Saturday, November 04, 2006

Chapter 2 (part 1): Ecclesiastes in a Ripped Shirt

Heeding the advice of Patrick and others, I shall from this point forward post shorter entries. I've split Chapter 2 into two parts. Here's Part 1. Comments are welcome.
It is possible to live only so long as life intoxicated us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid. – Leo Tolstoy

...all is vanity – Ecclesiastes 1:2 (King James Version)

No future! – The Sex Pistols
The preacher had lived what many of us would consider a full, successful, prosperous life. In stark contrast to the more stringent lifestyle we might expect from a high-ranking member of the clergy, this man’s manner of living would be considered scandalous if he were ministering in today’s typical evangelical church. His was a life spent pursuing material wealth, worldly pleasures, leisure, food and drink, and temporal wisdom and knowledge. More than anyone else of his day, he had done it all and seen it all. He’d pursued the finest that life had to offer. To borrow Henry David Thoreau’s famous phrase, he lived to “suck the marrow out of life.” Both sybarite and scholar, he was wealthy, well respected, and renowned for his discernment and judgment. Nearing the end of his days, this wise man sat down to record all he had learned about life as a guide for future generations.

According to Christian tradition, the author of this guide was Solomon, the son of Israel’s King David. Solomon reigned over Israel some three thousand years ago during the ancient nation’s brief, glorious era of peace, expansion and influence. Assuming Solomon truly is the author, then his philosophy of life – the guide recorded in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – is not as likely to be cited by churchgoing Christians as another Old Testament book attributed to Solomon, Proverbs. As the name implies, Proverbs offers handy “how-to” sayings often referenced as rules for living for many earnest Christians. But Ecclesiastes offers an entirely different take on life.

As books about leadership and motivation go, Ecclesiastes doesn’t rank up there with the works of Christian writers like Rick Warren or Robert Schuller. The author offers no consolation or easy step-by-step guide to prosperity. For despite his rich experience, wisdom and wealth, Solomon – or whoever “the preacher” was – writes as one who finds life utterly meaningless and worthless.

Centuries later, the author’s weary disillusionment nearly jumps off the pages of this existential treatise. He begins with a thumbnail assessment of the world situation, and, like a modern-day newspaper reporter summarizing the state of affairs in the lead paragraphs, cynically concludes, “There’s nothing to anything – it’s all smoke” (Eccl. 1:2, Message). And here’s the proof: One generation passes, another arrives, yet nothing ever changes. The sun rises, then sets, then rises again; the winds blow south, then north, this way and that; the rivers flow into the sea, “but the sea never fills up.” On and on it goes; nothing changes (Eccl. 1:4-7). Or, as Talking Heads’ David Byrne would sing, much later, everything is the “same as it ever was.”

“Everything’s boring, utterly boring – no one can find any meaning in it. Boring to the eye, boring to the ear. What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth” (Eccl. 1:8-9).

For those readers whose hearts are not yet filled with despair from the writer’s initial bleak assessment – for those who soldier on to read more of the preacher’s dismal reflections on life’s meaninglessness – they find that the old man, recounting his life experiences, undergirds his nihilistic conclusions about life with further evidence, drawn from his personal experience.

The old man wasn’t always so disillusioned. There was a time, he writes, when his outlook on life was brimming with hope. This wisest of men searched diligently for meaning – through study and the life of the mind; through the amassing of material wealth; through debauchery; and through hard work.

