14/23:- Reading "Ecclesiastics": Criticism

 There is another level of analysis that can be applied to “Ecclesiastes”. That has to do with how an audience is to take a document, what it will make of it. That is not an empirical question of reader response. It is a question of what a reader who knows something about life as well as literature and criticism will say about a document that takes a particular slant on life, the reader providing the document with the context of life rather than just the context of other literature. A critic’s own sense of life stands in for the common understanding of mankind of its position in the universe. And that, of course, is what has been expected of criticism at least since Dr. Johnson: not just to look at the aesthetics of the work but to evaluate in the context of what a well schooled intellect and a well developed soul will say about whether or not it is humbug or wisdom or any of the stages in between that have been invented by humankind and characterized by critics in terms of ideologies propounded, emotions exposed, stances taken, and so on.

When Dr. Johnson says that perhaps it was wise of Nahum Tate to have removed the death of Cordelia from “King Lear”, it was not the result of some theory of genre that tells you when a stage presentation becomes too painful, or a theory of editing and updating texts, but on a sense of human psychology that tells you of occasions when the sympathies have become too exercised. When Dr. Johnson says in his biography of Milton that Milton suffered the isolation of a non-church goer even though he had a deep faith in Christianity, Johnson is reflecting on the nature of religion, which is that it needs external affirmation, and not on the impact of that fact on Milton’s poetry. Johnson brought his own hard won “expertise” about religion to explaining the life of Milton. The critic uses whatever he knows to set out the peculiarities of a text the experience of which, rather than its shape, is to be confronted.

“The Declaration of Independence” is a non-narrative that is also subject to this process of being placed in the world of how people actually do interact with one another and with texts. The document should be known for a human like candor in that it clearly states reasons for separating from Great Britain without too much political posturing. Its tone is deliberately matter of fact, which is in keeping with the idea that it is recording what the political situation is, as if that is all a writer who trained himself to think like a political scientist would produce as a class exercise in a course on revolutions: why did the American colonies rebel? Being in history and being about history are the same. These observations qualify as being about the document in the world rather than about the form of the document because there are very few documents that can make the same claim, and so the critic relies on what he knows of the intersection between life and documents rather than on what he knows about political literature. And some readers might prefer to see “The Declaration of Independence” as less about the rhetorical device of seeming scientific than about Jefferson’s decision to speak truth rather than emotions to power, perhaps because of having been so exposed, in their own time, to a politics often shorn of truth, and so that seems the braver and greater virtue than an appeal to the even more specialized calling of objective truth.

There are at least three ways to make this same kind of sense of “Ecclesiastes”. First of all, “Ecclesiastes” can be taken as a nihilist document that happens to be included in the Bible for the reason Alter suggests: it is a striking work of literature that sums up what so many people are yearning to say or hear said if they can put aside all the bunk and platitudes that makes up much of religious talk. It isn’t that religion propagates legends and superstitions as real; it is that religion propagates smug feelings and a sense of the world governed by a natural justice where wrongs are made right and people get their due, when everyone knows that such is not the case. And so “Ecclesiastes” satisfies an adolescent yearning to take down the temple so that it can be built up again on the basis of honesty and truth. Tell it like it is.

But that is not what happens in history with “Ecclesiastes”, and that leads to a second reading of the document. The addenda at the end of “Ecclesiastes” to the effect that the author was a good man allows the inference that what he said was not sacrilegious but to be understood as what a pious man could say. That is the meaning which the text has taken on. “Ecclesiastes” is regularly quoted as advocating an acceptance of the way life is. “A time to be born and a time to die” (Alter) is taken to mean death is a “natural” part of life, and so to be accepted, rather than being the end of life, and so to be regretted. That adage might be better rendered in New York-ese as “You live and then you die” or “One minute you are alive and the next minute you are dead”. Interpreters also go beyond the meaning of the words in the next line of ”Ecclesiastes”, which is “A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted” (Alter’s translation). The King James Bible makes that leap in its translation of the phrase: “A time to rend and a time to sow” which implies that there has been a fruitful harvest, when all the passage means is that people do the reverse of what they have done before. It is not a counsel that people who patiently plant will, soon enough, have something worth harvesting. In general, don’t tell me, either through translation or commentary, what a passage meant to say or was intended to say; tell me what the passage said. There should be richness enough in that to carry it.

