The Rabbi of Enlightened Despair
I’ve been working from time to time on a commentary to Sefer Kohelet, or the Book of Ecclesiastes as it is known in English. Here’s a piece from the beginning. I’ll probably finish it in another ten years, so enjoy. It’ll be awhile before it’s complete.
“The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” 1:1
Even here, at the beginning of the beginning, opinions differ and controversies flair. Rabbinical tradition dating back a millennium identifies Kohelet as King Solomon, the successor to King David as sovereign over the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; and defines his lamentation as a song of mourning for the inevitable collapse of his kingdom at the hands of his feckless heirs, and the cruelties of age and infirmity. Modern scholarship, as is to be expected, disagrees; citing numerous philological, chronological, and religious contradictions with the traditional theory. I see no relevance to this controversy. It is the words of Kohelet themselves that arrest us, and force us to reckon with them. The voice is that of an old and tired man of power; a man who has tasted glory, power, virtue, pleasure, indulgence, and wisdom; and has found them all wanting. The name Kohelet itself means preacher, a communal parsonage, and we are about to be the subjects of a lengthy sermon of enlightened despair; one which has, in my view, yet to be surpassed. If a classic is a work which has no need of a translator, for it propels itself effortlessly into the tongue of another age and the discourse of another world; then we have before us a classic; and that, I think, ought to be enough.
“Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, all is vanity.” 1:2
The first admonition is also the most horrendous, a condemnation of the world so profound its articulation appears hardly worthy of the apocalyptic sentiment within. Apocalyptic is the correct word, for it is not merely the world that is condemned; that omnipotent all condemns all; that which is the world and that which is beyond the world. Kohelet condemns God as he condemns himself, the living and the dead, the past and present, his world and all the worlds beyond; even the very words he writes and the act of our reading them; even the words I now write at this moment. Is such a totality of despair possible? Is there not some measure of mercy in those words? Perhaps. Vanity is, after all, not the deadliest of sins. The All, as Kohelet names it, is not evil, but merely vain; this is not the harshest of condemnations. But it does propose a banality to the world, a misapprehension of things on the part of he who beholds. As he will do many times more before he concludes, Kohelet is admonishing us to be heedful; to not shrink from our despair, from the overwhelming vanity of all, but rather to allow it to educate us.
“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever…The sun also rises and the sun sets…All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they shall return.” 1:4-7
Here Kohelet speaks of eternal things. This passage is hardly impious, it contains none of the heretical implications we will soon encounter; it speaks in the unmistakable tongue of the Judaic nature of this discourse; to the apprehension of certain absolute principles, to the essential forces of life, whose movement is the movement of a consciousness beyond forms. An other-consciousness in the absolute sense. He cites a singular dynamic, that of going and returning, a circular capillary, as the movement of blood through flesh or thoughts through the mind; a dynamic which by its nature can never be fulfilled or resolved. The unbreakable fiber of life; both physical and metaphysical, which has ever been the unique preoccupation of the great Judaic thinkers. As God in the Jewish consciousness cannot be fulfilled or resolved, as he is the absolute One, the utterly singular; so can the sea never be filled, or the sun cease its rotations; for they too are one in their elementary principles; manifestations of the eternal, forever outgoing and forever returning in equal measure, beyond consummation.
In this, Kohelet is also signaling the nature of his dissertation; this is no dialogue, but a statement of immutables. No proofs are required, nor are they relevant; one needs no proofs of the fullness of the sea, for the sea is never full; nor for the passing of the generations, for they have already passed and will pass again. The question at hand is not that of truth, but rather what the unknowable and unfullfillable may have to teach us.
“All things are full of weariness.” 1:8
In full force appears before us the voice of an old man. As the body wearies, so does all that one perceives as one perceives it in weariness. Sights becomes familiar, sounds no longer shock or surprise or excite, the young commit the same errors, the foolish still understand nothing, evil continues its crimes, and good remains forever less than victorious. The workings of the world take on the aspect of the pedantic, an emotionless ritual endlessly enacted; the wind and the rain, the changes of the season, the rising of the sun, all come to seem mere formalities, markings of time behind which gather the approaching shadows. It must not be forgotten that we are reading the testimony of a man facing death, and not as an amorphous concept, the object of metaphysical speculations, but an ominous reality, and this is the source of its ferocity and its insight; and when the stakes are mortal, the smallest of banalities and infirmities of one’s fellow man becomes offensive, incomprehensible, and, of course, vain.
“Man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing; nor the ear filled with hearing.” 1:8-9
As the shadows gather, the unanswerable questions loom ever larger. This passage speaks of perception, and we may direct ourselves accordingly along two paths, that of the interior and the exterior; which intertwine throughout this brief narrative until they are nearly impossible to separate. For Kohelet speaks both of himself and man; man as a principle and an essence. It is both he who is incapable of comprehension and his fellows who are incapable of comprehending him, and of comprehending the impossibility of that very comprehension. His is the dilemma of a man who sees farther than others, but not far enough to satisfy his need for knowledge of infinite things; for he is soon to enter, himself, into the infinite.
