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  • Political Fiction, Anonymous and Pseudonymous (A Response to Robert Alter)
  • Herbert Marks (bio)


In traditional Jewish homiletics, one strategy often adopted by the darshan or expositor was to select two texts as remote from each other as possible and, by a series of deft interpretative moves, to demonstrate their deep affinity. It is in something of this spirit, recalling the rabbinic adage that in scripture there is neither early nor late, that Robert Alter has traced for us the surprising parallels between the David story and The Charterhouse of Parma. In responding to his paper, I shall try to explore a little further his intermillennial pairing, taking as guide the two words of his title, “political” and “fiction,” but turning them around and, since the political has already received generous treatment, concentrating on the complementary term, “fiction.”

By “political,” I take it Alter means what Balzac meant when he claimed, in his famous review of the Chartreuse, that Stendhal had “written the modern Prince,” the book Machiavelli would have written had he lived in the nineteenth century. Machiavelli’s political theory rests on the premise that “everyone sees what you seem to be, but few feel what you are” (ch. 18). The wise ruler must therefore know when not to be good. This is what modern philosophers call a consequentialist view of politics: good and evil are only means to an end, which in Machiavelli’s view is power over others. Moreover, for his prince, as for Stendhal’s, the final end of political power is not “the human good,” as it was for Aristotle, but the gratification of personal vanity.

“Fiction,” as first introduced into literary discourse by Mme. de Stael (a name consciously echoed by Henri Beyle when he signed his works [End Page 303] “Stendhal”), was a substitute for “roman” or “novel,” a term formerly tied to the tradition of chivalric and sentimental romance, which de Stael wished to demote in favor of such realistic themes as vanity, greed, and ambition—in short, political fiction. In its root meaning, however, “fiction” refers to what is made or invented or imagined; hence, it stands rather opposed than allied to the realistic (nonfiction). In this sense, “poetic fiction” is a pleonasm, just as “Scheinpolitik” would be an oxymoron; and fiction and politics (Realpolitik) are at odds with each other, their opposition a potential source of drama for writers who, like the biblical authors and Stendhal, habitually paint by contrasts. In order to understand the place of politics in the David story and the Chartreuse, we have then to define for each its opposite pole: the fiction or fictions against which the reality of politics is set. I shall try to do this in two steps, of which the second will subsume the first, so that in the end, the resemblance between “ancient” and “modern” will be as much structural as thematic.


At the most basic level, the tension between politics and fiction that drives the David story is reflected in the abstract shape of the plot. If we ignore for the moment scholarly debates about the history of composition, its outline is deceptively simple: two curves—one rising, one falling—joined in a classic arch or parabola. We are given an initial version of the pattern in the career of Saul, whose decline following his anointing intersects with David’s ascent. What makes the David story distinctive is that its two movements belong to different domains. During the initial rise, the emphasis is public or political; during the decline that follows, it is personal or psychological. Taken together, the two halves form a tale of metamorphosis, as the shrewd and ruthless strong man of the early narrative, who conceals his true thoughts following the death of Saul and deflects suspicion with his magnificent elegy, becomes the suffering, impotent father of the Court History, reduced to a pathetic stammer following the death of his beloved son.

It is no accident that the Machiavellian figure Alter describes so well—the calculating master of disguises—is drawn exclusively from the first half of the story, the account of the rise. (The one exception, the mission of Hushai and Zadok during...


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pp. 303-314
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