Posts Tagged ‘Ecclesiastes’

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

August favourites #14: the Bible

August 14, 2018

I wrote a post once – you’ll hunt it down if you’re that interested – in which I expressed how tiresome I find much of the Bible. The creation myth and the story of the early humans, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and the like, Moses perhaps, are interesting enough, but pretty soon the various imagined versions of Jewish history begin to pall, as do all the lists of ritualist observations allegedly required of the devout. The prophecies I have always found tiresome and repetitive as well as open to being twisted to suit any interpretation, and all the hymns of praise bore me: if there is a God, is He really going to spend all his time listening to that? In the end it’s to the various books of wisdom I turn (although the misogyny of some of those is very hard to stomach), my favourite of which is the Preacher, or Ecclesiastes as it’s usually known. His cynicism is in tune with the modern age: vanity of vanity, all is vanity. There is a time for everything, and whatever we do, everything carries on just the same. We live life and then it stops; no promise of any hereafter. But the Preacher manages to present those thoughts in beautiful words, the rhythm of which somehow makes it all just about bearable…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

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