Cold Spring Diary: Turn! Turn! Turn!

by David St.-Lascaux

5 August 2014

IT MAY BE WELL-KNOWN that Bible verses have been thoroughly mined as sources for book titles. A coincidental, consecutive pair recently crossed my mind’s path – Ecclesiastes 1:4 (c. Third Century B.C.) and Ecclesiastes 1:5. In the process I learned about a science fiction book from a poignant period yesteryear – the postwar era of nuclear armament and apocalyptic fear, and was reminded of a modern classic.

Ecclesiastes 1:4 observes that:

One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.

While this may not mean much to contemporary readers, to popular audiences in 1949, it was best-seller common knowledge. The Earth Abides (1949) was an award-winning science fiction novel by George R. Stewart. In Earth, Steward’s stage is a post-apocalyptic world in which civilization is reset, and ultimately reverts to – surprise – religion in the form of a fetishized, iconic hammer. A light dig reveals preceding like-themed works by Mary Shelley (The Last Man, 1826, when she was 28) and E.M. Forster (“The Machine Stops,” a 1909 short story in which humans text each other rather than face-to-face communicate), and of course Nevil Shute’s more recent On the Beach (1957). Shelley’s work inconveniently challenged the notion of progress, annoying her contemporaries, thus relegating Man to contemporaneous oblivion and therefore making it worth noting – and revisiting, belatedly, today.

Ecclesiastes 1:5 is a better-known quotation, certainly among the literati:

The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it arose.

Ecclesiastes 1:6-7 continues:

The wind goes toward the south, and turns about unto the north; it whirls about continually, and the wind returns again according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

Ernest Hemingway opens the eponymous The Sun Also Rises (1926) with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein – “You are all a lost generation,” followed by Ecclesiastes 1:4-7. Sun, a highly rereadable novel of pre-Beat dissolution populated by self-absorbed and self-destructive characters, and of Ecclesiastical, omniscient indifference, was Hemingway’s debut novel, published when he was 27. It no doubt captured the spirit of its times.

Of course, many are familiar with Ecclesiastes 3:1 through “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)” (c. 1962), the popular song written by the late Hudson Valley folksinger Pete Seeger:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

While Seeger conscripted this passage in the service of pacifism, Ecclesiastes itself is a rather signal modern work, whose main feature is its fatalism. The above-cited verses distill the author’s nihilistic Weltanshauung down to that of unreconstructed cyclicality, explicit lack of faith in progress, and assertion of the pointlessness of human endeavor – (the triune tenets of conservatism!,) hard to trump in the Negativity Department!!! So it would appear that Jean-Paul Sartre’s contemptuous, existential La Nausée (Nausea) (1938) was considerably antedated, although Sartre’s disdained character Ogier P., autodidact (and Sartre’s designated “Self-Taught Man,” up to the letter L in his systematic self-education) stand-in for humanity, is mildly entertaining. In You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), Thomas Wolfe’s (the talented author: 1900-1938) protagonist characterizes Ecclesiastes as:

… the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth – and also earth’s highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth…. I could only say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.

WHETHER THESE ARE PRE-APOCALYPTIC times, part of an endless cosmic cycle, or the Abiding Forever seems beside the point in the doldrums of August. A handy book, a gentle breeze and aimless clouds make passing days serene.

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28 February 2015: On Common Ground

Text copyright © 2014.

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