“That which has been will be again…and there is nothing new under the sun.” 1:9-10
This is without doubt Kohelet’s most profoundly conservative statement; he expands his previous musings into the totality of a worldview: all things are eternal, all things return unto themselves; there is no progression, no advance, and no uniqueness. All things shall keep as they are. This is an ancient way of seeing things, both personally and historically. Only the old are privileged to recognize the patterns inherent in events; for only they have the distance required to form the mosaic out of that which initially seems random and chaos, without form and void. In historical terms, it is a pointed rebuke to the modern conceit of progress; that all events hurtle forwards towards their perfection. Against this, Kohelet posits a pastoral mechanism; but it is not static, things are done, things become and are in the process of becoming; but it is their dynamism to ever return to themselves, a concept most indelibly expressed in the ancient symbol of the snake forever swallowing his own tail.
“There is no remembrance of former things.” 1:11
The next pharaoh will not know Joseph. Each generation witnesses its first dawn, believes that the sun has risen for the first time, and for him alone; and the night that follows seems to herald eternal darkness. Kohelet perceives that the folly, or vanity, of man is that he does not learn, which is to say that he does not remember. As memory fails, so does the eternal, and with it life itself is irretrievably lost; as the memory of comprehension dies, that which was comprehended returns to mystery. And again, we hear the voice of a dying man. For he knows that he too will soon be a memory, and thus forgotten. Though the very resonance of his words seems a contradiction to this principle; we cannot know whether, in ages yet to come, Kohelet’s prophecy may not be fulfilled. Words, like men, are transient.
This despair is of the profoundest kind, for Kohelet believes knowledge is possible; yet he knows as well that it cannot be eternal; and thus is alien to the primary forces of the world. This is the despair of a man who sees, and in seeing knows that the image will never, can never return, but is nothing more than what Melville called the phantom of life; and in an instant, it returns unto itself.
“I, Kohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” 1:12-13
Was. Is he king no more? Does he write in anticipation of the inevitable? Is he engraving his own epitaph? There is no answer inherent to such demands for literal explanation; but we can draw deeper from these words, for they express the very essence of the text before us; it is the lament of a lost king. And what is a lost king? It is a man who is fallen, humbled, disgraced, perhaps; but also wise; because he has stood higher and fallen farther than the entirety of his fellow man. Even among his own rarified brethren he is ascendant, an over-king; because all kings know what it is to reign, but only the few know what it is to fall. Kohelet speaks from the heights and from the depths; and he does so as the man who knows. It is in his fall, he seems to tell us, in the loss, in the memory, that his wisdom was to be found. In his remembrance, he has become wise. And can this be denied? Not all who remember are wise; but all who are wise remember.
“I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom…it is a sore task that God has given…and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” 1:13-15
The thirteenth verse, a lucky number in the Jewish tradition. And we are presented with another lament; this time of sacrifice: “I gave my heart…” What more can a king give? Or a man? On the plane of wisdom, the king and the man are one and equal. But what comes of such egalitarian strivings? Nothing, again, but vanity. And so we hear for the first time Kohelet’s mantra of despair: the striving after wind. What is the man (or king) who strives after the wind? He is a man who reaches out for nothingness, who grasps for form but finds only air; a man who questions and hears only silence in return.
And yet, these are no mere strivings. It is a sore task, a labor bestowed by God (this is the first time the name of the Almighty is inscribed; and the omnipotent will remain a tangential yet constant watcher over these proceedings), man is driven, commanded, upon his quest; and condemned as well, because there is no destination, it is a path without an end; and again we are brought struggling to the transience of man; for all rivers run to the sea, but the man runs nowhere, grasping after the intangible air.
There is a warning here: one cannot seek and search out by wisdom; wisdom as a means is only vanity. Kohelet in his warning points us again towards eternal things. Wisdom separates, analyzes, deconstructs; but that which it seeks to know cannot be separated. Kohelet stands here for the Judaic against the Greek; against the methodology which proposes knowledge through dismemberment. One cannot reduce; one must bear witness. Intellectual violence is vanity, there is only apprehension.
“That which is crooked cannot be made straight.” 1:15
Again we see Kohelet’s conservatism at work. The world is as it is; as it will ever be. Crooked and straight, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust; will remain as they are. It is vanity to seek to change the world; and it is a tragic vanity, because it is doomed to failure. The world will remain perfect in its imperfection.
For all its conservatism, this is a profoundly radical statement, bordering on the heretical; anticipating by a thousand years and more the Kabbalists’ vision of a broken world created. Kohelet does not question God, nor does he question his creation; and yet…
“I spoke to my own heart.” 1:16
This text is an interior dialogue more than it is a testimony. Its contradictions, paradoxes, and aphorisms do not bespeak a formal oration; but rather the musings of a single heart. It is for this reason that I tend to regard this text as the work of a single author. Most scholars interpret the irreconcilables of the text as proof of a synthesis of several works and several authors. I take the opposite view. Were this text subject to substantial editing, it would have been strategically whittled down to the point of absolute clarity. It is the very chaos of this text, its impossible contradictions, which bespeak the work of a single man. We are not reading an edited amalgam. We are reading one man’s painful interrogation of the forces at work within. We must not seek consistency or certainly, nor resolution; for no such things exist in the heart of an honest man. This text does not educate by discourse, but by empathy.