David, the biblical warrior/poet/musician/king has fascinated me for a long time. How could any man encompass all those talents? I once set out to write a musical about him, but could find no composer interested enough, and the project lies tucked away in the files. I’d love to finish it some time. Geraldine Brooks‘ The Secret Chord is the latest in a distinguished pantheon of works about this gigantic (and, vs. Goliath, boyish) figure. I don’t pretend to have read even a healthy fraction of them, but I have some memorable ones under my belt. One of my top three Faulkner works–Absalom, Absalom—is metaphorically tied to him. Joseph Heller gave it a try in God Knows, with what I thought were mediocre results. As for Ms. Brooks, Her effort is right up there with best.
The Secret Chord focuses on David in his decline with flashbacks to his glory days. The title is a literal reference to the musical prowess that enables him to draw such sweet music from his harp and a metaphorical suggestion of his leadership power that draws people to him. Brooks makes extensive use of the prophet Nathan, who is David’s conscience and gadfly. The one who scorches him for the way he expropriated Bathsheba and basically murdered her husband Uriah to make their marriage legal. She quickly disposes of the accusations brought about her over the years. Didn’t she purposely tempt men by appearing naked on the roof? What was she doing up there anyway? The house was full of men taking advantage of Uriah’s hospitality. She was desperate for privacy. She made sure she was covered the whole time. She was a victim of a king she didn’t dare disobey and remains basically his prisoner the whole of his life.
And then there are David’s other women–his first wife, Michal, whom he disgraced and humiliated with his naked dance through the streets of Jerusalem. And any number of others. Brooks brings these women to us, shows us their bitterness and oppression. And shows us how they lose control of their children as they get caught up in the whirlwind of David’s imperial ambitions, and then his downfall.
We see David’s agony and vulnerability. Despite all his powers–more and varied than are granted to nearly any other human in history–he is unable to find satisfaction or security. He confesses his manifold sins, tortures himself for them, yet goes on to sin yet again. Because he wields such great power, his transgressions harm not only himself, but thousands around him. And his kingdom falls apart under the weight of his mistakes. What’s left?
Well, Solomon, of course. When we leave him he is still a boy, a light in the dark days and a product of Bathsheba’s and Nathan’s goodness and David’s hopes. Because of him, one lays down The Secret Chord with a smile to know what’s to come, but a smile tinged with sadness for the tarnished glory of his father.