BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Anonymous’s (~300BCE) Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]

18 February 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

The actual apparatus of Power will exploit the nihilism of a crybaby in order to extort our obedience, obsequiousness, or apathy in the face of that Power.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this opening section previous, you can skip to the next heading (or enjoy re-reading it).

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Anonymous’s (~300BCE)[2] Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]

This does not represent my standard sort of book reply, partly because it addresses only one “book” in the larger context of the Judeo-Christian bible, but also because it originates specifically in response to the extended whining Burton (1620)[3] does in his Anatomy of Melancholy, for which Kohelet, better known as Ecclesiastes, serves as a partial model.

One of the things very self-evident in Burton’s extended rant that the world consists only of idiots involves the exploit contradiction of such a claim; if all remain hopelessly mired in idiocy, then Burton’s tract provides simply another example, which we might therefore disregard. Similarly with Kohelet; at the very outset, we get told “all is vanity”.

And, indeed, Kohelet provides a squalid example of vanity. This essential contradiction makes for a noisome and recurrent stupidness throughout the tract that, because a bazillion people have decided to hold it up as a paragon and paradigm, therefore benefits from a lot of exculpatory and apologetic scribbling about it. Thus:

There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to just what Ecclesiastes is about; is it positive and life-affirming or deeply pessimistic? Is Koheleth coherent or incoherent, insightful or confused, orthodox or heterodox? Is the ultimate message of the book to copy Koheleth, the wise man, or to avoid his errors? Some passages of Ecclesiastes seem to contradict other portions of the Old Testament, and even itself. One suggestion for resolving the contradictions is to read the book as the record of Koheleth’s quest for knowledge: opposing judgements (e.g. the dead are better off than the living (4:2) vs. a living dog is better off than a dead lion (9:4)) are therefore provisional, and it is only at the conclusion that the verdict is delivered (11–12:7). On this reading, Koheleth’s sayings are goads, designed to provoke dialogue and reflection in his readers, rather than to reach premature and self-assured conclusions (from here).

Except, of course, that all is vanity, so why bother with goads? And as far as goads or asking questions goes, the summary consists of this: “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man.”

I refuse to bog down in niggling details about this text. At the end of the day, it[4] purports to offer the words of the wise, someone who congratulates himself as having “applied my heart to inquire and to search with wisdom all that was done under the heaven,” who nonetheless concludes that “all is vanity” so “obey”.

The dominating obnoxiousness of this text to me involves the context that a (supposed) king writes it. We have, in brief, celebrity bitching, and much of this holds also for the famous (male) jerks that Burton elaborates at such length. I wonder if Ivan the terrible ever wrote such drivel; Genghis Khan certainly did not. And I point to a couple of “bloody men” only for the sake of emphasizing that those two monumental egotists never seemed to want for a purpose in life. If Repin’s “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” indicates anything, it certainly does not amount to “all is vanity”.

Do I flog a dead horse? Whatever the real problems of kings (or politicians) they (1) serve as no example for the rest of us, while (2) unfortunately modeling public behaviours. All those busy days, while Kohelet occupied himself with executing people, starting wars, maintaining all variety of social injustice, oppressing people, not alleviating poverty, &c, at what point did those activities become vain? Why did the pointlessness of it all go unnoticed until something like boredom in old age made him carp?

Although all of the carping consists only to end with the thoroughly conservative injunction: “fear God and keep His commandments.” This offers a disingenuous and pathetic resort to humility, a sort of “What do I know?” that merely passes the baton to the next vain fucker on the throne. It fatuously suggests that someone—who congratulates himself as the wisest—demonstrates the folly of anyone “lower” than him working out anything coherent for herself.

What makes this such a piece of unwisdom shows in its publication. Even as a document putatively only ever meant for his son—not his daughter—the piece offers a public, therefore social, statement that offers nothing more, ultimately, than “obey”.

This from a king? Astonishing. One would never predict that. He delved into the heart of wisdom, and this represents the sum he managed to cough up.

Disgraceful. Though not as disgraceful as anyone waving this around as wisdom.

I have little patience for cynicism, which seems to come in two basic varieties. The first involves—I will not put this nicely—an infantile temper tantrum; it amounts essentially to a kind of snottiness, extremely frequently indulged by men and exemplified by Louis CK’s fat sullen eighth grader, born of some primordial disappointment and (self-fulfillingly) reiterated by bringing that shitty attitude to every bright new day. When not in an aggressive mode, this often comes out as self-pity, which one can never quote Stephen Fry enough on:

Certainly the most destructive vice if you like, that a person can have. More than pride, which is supposedly the number one of the cardinal sins – is self-pity. Self-pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred’s a subset of self-pity and not the other way around – ‘ It destroys everything around it, except itself ‘ (from here).[5]

The other kind of cynicism has the merit of classiness—at least it avoids the squalor of the self-pitying variety—and the danger of believing itself. The fat eighth grader, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, only keeps up with the temper tantrum so long as it garners attention; offer him a cookie and his whole edifice of negativism and contrariness falls away.

