A Hero, Unmuscled: A New Look at an Old Masterpiece

Does Rubens' painting of Samson and Delilah depict an invitation to love, or an act of total surrender?

One of the superb courses I took at university involved an experiment in the psychoanalytical reading of literary works. I remember especially the class on “King Lear.” The lecturer, Dr. Idit Alphandary, argued (or maybe she didn’t, and my mind has imagined this memory from its abysses) that Lear does not how to love. He does not know how to be loved. He is like a tourist in the land of love – he doesn’t speak the language, he’s a stranger lost in the land’s expanses – and that is why he puts his own daughters’ love to such a terrible test.

Samson, I feel, is the opposite of Lear: He has no language other than that of love. In his book “Lion’s Honey,” David Grossman suggests that the name Samson (Shimshon, in Hebrew) is connected to the Hebrew word shimush, which means “use.” God uses him, women use him, he takes pleasure in being used. Alternately, the allusion could be to the word tashmish, a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

What, then, is this Samsonian love? It is a forgoing of strength in order to make room for another. Samson, being an all-powerful sun (the Hebrew name Shimshon also evokes shemesh, or “sun”) that gives its all, understands that his strength and power do not allow love. He surrenders himself to Delilah knowing absolutely that she will betray him, because that is the only love available to him.

The Greeks, too, understood this. The Greek world-creation myth begins with the omnipotence of Uranus, the Sky, who mates with Gaia, the Earth, and pleasures himself utterly by covering her body. But there is no world. Only when Kronos, wielding a sickle, castrates Uranus, who henceforth keeps his distance from Earth, does the world come into being between them. It is only from this act of castration, from Uranus’ severed sexual organ and from his seed, which is the foam of the waves, that Aphrodite – Love – arises.

Look, then, at Samson’s sweet self-surrender to his perdition. Look at his tremendous physique, rippling with muscles, now slack as he revels in his impotence. (Rubens’ contempt for anatomical accuracy and his preference for composition over truth are blatant here: exaggerated arms, huge palms, remote shoulders – all for the benefit of the painting.) Look at the palms of the barber’s hands, so erotic and gentle as they caress Samson’s curls. See how they echo Samson’s palm, intimating to us that no one of his ilk ends up in a situation like this other than by his own initiative.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in his 1927 novel “Samson the Nazarite,” shows the recompense for this self-surrender and describes Delilah’s love, which the biblical story hides from us: “The light illuminated Samson from the other side. So beautiful did she find his face that her heart seemed to stop and her eyes shed tears. She yearned to fall on his neck and herself did not know whether to kiss him or strangle him.”

Something in the composition of the Rubens painting makes you feel as though you are part of the conspiracy against Samson. Rubens elegantly evades the chauvinist narrative of the treacherous woman. One feels that his Delilah, like Jabotinsky’s, is a victim of larger forces, political and military, and that she is betraying her love contrary to her heart’s true inclinations. Her huge hand rests tenderly on his shoulder, and she is lit in a different light from the others in the painting. In fact, apart from the barber, who is lit by the candle held by the old servant woman, the other figures seem to come with their own sources of light. Samson is “lit” by the viewer’s gaze, and Delilah by an odd light from below, which causes her nostrils and the inner part of her eyebrows – body parts which are usually the most darkened elements in a painting – to be illuminated.

This, then, is a painting about the conditions for the feasibility of love. At least in the eyes of some. The potency of the bachelor, of King Lear and of Samson constitute an emotional desert. The weakness and the vulnerability are the “country” that comes into being between Gaia and Uranus.

The writer is a painter.

“Samson and Delilah,” by Peter Paul Rubens (1609-10)
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