The Life of David




Of the Thousand Great Stories, more than a few are about him. David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba of course, but also David and Saul, David and Jonathan, David and Absalom. Tales of battle, of sex, of the uncanny, of needy mistrust between the generations, of loyalty and betrayal, politics, incest. David and Amnon, David and the Witch of Endor, David and Abigail. The great neglected story of love and undying hate between a man and a woman, David and Michal. David and the doomed generals out of a Shakespeare history play, Abner and Joab. David and the crippled son of Saul, Mephibosheth. David and Abishag. And the implicit story of the remorseless wheel of time, David and Solomon.

He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Like Hamlet, he pretends to be crazy. Like Joan of Arc, he comes from nowhere, ardent and innocent, to infuriate the conventional elders. Like the Athenian rogue Alcibiades he goes over to the enemy side for a time. Like Robin Hood, he gathers a band of outcasts and outlaws in the wilderness. Like Lear, he is overthrown and betrayed by his offspring. Like Tristan and Cyrano, he masters the harp as well as the sword: a poet as well as a warrior-killer, but as a poet he is far above any other hero, and as a killer no one among the poets can even approach him.

He must have actually existed, and most of it must be true, writes the upper-class Englishman Duff Cooper, because no people would deliberately invent a national hero so deeply flawed. The flaws of Lancelot make that adulterer a more heroic knight than Galahad the chosen of God: David is both, flawed and chosen, as in the span of his life he is both the golden lad and the grizzled adulterer. The adultery exacerbated (or depending on perspective ameliorated or mystified) by the fact that as the prophet Nathan points out to him he already had wives and sub-wives by the dozen.

We love our heroes at a level beyond reason, an intuitive plane where our shared feelings are tribal and nearly animal, rather than legalistic: as unheeding of priests and lawyers, though intimidated by them, in our collective public fascination with the hero as we are in our individual, private love life.

A hero is one who does great deeds and suffers for the good of a community, but in addition the hero must be talked about. “Unsung hero” is a paradox. The deeds and suffering become heroic as we tell stories about them. So that anthropological figure of action needs the other figure who sings, who tells the stories. For the hero to be celebrated requires the artist who imagines the celebration: David the warrior artist is both. He is the most manifold and various of heroes. His name is thought to have meant “beloved.”

Immediate as a dream, in a setting as remote as the planets of science fiction, David’s career with its temporary victories and enduring glories plays out a great fundamental drama of all life. Overlaid by a system of rewarded piety and punished defection, a system embodied by the prophet Samuel, David’s drama enacts forces of ambition and accomplishment, love and betrayal, volcanic strivings and appetite. The story manifests an undying wonderment at the spectacle of a beautiful boy who pursues his course and flourishes as a dominant hero, and then becomes an anguished old man.

From the book: THE LIFE OF DAVID by Robert Pinsky. Copyright (c) 2005 by Robert Pinsky. Published by Schocken and Nextbook as part of their Jewish Encounters Series. Used by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.