I omitted to mention yesterday that the book has a bit of a citizen Kane structure.
There is a narrator. In the movie there is an investigator looking into the life of Kane. Ecclesiastes is bracketed by the narrator, beginning and end, setting up and wrapping up the first person narrative of the “teacher”.
The teacher is either King Solomon himself, or a later fictional invention of a Solomon-like character, similar to how citizen Kane is a lot like the real life magnate Randolph Hearst.
There are certain anachronistic language anomalies in the text which mean the fictionalised Solomon theory has gained a lot of traction with Bible scholars of late, though most chronologies of the Bible list it as written during Solomon’s time. I just think of the teacher as Solomon.
The teacher talks through the sort of dilemma movie stars or retired entrepreneurs face. You make a lot of money young. You never need to work again. How do you spend life?
You can live for pleasure, which he illustrates with enticing vividness. Even though part of you knows it’s shallow.
Or you can do a great body of work. You don’t have to do that to survive, you just do it for the work.
You can be more successful, even though you already never need to work again, just for the buzz of being successful, for the power.
He calls all meaningless. Which means by extention, he’s calling the wildest dreams of humanity, our most ideal fantasy lifestyles, meaningless.
The word from the original text, “hevel” is a richer word that has a metaphoric comparison to smoke or vapour. It includes the idea that it looks substantial, but when you try to grasp it, there is nothing there. Also the idea of obscuring clarity, of an enigma.
He says having done both shallowness and wisdom, shallowness is worse. But both end in death, even if you are wise all your life, you may well hand everything you have achieved over to an idiot after you die, which Solomon in fact did. What do you actually gain by being wise?
He hasn’t explored social conscience in this chapter, living for others. I don’t know if he does later on. But in terms of living for yourself, he concludes, it barely makes a difference if you are a shallow, indulgent hedonist or a successful disciplined achiever. It promises satisfaction, but you don’t get it.
Watched the series return of Game of Thrones last night. It will be fascinating to see how they resolve it.
It drew you in with all these characters all with different takes on what drives you in life being made a mockery of – it’s famously random scythe killed off the pleasure seekers, the ambitious, the pure, the dutiful, the corrupt, the self interested, the philanthropists. It’s constantly showed how meaningless our plans can be.
But it sustained you with a meta story woven in the background, of supernatural forces of fire and ice from which the characters find a greater purpose. These have taken us, as we near the end, to the point of a meaningful narrative arc, a resolution, a sense of destiny which contradicts the trademark provocative meaninglessness.
So how does it end?
Needless to say, I’m already loving this Ecclesiastes ride, bring on chapter three!