“With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster,” he writes, “I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth” (Eccl. 2:3, Message). His conclusion? That the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge is a worthless waste of time – “nothing but spitting into the wind” (Eccl. 1:17, Message). What’s more, a life of hedonism – seeking pleasure with the proverbial “wine, women and song” – or the pursuit of wealth and material goods yield the same result: “My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it?” (Eccl. 2:2, Message). Whether one pursues wisdom or folly, both lead to the same dead end.
When I realized that my fate’s the same as the fool’s, I had to ask myself, “So why bother being wise?” It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke. The smart and the stupid both disappear out of sight. In a day or two they’re both forgotten. Yes, both the smart and the stupid die, and that’s it. (Eccl. 2:15-16, Message).
A present-day spiritual seeker, former punk rocker Brad Warner, echoes Ecclesiastes’ perspective, but in more contemporary language and with a Zen perspective:
Fame, fortune, really great sex – maybe those’ll cure all your ills. But beautiful famous people with loads of money are just as confused and miserable as anyone else. Spend your whole life chasing after wealth and power and you end up with nothing more to show for it than bleeding ulcers and a heart condition. You can master tantric yoga poly-orgasmic Wonder Sex but you’re still gonna die alone. There has to be something more.
Yes, there must be something more, right? The more we strive to fill our lives with possessions, pleasures or knowledge, the more we emptiness we feel.

'A fundamental dis-ease'
Our culture is largely marked by relativism and ultimate meaninglessness. - Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There
“There is within us – in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us – a fundamental dis-ease,” writes Huston Smith. “It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.”
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. ... Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
This sense of existential angst – even in the midst of worldly prosperity and understanding – afflicts many spiritual seekers today. It is a sign of the times we live in. Sociologist Manfred Stanley refers to it as “the spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation.” It is an uneasiness that arises from “the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”

Even deeply religious people encounter these feelings of spiritual hopelessness from time to time. In his book The Bible Jesus Read, Christian author Philip Yancey reflects on his own feelings of youthful alienation. Growing up in a strict fundamentalist-Christian environment, Yancey was sheltered from some of life’s harsher realities. But by the time he went off to college, his eyes were opened to many of the same issues Ecclesiastes addresses, and he began to question the meaning of existence. In the process, he experienced the same symptoms of despair as the wise old preacher of Ecclesiastes: “Flat emotions, a radical indifference to others, the sensation of drifting, numbness to pain, a resigned acceptance of a world gone mad.” Reading the works of French novelists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, alongside American writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Walker Percy, reinforced Yancey’s sense of dismal existence. This, Yancey writes, was “the predicament of modern literature.”
What difference does anything make, really? It matters little whether you get up or stay in bed, whether you love life or hate it. Stab yourself in the hand, like Sartre’s Mathieu, shoot a person in the hot Algerian sun like Camus’s “Stranger,” or just wander, Hemingwayesque, from one bar to another, picking fights. Life goes on whether you strive to change it or merely succumb to it. What is a human being, but a tiny blip in the billion-year progression of history?
“I hate life,” writes the preacher of old. His words are bitter, matter-of-fact, and hardened from his years of anguish and self-discovery. “As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke – and spitting into the wind” (Eccl. 2:17, Message).

‘Nothing like the image’
A defining moment for any teen misfit is finding others like yourself, even if the only think you share is the feeling of not belonging anywhere else. – Joan Jett
“I hated the world,” a young British art student named Shanne Hasler said in 1976. “I came from a middle-class background, brought up in Ware, Hertfordshire. I was illegitimate and I hated the thing of everyone trying to be nice and well-mannered, and behind the scenes, people weren’t really. I didn’t want to be part of it, so I ripped my clothes, scalped myself, pierced my ears. ... I just wanted to be noticed, but I was very shy at the same time. It was my hatreds coming out with a sense of humour.”

Someone who took notice of the girl was a young man named John Lydon, who informed her of a London hangout for bored and disillusioned youth. It was a fashion boutique called Sex, which was owned by Malcolm McLaren. Lydon hung out there, along with a few other young men who would later become his Sex Pistols band mates: Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. “I went down there with a friend: we got taken out to lunch by Malcolm McLaren,” explained Hasler. “He took us all around the shop and explained how all the clothes were made. Later I met Johnny: he took me back to Finsbury Park and put me on the train home. He was really well-mannered; nothing like the image.”

Within a year of that encounter, however, that “image” would reign supreme in Britain’s music scene. By then, John Lydon had become Johnny Rotten, lead singer for the Sex Pistols. He was the most important icon of a new movement in music and fashion. Throngs of teenagers in Great Britain, as bored and disillusioned as old Solomon, were expressing their rage and hate toward life as well. But rather than spitting into the wind, these young punks were hitting the night spots and spitting into the faces of the musicians who were giving voice to the despair these teens felt in their bones and expressed in their clothing. They even had a name for the practice: gobbing.

