Dan Friedman
David: The Original Drama King, p.2

This is not an academic book, although it uses academic argument in a way reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s writing in his section of the Book of J. This is partly because Pinsky is explicitly trying to keep the book oddly poised between providing translations and insisting on their impossibility – often dwelling on untranslatable words, or the difficulties of understanding kinships and concepts that are potentially alien, while simultaneously trying to explain them, compare them to our own world, and bring them back into our ken. His note at the end discusses his decision to use, for this effect, the language of the King James Bible whose resonant language is both familiar (informing and influencing writing in English of the last 400 years) and strange. I felt more comfortable with Pinsky's arguments because I do happen to have a PhD in literature, but the effect can still be somewhat obscure.

It isn’t only the rendering of language that is strange, but the presentation of the stories as well. The Russian Formalist critics held as the primary criterion of art its ability to make a familiar object new again – to defamiliarize it. (Think of Duchamp's urinal; uncritical minds still see it as "just a urinal" and an example of art gone mad, but reflective viewers of the art see an object transformed, aestheticized, and defamiliarized.) With Scripture, we often accept very strange stories precisely because they are scriptural, and one of Pinsky’s great successes in this book is to defamiliarize such tales. The set of stories that we accept as foundational are so familiar they seem normal: Pinsky points out that they are, and should be, considered as anything but normal. For example, how is it that David is entrusted by his entire nation to kill the giant Goliath, when his defeat would mean the Israelites enduring severe conditions? Or, what exactly is going on in Second Samuel 2 verses 14 – 16 when Abner and Joab each take twelve young men to the oasis get them to spread out and then each grabs hold “of his companion and thrust his sword in his companion's side, so that they fell together?”

In this book Pinsky demonstrates, as always, his wonderful enthusiasm for reading. He revels in the soap opera, gangster-ness of the story of God’s people and the character of David, not least David’s continual overthrow of the father-figures (Saul, Goliath, Abner, Joab) until, and even after, he becomes a father himself. One difference between pulp fiction and serious art is how they regard the question of what happens after the overthrow. In the Bible, David has to deal first of all with his own power and his misbehaving children, then he has to deal with his own decline and eventual demise. He has to manage battles that he cannot fight in and his succession for a country he will no longer be ruling. It is the nostalgia and paranoia of these struggles that Pinsky finds makes the most memorable psalms.

The complexity of the gangster hero is, of course, a common theme in our age of Bushes and Goliaths. As Tony Soprano showed, a captivating hero is a gangster with a mind and soul. King David was not just a warrior, a poet, and a statesman but arguably (to paraphrase Heller) he invented romantic love. These aspects of his life, similar to those that intrigued Joyce about Ulysses (rather than, say, the comparatively flawless and thus uncomplicated Jesus), and the stories that illustrate them provide the main object of inquiry and delight in the book.

As well as the main considerations of plot, character and political machination, Pinsky interjects his own rhetorical questions, exclamations of interest, and hard-won explanations of trivia. These are individually fascinating– for example, cubits (the ancient unit of length equal to the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger) are named, Pinsky informs us, after “cubitum” the Latin for elbow. The constant breaking up of the discussion though, does become wearing by the end of the book, especially as the chapters tend to meander more than they need to. It is this excessive digression that is really the only drawback to an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking book. The Life of David is loosely edited down to just over two hundred pages and, although the reader excuses the excess as the speculations of a beloved uncle, it would have been better at perhaps fifty pages fewer -- providing the series with a more sinewy start. In the end, though, it made me want to read more, or make a film of the life, or re-read Heller’s book... or perhaps have a son and call him David.

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Image: Donatello's David

Dan Friedman is an associate editor of Zeek and the author of the entry on Robert Pinsky for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry.

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