The moral reading of “Ecclesiastes” is that life has its natural rhythms and those are to be taken as God’s plan and people are wise when they do not struggle against the plan. No flailing about. Even people who can very well provide for themselves, as the Assembler clearly has done in his own life (“I have planted me vineyards”) should nonetheless be modest in their appreciation of their role in life, which is that they too will die and that there is nothing to be done about that. To read “Ecclesiastes” is to become humble, which is a good thing. And so the document is rid of its lacerating nihilism. Instead, there is a bracing sense that life is tough, but that is the way it has to be because that is the way it is. Stoicism is not nihilism.

That wrong reading of “Ecclesiastes” as being stoic rather than nihilistic is what redeems it as a religious document and as part of the world’s wisdom, which is always devoted to making people reconcile themselves to the irreconcilable. So critics are caught between saying what it is and what others make of it, and sound brave to say it is not the conventional wisdom, even if people persist in reading it that way. The question remains, however, if it keeps being read as conventional wisdom, why is it not so? We will have to turn elsewhere to understand the document if we are not to be caught in the critic’s snare of saying a document means something other than what people take it to mean. It is what the critic brings to the book that provides this leverage.      

A secularist knows that life is pointless. The universe does not care what happens to the creatures that somehow gained consciousness of the fact that there is a universe out there. The universe does not care not because it is perverse or inevitable in its movements but because it itself has no consciousness. It is just there. And so, of course, there is no purpose to life. Looking out at the vast, cold and relatively empty night sky tells you that. Is there a separate God for Dark Matter? Or is it that we live in the universe of Dark Matter and that the Light Matter is on the other side? It is all quite silly.

People, however, do provide purposes for their lives. They want to make a living so that they can support their families. They want to do well at Sunday softball. They want to please their wives, sweethearts or bosses. They want to have sex. They want to have a comfortable retirement. They want to bear witness to the suffering of others. They want to invent cures for cancer or ways to alleviate poverty. They want to believe that the universe has a meaning. They want to read all the books that were on reserve in the College Reading Room that they never got around to reading when they were undergraduates. They want to somehow get through the day.

This is no different a claim than that made in “Ecclesiastes” in its much more poetic language. The most famous passage of the book is the set of activities introduced by the invocation “For everything there is a season”. These activities include planting and reaping, throwing away stones and gathering them together, tearing and sewing. These are the activities of everyday life, what give it its fullness and joy and warmth and so what lend “Ecclesiastes” its humanity. But the pairings are those of opposites. Even these extremely different things have their time. That is not the same as claiming that they create a moral or necessary balance or a kind of justice. They are just the things that go on in life.

One reason a reader might be tempted to think “Ecclesiastes” was presenting a balance of activities that amounted to a kind of justice is that the author of the book uses the seasons as the setting for his catalog of extremes, as in “a time to plant, and a time to sow”. There has to be a winter after a summer, right? But most of the comparisons are not seasonally balanced. There is “a time to seek, and a time to lose;” and there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”. These have to do, in the first case, with a fundamental existential situation and, in the second case, with a fundamental social process. The modern reader will look for some pattern or explanation for the sets of extremes because in modern thought we do locate social processes within some overarching social theory. That has been, since Adam Ferguson, in the division of labor that is nowhere represented in “Ecclesiastes”. The author of the book is concerned with the facts not with the explanation of the facts.  

That such is the case is attested to by what “Ecclesiastes” had already said when it presented something close to an argument, which is something other than a description in that two ideas are connected through a logical link. The author had said “The wise have eyes in their head,/ but fools walk in darkness” so as to justify his search for wisdom and then he immediately takes it back: “Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise? And I said to myself that this also is vanity”. So to be wise is a vanity because it doesn’t make any difference in what happens to you. What happens is that everyone dies, which is what the first of the “a time to be” will invoke: “a time to be born, and a time to die;” So there is no point even in wisdom because it comes up against the fact of death. Wisdom is every much a vanity as anything else. There is nothing to take seriously, only the moment. That is what careful and logical thought leaves you with.    

Death is the trump card for understanding life because it turns everything, even wisdom, into a form of vanity. The modern secularist may think death is a non sequitur in that it does not follow from anything else but simply ends life, but the author of “Ecclesiastes” makes the larger claim that it renders as without meaning the other activities of life whatever are their charms. This is consistent with  the point of view of the redactors of “Genesis” who found notable of mention in pre-Abrahamic times only the longevity of people, that being their accomplishment. There is a remarkable similarity of philosophical tone, whatever the differences in language and genre, across the books of the Old Testament, the fear of death, for example being a prime motive for the people of Israel before and during the exodus, why they were not so urgent about demanding their freedom, just as death--of Goliath, of Uriah, of the Amalekites-- provides the driving force for the stories surrounding David. That is also the tone of “Habakkuk”. As will be seen in the next essay in this series, the tone changes soon after “Ecclesiastes”.

