Reflections of David
BY GAL BECKERMAN
I don’t have a son and so I feel spared King David’s lament for Absalom, calling out the name of his dead child not only because of the loss — though this would be enough — but because, with Absalom’s death, the purest projection of himself has been erased from the world. This came to mind as we spent a LABA session discussing the story of the beautiful and rebellious Absalom, who is killed while trying to overthrow his father. David responds not with triumph at the news of his son’s death, but with a heart-wrenching cry. From the ruthless and calculating David, this seemed unusual. But, as we discussed in our session, if the king saw himself in his son, the reaction makes much more sense.
It may be that a father can feel this for a daughter, this sort of projection of self, but there seems a particular kind of narcissism — there’s no other word for it — that comes into play when fathers watch their sons become men and mothers witness their daughters grow into women. I have two young daughters and I’m sure I’ll watch their trajectory into womanhood with some anxiety, but it will never affect me as it will my wife, who was a girl once and will see in them a reflection or a rejection of herself.
We have both secretly watched our eldest daughter, now six, regarding herself in the mirror when she thought she was alone, holding her hair up with her hands to see if it looks better up or down, puckering her lips, pouting in frustration when her tights don’t match her skirt. For my wife, these moments of self-awareness are fraught, I know. She sees that our girl will also soon start to measure how she feels about herself against how she imagines others see her and against the model of womanhood she has experienced since birth. And if I watch these scenes amused, hoping that my child has good self-esteem and grows up knowing her worth, for my wife it is more complicated. She wants her to be better than herself in some ways, in other ways totally different — but all in relation to her own sense of what it means to be a woman.
I have some inkling of the way parents project onto their children because I am a son to a father who had a very defined and even classical sense of what a man should be, and I was hardly those things. Where he was athletic and adventurous, I was a homebody who wanted nothing more than to read. He was good with his hands and I got a reputation as being clumsy. As a young boy, I stuttered, unsure of myself. I was not the projection of his ideals as the young vainglorious warrior Absalom was of David’s. Perhaps for this reason, my father, a sensitive man, felt my difference early and stopped imagining that as a man I could be a better version of himself. Though perhaps he still struggles with it — I know I still do at moments, even nearing 40 — he saw that I would never represent a more refined copy of himself, but something else entirely. Realizing this has allowed us to have as healthy a relationship as could be expected for a father and son.
Absalom died in the pursuit of becoming his father, trying to replace him as king and as Israel’s beloved. Would David have shed the same tears if these had not been the circumstances of Absalom’s death?
The tortured sound of David’s cry is for a son who wanted to outdo his father. And what parent doesn’t, somewhere, want that? That his failure was also a failed insurrection against David himself — one that forced the king to flee into the wilderness and be abandoned by his people — all that slips away in the moment when news of the death is recounted. The only thing David feels is the loss of his own dream of resolve and ruthlessness and will to power, embodied by his son. Absalom’s failure is, in a way, the father’s — even if it has spared David’s life. “Would I had died instead of you,” cries the king. And what he means in that moment is that if Absalom could have achieved his purpose, replacing and exceeding his father, it would have been a goal worth the sacrifice of David’s life. Only a parent — perhaps only a certain kind of parent — can understand this narcissism, that a child can represent one’s best self, projected out into the world. One struggles to love the child for herself, for himself, but a big part of that love is also for oneself.
Gal Beckerman, an author and journalist, is a fellow at LABA.
Image: “King David Playing the Harp,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622