales for other ghosts – worthy books that have been overlooked and forgotten. Sometimes I find only corpses, books that deserve to be buried under dust and cobwebs. But sometimes – ah, sometimes – I find a treasure.
Such a treasure is “Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson,” by the brilliant Israeli writer David Grossman and eloquently translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. Published in 2006 by Canongate, it’s a small book, a mere 155 pages, and it may have simply slipped through reviewers’ minds and hands.
ReviewGrossman takes us (as if by the hand) through the story of the biblical hero, a story whose outlines we all know so well: his mother’s barrenness; the announcement by an angel of his pending birth and the conditions set on him; the mission he is predestined to perform.
And then lust and rage and killing; betrayal by an apparently beloved woman; crippling, shaming, and revenge.
But while we know all this, we don’t know Samson the person, whom Grossman describes so intimately, as if seen from within, that we cannot doubt his vision.
He begins to tell us, from the introduction on, that “this is most of all the story of a man whose life was a never-ending struggle to accommodate himself to the powerful destiny imposed on him, a destiny he was never able to realise [sic] nor, apparently fully to understand. It is the story of a child who was born a stranger to his father and mother; the story of a magnificent strongman who ceaselessly yearned to win his parents’ love – and, therefore, love in general – which in the end he never received.”
Grossman’s insights are stunning and persuasive; the reader feels a sympathy for Samson as never before, and a visceral regret that his life was so lonely and tormented. Milton’s famous poem is titled “Samson Agonistes,” but the agony – as Grossman sees it – begins in the womb.
And, Grossman contends, Samson’s only respite from that agony from the beginning of his life to its end is “the moment when he falls asleep on Delilah’s lap…. Samson withdraws into his childish, almost infantile self, disarmed of the violence, madness, and passion that have confounded and ruined his life. This is, of course, also the moment when his fate is sealed, for Delilah is clutching his hair and the razor…. In another moment his eyes will be plucked out and his power extinguished…. Here, in the very heart of the cruel perfidy he has surely expected all along, he is finally granted perfect peace, a release from himself and the stormy dramas of his life.”
There are other interpretations of the Samson story, of course, notably one bruited in 2001 by four physicians in a letter to Archives of General Psychiatry. The lead author was Dr. Eric L. Altschuler, at the time a research fellow at the University of California at San Diego’s brain and perception laboratory. I’ve not read the letter, but according to a New York Times article that year by Erica Goode (thank you, Google), the letter said that Samson suffered from antisocial personality disorder.
“As evidence for their diagnosis,” Goode wrote, the writers “point to a long series of questionable incidents, including Samson’s torching of the Philistines’ fields, his lies to his parents (he failed to tell them that he had killed a lion, or that the honey he offered them was taken from a lion’s carcass), his ‘repeated involvement in physical fights,’ and his gloating after single-handedly killing 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.”
Goode continued, “The fact that the biblical hero finally confided the secret of his strength – his uncut locks – to Delilah after deflecting her persistent questions with lies three times is cited by the authors as further evidence of his self-destructiveness, as is his violent death by his own hand, taking countless Philistines with him.”
I prefer Grossman’s interpretation of Samson as a tormented and pitiable human rather than a psychotic monster.
Grossman, for those who don’t know, is a noted Israeli peace activist as well as a justly acclaimed author, and he uses the Samson story, gently and only rarely, to put forth his views. He writes, for example, “there is a certain problematic quality to Israeli sovereignty that is also embodied in Samson’s relationship to his own power. As in the case of Samson, it sometimes seems that Israel’s considerable military might is an asset that becomes a liability. For it would seem, without taking lightly the dangers facing Israel, that the reality of being immensely powerful has not really been internalized in the Israeli consciousness, not assimilated in a natural way, over many generations….
“To this may be added the well-known Israeli feeling, in the face of any threat that comes along, that the country’s security is crumbling – a feeling that also exists in the case of Samson, who is certain situations seems to shatter into pieces…. All of this attests, it would seem … to a deep existential insecurity. This is connected, without a doubt, to the very real dangers lying in wait for Israel, but also to the tragic formative experience of being a stranger in the world….”