WE LIVE OUR LIVES BOUNDED by those two mysteries, birth and death—our beginning and our end—and in between we stumble about in the dark, looking for the light, or at least for a good pair of existential shoes so we will not cut our feet quite so much on the sharp edges of Reality as we head for the Exit. What most of us find is ordinary life. The accidents of history have for now enclosed a space in which a wide swath of humanity—though not all of us, to be sure—experience ordinariness in the prosperity and pleasures of an industrialized and technologized world. With some effort, relative comfort and regular enjoyable experiences belong to us almost as a birthright. This is not necessarily bad. Go ahead, King Solomon said,
“Eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun …” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).
You might as well enjoy yourself. Work hard, eat, drink, dress well, and make love with your wife while you can, “for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Is Solomon sincerely offering helpful advice here, or is he just being ironic, to make a point? Duane Garrett, a Southern Baptist Old Testament scholar, says that Solomon “anticipates the existentialists” in their perception of the absurdities of life. Indeed, he does. From Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Camus and Sartre, from Dostoevsky to Hemingway, the existential philosophers and writers explored as best they could the realms of absurdity and death, as Solomon had thousands of years before. In the 20th century, the mystery of sex was added to the Existentialist mix. But Solomon had been there first, too.
Solomon wrote the two most indigestible books of the Bible, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The former sings the delights of physical love between a man and a woman, replete with carnal metaphors and allusions—“your breasts are like two fawns”, “you are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride”, “under the apple tree I roused you”. The latter teaches that the course of this earthly life, shut up “under the sun”, is ultimately hebel—meaningless, futile, a chasing after the wind—since the prize and the glory for all who run the race is always the same—the silence of the grave. Sex and Death.
Sex. But Song of Songs is never tawdry or titillating. It is eros poetically restrained, a song of romantic love and consummation constrained within the boundaries of committed love and marriage. Constrained, yet still exuberant, and finally exultant: “Love is as strong as death, its passion intense as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame” (Song of Songs 8:6). Yet even in the midst of celebration and the pledge that somehow love might touch the eternal, comes the reminder that physical passion and intimacy, like everything else in this life, is transitory; love may be strong but the grave is inexorable.
Death. But Ecclesiastes is never morbid or obsessive. It is down to earth reality, an unflinching look at the stamp of futility that death impresses on all merely earthly pursuits. Wealth, fame, ambition, achievement, pleasure; they never grant us immortality, they never gain eternity, they all blow away like dust in the wind. Who can argue with this logic? “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). And wisdom may be better than foolishness, but it still won’t stop time: “Like the fool, the wise man too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16). Live long enough and life itself may lose its taste and turn to ashes in your mouth: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). Under the aspect of temporality everything eventually loses its shine; “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
It’s certainly not Solomon’s fault, then, when the human race recycles the same game with each passing generation, expects different results, and yet is disappointed every time. Albert Camus, the French atheist existentialist, compared Man’s predicament to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Camus was right to make the comparison, but he was wrong to proclaim that this absurd labor can “take place in joy”. Maybe we can be happy for awhile; there is nothing wrong with enjoying the honest, innocent, and even passionate pleasures of our few days here on earth, and they can cause us to forget our destination and just enjoy the journey for a season. But true joy? That’s not to be had “under the sun”. What’s the existential man, or woman, to do? (Next post: Part 2 – Ernest Hemingway & Conclusion)