With the second kind of cynic, they maintain the unpleasantness on principle. They might get paid to, like Rush Limbaugh. Or they might do it on a volunteer basis, as a sort of anti-public service, like George Zimmerman.[6] Or one could turn this around and say that the wounded cynic doesn’t believe the cynicism at all and wants only the first opportunity to shuck it off,[7] while the second, a studied jade, believes with all the certainty he or she does, which may not amount to much but usually supplies enough, that no good can come of anything, except the most fleeting of ephemeral pleasures, like an orgasm or making a bitter remark. The crybaby wants a pat on the head; the jade wants to shit in your soup, just to prove “all is vanity”.

Kohelet (as a character) falls almost entirely in the first category as a crybaby, while those who wrote down his senseless whining and held and still hold it up as wisdom constitute jades.

If my language seems disrespectful, it arises from the fundamental disrespect that Kohelet embodies, whether at the level of the character as a crybaby, whining from the pinnacle of his massive privilege, from the standpoint of someone who had an enormous apparatus of other people, de facto and de jure slaves, who labored, in his opinion apparently in vain, or from the level of the self-serving religious creeps who seek to assert–using ‘the king’ as an example (or using “Solomon” as an example)–that the only thing to do involves obeying: who? Those priests, &c.

Even amongst some African kingships, one may see that the apparatus of Power—such as a permanent (prime) minister—holds the real Power, although the figure of the King gets fetishized in hundreds of various ways. We might recall that in some places, the durations of a King’s rule got determined in advance, and upon his day of expiry would get taken into a room and unceremoniously strangled.

So the whining of the King becomes a gesture of the real apparatus of Power. The vulgar self-pity of the ruler provides a human face and ostensibly something like pity for the continuation of the real apparatus and structure of Power.

So no wonder Kohelet gets credited with expressing, at least in places, a sort of skepticism—I will not call it “radical skepticism,” because it does not really get “to the root”—because so long as the real apparatus of Power mediates and controls what he says—so long as the skepticism does not generate meaningful resistance—then it remains harmless, not entirely unlike the freedom of the man at the gallows, who could say anything and everything just prior to his execution, as Foucault’s (1977)[8] Discipline and Punish informs us. We needn’t even say that whatever uppitiness this exhibits gets “silenced” by the noose or garrote; it seems more that the duration of the protest remains sufficiently short, or the audience sufficiently circumscribed, that that “outburst of criticism” has a diffusing, rather than amplifying, effect. This does not always happen with all public executions, of course. Sometimes a death—or a suicide—ignites a revolution.

But such will not occur from Kohelet’s drooling. Though ‘all is vanity” to fear god and follow his commandments does not constitute a vanity; to obey the rules of the priests does not constitute a vanity; to submit to authority does not constitute  vanity; to act in the role of a priest does not constitute a vanity. None of these things get critically analyzed, and thus we have nothing approaching  “radical” skepticism here.

All we have offers us a picture of a pathetic crybaby being held up as an example of wisdom by those who control the discourse.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] From here

[3] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[4] —notwithstanding the textual facticity of it that the eponymous Kohelet in all likelihood did not write it, but that some crack-head after the fact composed it—

[5] The rest of the quotation runs:

Self-pity will destroy relationships, it’ll destroy anything that’s good, it will fulfill all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself. And it’s so simple to imagine that one is hard done by, and that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated, and that if only one had had a chance at this, only one had had a chance at that, things would have gone better, you would be happier if only this, that one is unlucky. All those things. And some of them may well even be true. But, to pity oneself as a result of them is to do oneself an enormous disservice. ¶ I think it’s one of things we find unattractive about the American culture, a culture which I find mostly, extremely attractive, and I like Americans and I love being in America. But, just occasionally there will be some example of the absolutely ravening self-pity that they are capable of, and you see it in their talk shows. It’s an appalling spectacle, and it’s so self destructive. I almost once wanted to publish a self-help book saying ‘How To Be Happy by Stephen Fry : Guaranteed success’. And people buy this huge book and it’s all blank pages, and the first page would just say – ‘ Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself – And you will be happy ‘. Use the rest of the book to write down your interesting thoughts and drawings, and that’s what the book would be, and it would be true. And it sounds like ‘Oh that’s so simple’, because it’s not simple to stop feeling sorry for yourself, it’s bloody hard. Because we do feel sorry for ourselves, it’s what Genesis is all about.”

[6] Or public anti-service.

[7] Of course, being inept, these flights of optimism often follow a hair-raisingly naïve trajectory, thus setting the stage of a not-too-distant catastrophe.

[8] Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (trans. A. Sheridan). 2d. Second Vintage Books Edition (May 1995). New York: Vintage.

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