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Last week, sitting on my bed, I noticed a spectrum on the wall as the sun shone through a flaw in the opposite window. Involuntarily I recalled what layman’s knowledge I have of such phenomena — the different wavelengths of visible light, paired with tone-memories of high school science classes. An eyeblink later, I gasped to fight back tears as these thoughts gave way to a leaden sense of all human endeavor’s ultimate futility, crashing over me and pressing me flat.
I don’t mind saying that I find myself passing through a slow-motion existential crisis this summer. No doubt the vertiginous presidential race has acted as a trigger, dredging with it observations that, given our narrow attention span, news about global crises like nascent pandemics and climate change continues to receive short shrift.
I thought back to my read last winter of the climate-doom booklet Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and its message to temper yourself for future uncertainty by striving to make yourself timeless. It advised borrowing the future’s perspective to think of yourself as already dead, and in the meantime soaking in the past by taking in — and accepting transformation through — the centuries of humanity’s most long-lived creative work.
So, in this mind, I visited Wikipedia’s pages about existential nihilism, from from there ended up reading The Last Messiah, a 1933 essay by Peter Wessel Zapffe. I found it relevant and moving, and noted how it ended with some oblique biblical references that seemed familiar. Turning back to my Wikipedia app on another device, I found that I’d left it open to the page on the Pete Seeger song Turn! Turn! Turn! for reasons now forgotten, but there re-read how it adapted an unusually lyrical chapter of Ecclesiates. And so I read that article, which reminded me in turn how friends on Twitter, the last time I idly said “I should read the bible sometime”, recommended this book in particular. So, I read it. It’s not long.
What to make of Ecclesiastes? It’s very strange and rambling, yet with somehow haunting repetitions and patterns. I’ve lately been also re-reading some of my college textbooks collecting American folklore, and perhaps that tempts me to imagine an ancient-world lore-trawler kneeling down with their papyrus beside a genial old fart while he reels off whatever comes to mind when encouraged to think back on all his own gone-by years. The speaker of Ecclesiastes — the translation I read calls him “The Preacher” — freewheelingly mixes up adages, poetry, and complaints about evil women with barbed hearts who done him wrong.
As both friends and Wikipedia suggest, it really does stand out from the rest of the bible as an impressively secular work, no matter its mood. It does mention “God” quite a bit by name, but I read it as not so much referring to a supreme being one should fear and worship as the ineffable qualities of nature, shorthand for everything we brief and inconsequential humans cannot understand. I ache with curiosity about how it ended up in the biblical canon. I know that books about this book exist, and I would quite like to find and read a recent one.
The core lesson I took from the old Preacher is this: Life has no purpose, and to seek meaning is folly — the vanity of vanities, to use a King James-ism that more modern translations often choose to preserve. Any questing for ultimate meaning will lead only to heartbreak. Attempts to gain life-transcending fulfillment through more grounded means, via offspring or art or legal contracts, these too are “chasing the wind”: personal death, inevitable and soon, brings a complete loss of both control and care over such matters.
As a balm to this, the Preacher offers his observation that some things seem to consistently bring personal happiness: the basic pleasures of good food and drink, and the higher satisfaction of doing good work. He calls this happiness a reward from God, which is to say: who the hell knows why, but it works. Focus, then, on doing the good things for yourself and for others that make you happy, and feel no remorse in making personal happiness your main motivation.
I don’t always hit my one-per-week mark, but I always feel good for a while when I manage to publish a blog post. I hope you have something that makes you feel good, too.
I read David Ferry’s GilgameshFound this one on a remaindered-books table beneath The Strand during my most recent Manhattan trip. I’d never read the Epic of Gilgamesh in any format other than Wikipedia summaries before, so it...
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