Traveler’s Journal – The David
The Transcendent Inner World of Man
In September of 1995 one of my heroes, the Civil Rights attorney, William Kunstler, died. Over the course of 50 year career Kunstler had defended, amongst others, Lenny Bruce, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, the American Indian Movement, Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the rest of the Chicago 7, as well as “The Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Not all of his clients would make most top-ten lists of guys with whom you’d like to break bread, but Kunstler fought like a true warrior to provide Constitutional protections for all, even those – particularly those – whose beliefs flew in the face of public opinion. Because of an adherence to core values Kunstler was vilified. He spent his career being called a revolutionary, a terrorist sympathizer, a Red, and a defender of murderers and rapists.
His chosen path made life far more difficult than necessary. He could have had a successful, lucrative career navigating divorce settlements or hooking corporate clients up with other corporate clients, but somewhere along the line, he’d made an internal decision to fight for justice and by doing so, became something more than he’d been before. The world has been a darker place without his lantern shining into the darker recesses of our human abyss, but the lessons he carried abide.
There was a brief flutter of media attention in the days after his death, and on an afternoon during that particularly difficult year, after coming home from a day of teaching high school social studies in Brooklyn, I caught an interview with him somewhere up on the high end of the dial.
Kunstler was seated at his mess of a desk, papers strewn as wildly as his grey hair – a mop that could have been born from an illicit union between Albert Einstein and Kurt Vonnegut. His jacket and his jowls appeared to be in the final round of a grudge match to determine which could appear more naturally rumpled. To say the least, he didn’t look much like a specimen of human perfection, a fact that was highlighted by the statue that sat on a windowsill behind him of Michelangelo’s David.
The interviewer asked him about the statue and Kunstler proceeded to explain just why that particular piece of art might be the most important expression of human potential ever created by the hand of man. The interviewer appeared puzzled, so Kunstler gave a Biblical brief, somewhat bastardized below:
Goliath, General of the Philistines, had been marauding through the Middle East for years. He and his army would set upon new lands and demand slavery from the nations they encountered – promising death as reward for defiance. Kingdom after kingdom fell to his sword, until he came to the Valley of Elah and found the army of King Saul.
In Elah, Goliath didn’t threaten to have his minions fall upon the encampment. Rather, for 40 days, the giant himself walked to the middle of the battlefield and taunted the Jews to send him just one hero. His offer was to dispense with all the unnecessary bloodbath of a battle royale if a champion would fight him man to man. Now, of course, Goliath had little fear in making the offer, as he was a giant, standing six cubits and a span.
Saul addressed each of his best warriors, amongst them David’s older brothers, but none of them would take the challenge. Then, on the morning of the forty-first day, young David sauntered down the hill from where he’d been tending his father’s sheep and learned of the martial offer . . .
As he got to this point in the tale, Kunstler leaned closer to the interviewer, and noted that David was the smallest man of his village, a child. No one expected him to fight and he could have easily just turned around and headed back up the hill. Life for him wouldn’t have been much different regardless of the tyrant in charge. But, instead, David grabbed a couple of rocks from the stream, put one of them in his sling – and the rest, as they say, is mytho-history.
Dropping a hint about the importance of the sculpture to his interviewer and his television audience, Kunstler gestured back to The David:
“The important thing is that Michelangelo sculpts David before the battle.”
The following summer I found my way to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, to visit the David myself. It had been one hell of a trip getting there. That school year began with the suicide of a good friend and former student, and nearly another one by a 16-year-old still in my class. Bashir, the boy who killed himself, tied a make-shift noose around his neck in his bedroom closet and kicked the chair from below his feet after he’d been dumped by his girlfriend. He was 19 years old.Page 1 of 2