The activities people pursue are therefore a distraction from the abiding fact that, sooner or later, a person will die. They die, and so everything that is accomplished has been, as it were, set aside, because they certainly will no longer know about it. That is to avoid, however, the power of the idea of purpose. Just as an artist can build a sandcastle that will be washed away, a person can build a life on a goal, of coming to some understanding of the universe, let us say, even if whatever has been garnered over a lifetime will disappear when the brain has been dead for a while. No very long term storage. Sorry about that. No way to transfer to hard disc; no flash drive. Sorry about that. And yet people go on with their projects because that covers so much of their lives, their awareness of what “Ecclesiastes” says in the back of their minds and moved forward for rhetorical purposes: to blame God or to bemoan life or to trot out learning.

“Ecclesiastes” says what is known as a kind of white noise in the background to anyone who is paying attention. It is a trick of literature that affirms what it does only by paying no attention at all to the fact that it is totally untrue to life as it is lived, which is to be full of purposes. That it captures the background noise is a tribute to it that accounts for its enduring power; that it captures nothing else is why its wisdom is not and need not be repeated, except perhaps to those who, like the audience of the Assembler, are caught up in denying the existence of the background noise. So Jews and Christians should read “Ecclesiastes”, while those who agree with it have no need to read it because it states the obvious. What to make of a book that rejects its natural audience for an audience that does not believe it nor can believe it without shedding their core beliefs? This is a problem, I am sure, that caught the attention of those who put “Ecclesiastes” in the Canon of the Old Testament. They decided, perhaps that people needed the reminder or forget the message and love the poetry or maybe even read the message as the opposite of what it is. No matter. Here it is.

This critical view can be appreciated through considering that another version of the meaning of the key opening phrase in “Ecclesiastes” is “nothing matters.” This makes sense because the point is that everything passes away and that negates the value of anything. A key example is how long people live. But there is no need to be indifferent to the length of life because it is finite. People live longer than they did in olden times and will live longer, much longer, in the future. If the age span is doubled, it is difficult to say that it doesn’t matter. It will change the way society is organized and the nature of human identity. What will people be like if the Sword of Damocles hangs by a rope rather than a thread? It is difficult to be indifferent to that. So not everything is qualitatively of no account; some things are quantitative and of great account. You could get a little enthusiastic about that. Why not? “Ecclesiastes” forces the blasé on everything and that perverse view may be characteristic of its time, but not of all times and is certainly not built into the human condition.

It is worth noting that “Ecclesiastes” devotes itself to only one of the three strands of what makes the modern world distinct. It presents, I have argued, an unvarnished desacralized view of human life by considering the question of whether people have something other than self created purposes and finding nothing there. This is the modern scientific view in that purpose is left out of all the equations, they all descriptions of what happens, not of what ought to happen or the reason for things happening. In “Ecclesiastes”, these are set in the context of a prosperous Middle Eastern community, the narrator having planted his vineyards and having reaped their rewards. There is no reference to technology beyond that, the author not preoccupied with machinery, as was the case with those who wrote “Genesis” and “Exodus”.

It is necessary to consult other books of the Bible to find considerations having to do with subjective and objective aspects of modernity. We will argue in the next to last chapter that the central theme of modern individuality, its infinite internality, is to be found by the way the story of Jesus is handled in the Gospels and, in Chapter 12, that an appeal to economic rationality and so the organization of modern enterprise, is to be found in the Parables.

That separation of the three strands of secularism, or whichever of the three is to give its name as the title for the collection of the three, is also the case with the documents that accompany the reappearance of these three processes in the modern world. The internality of personality can be located in Shakespeare while the creation of the organization as a machine is heralded by two major documents of the late Eighteenth Century: the United States Constitution, which makes government into a self-regulating and so perpetual motion machine, and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, which makes the economy also into a self-regulating perpetual motion machine. Desacralization can be attributed to any number of Seventeenth Century documents, the treatises of Hobbes and Spinoza foremost among them, even if Leibniz is usually given the lion’s share of the credit. Why these three ideas which, as it were, travel as a troika, get separate exposition remains an unanswered question.