Book review: “Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary

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Book review: “Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14)

When you look behind fantasy football, and binge-watching Game of Thrones on Netflix, and the morning commute to work, and CNN and Fox, and photos of grandchildren posted on Facebook, and weeding the garden, and Uber and Lyft, and the new blouse hanging in the closet, and Grandma’s recipe for spaghetti round steak, and the injured little finger needing minor surgery — well, it’s not a pretty sight.

When you look behind life, you find death lurking in the wings.

That’s not a new thought although much of modern American society is aimed at distracting us from that cold reality.

We’re born to die, and that’s been a major or minor theme in much of world literature and art over the course of many millenniums.

One of the most eloquent writers on this theme, someone who refuses to avert his eyes, is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

 

“Most peculiar book”

Written some twenty-two hundred years ago, Ecclesiastes is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word or name which is the subject of much uncertainty. Robert Alter, in his 2010 collection of translations The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, argues, for a variety of technical reasons, that the book should be called Qohelet

Qohelet is the name of the wise teacher who ostensibly wrote the book or whose teachings were collected in the book. (At times, over the many centuries, he has been thought to be King Solomon because he is described in the text as a “son of David.” But Alter notes that such an attribution is too much of a leap.)

The book of Qohelet, Alter writes, is “one of the most original texts produced in the Biblical period, early or late” and “the most peculiar book in the Hebrew Bible.”

That’s because Qohelet runs counter to nearly every other biblical text. In the rest of the Bible, God is seen as being more or less involved in human destiny, and, despite the many bad things that happen, there is much hope that, by living a good and moral life, the righteous will win some divine reward and the wicked will be damned.

Qohelet isn’t buying that.

 

“Merest breath”

The second verse of the book is well-known as it was translated for the King James Bible, completed in 1611:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1:2)

However, as Alter explains, those translators weren’t employing the modern meaning of the word “vanity” as “egotism,” but its older connotation as “valueless.” Modern translators have tended to render the word with an abstraction, such as “futility” or “absurdity.” But Alter argues that it’s important to keep the feel of the Hebrew metaphor by employing a word for something that is physical. Hence, his reading of that line and two that follow is:

Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath. What gain is there for a man in all his toil that he toils under the sun….All rivers go to the sea, and the sea is not full. (1:2-3,7)

Alter explains that “mere breath” is not the taking in of life-giving air, but the exhaling of the unusable vapor, the sort you see on a cold day as a small cloud appearing in the air and rapidly dissipating.

 

“Herding the wind”

In other words, life is a winter vapor. And not just that —

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14)

We are in as much control of our lives as we are in control of the winds.

No man has power over the wind, to shut in the wind, and there is no power over the day of death… (8:8)

We have no control over our lives or the wind or over our “day of death.”

 

“A single fate”

In most of the rest of the Bible, the search for wisdom is the effort to understand what life and God demands of us and then to live by that understanding. Implicit is the belief that happiness will result.

Again, Qohelet says: Bosh!

The fool lives life blindly.

The wise man sees behind the curtain of distractions.

But, in the long run, there’s no difference.

The wise man has eyes in his head, and the fool goes in darkness. Yet I, too, know that a single fate befalls them all. And I said in my heart, “Like the fate of the fool, it will befall me, too, and so why have I become so wise?” (2:14)

Yes, why become wise? As Qohelet notes,

For in much wisdom is much worry, and he who adds wisdom adds pain. (1:18)

Indeed, by having “eyes in his head,” the wise man can see what’s coming. The fool doesn’t look. As a result,

The wise man’s heart is in the house of mourning, and the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (7:4)

 

“Bleak skepticism”

Qohelet is also a book of philosophy, notes Alter, even though “it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought.” Indeed, it is prose poetry. It has the directness of prose and the imagery of poetry.

Qohelet does not so much challenge traditional wisdom as subvert it, sometimes in the form of sly anti-proverbs that have the ring of conventional maxims but express a bleak skepticism antithetical to what one encounters in the Book of Proverbs.

It is a book of “subversive skepticism” by a “writer who unblinkingly saw all human enterprise as herding the wind, who envisaged the same grim fate for rich and poor, for the righteous and the wicked, and who was led to question whether wisdom itself in the end had any advantage over foolishness.” Alter writes:

Qohelet is a Wisdom writer who constantly questions the value of wisdom. He knows that a human life is likely to be bleak, that it is intrinsically unpredictable, may end badly, and will surely be blotted out by death. His “wisdom” is to register this perception, but, apart from his occasional exhortations to enjoy, he does not presume to know what is good for man, unlike the purveyors of mainline Wisdom.

 

Firing squad

So, why seek wisdom?

Maybe it is the difference between two men who are standing before a firing squad.

One cringes and closes his eyes. The other looks directly at the riflemen.

The result is the same, of course. But, for that moment before the triggers are pulled, the one looking at the other men is deeply, fully, completely alive.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

10.6.17

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