With their raucous style, the Sex Pistols breathed life into England’s moribund musical scene. But more often than not, the broader public – and the music business – deplored them as scourges rather than hailing them as saviors. Just as Ecclesiastes confronts our futile efforts to make sense of the world apart from God, so the Sex Pistols confronted the dry bones of the music world. They were annihilating the music of their time and country, and by extension were annihilating the culture as well. Their music, writes David Simonelli, “was a rebellion not just against the rock establishment, but against the establishment at large.” It was a critique of England’s failed socialism, a sound that, as one music journalist described it, came “from the straight-out-of-school-and-onto-the-dole deathtrap which we seem to have engineered for Our Young: the ‘76 British terminal stasis, the modern urban blind alley.”

Just as many in the church prefer to overlook dark portions of scripture such as Ecclesiastes in favor of happier or more pragmatic texts – many Christians treat Ecclesiastes “with polite distaste, as if it had sneaked into the canon when no one was looking,” says Yancey – so many in the music and entertainment business of the time preferred to turn their backs on the Sex Pistols’ gospel of nihilism to continue business as usual. But the Pistols would not go quietly. Like that prophet of old, John the Baptist, the group was a voice in the wilderness, crying out for reformation and foretelling what was to come.

The Sex Pistols dismantled the dull pop and “glam rock” of the time and reconstructed it in a stripped-down form that reverberated with the rebellion of early rock and roll – but amplified it a hundredfold. In their lyrics, the Pistols brought forth new forms of social commentary. The music and the commentary, however, were brought to life by the group’s front man, Johnny Rotten. In his shredded, safety-pinned shirts and with his sneering demeanor, Rotten embodied all that punk stood for – defiance, rebellion, anarchy – and became its gaunt, wild-eyed prophet, as shocking in his day as another Johnny – John the Baptist, clothed in sackcloth and munching on locusts – must have been to Israel’s status quo two thousand years ago.

The times were ripe for the Pistols to appear on the music scene. As Tricia Henry explains in her history of the punk rock movement, “the outlook [among British youth] for bettering their lot in life seemed bleak.” The economy was in the tank, and unemployment – particularly among the young – was high. Britain’s economic shambles “fueled an incendiary social situation as racism, xenophobia, and police brutality became the order of the day,” writes one observer. “Mounting feelings of anger, frustration, and a deepening sense of isolation left much of English youth feeling hopeless. Trying to make sense of this mess, many found a means of expression in punk rock.”

The pop music of the day did nothing to assuage the feelings of disaffected British youth. The gods of pop and rock had become out of touch with their fans. Musicians toured in luxury and lived the self-indulgent “rock star” life. Singer Joe Walsh song parodied the situation – and got a hit single from the effort – with his 1978 song, “Life’s Been Good.” (“I have a mansion, forget the price,” Walsh sings. “Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.”) For some rock stars, the reality was not far off the mark of Walsh’s satire. A year before the release of “Life’s Been Good,” Eric Clapton, one of the biggest rock stars of that time, toured Europe in the luxury of a customized train attached to the Orient Express, “while at home, amongst the readers of the newspapers in which Clapton’s tour was publicised, about one in ten adults were out of work.”

Mick Farren of the British magazine New Musical Express expressed the sentiments of many British youth of the time when he wrote, in early 1976: “We are going through the worst depression since the ‘thirties. In global terms, the fear of civil war is probably greater than it was even at the height of the ‘60s paranoia, and in quieter moments I tend to wonder just how long the food, water, air, etc., are going to last. Do we hear any of this reflected in rock and roll? Not often. Most of the time it seems as though all either musician or audience want to deal with is pure escapism.”

No future
Do not think I am for violence. ... [Rather] what we produce is a climate of controlled frenzy. ... Our songs are anti-God, anti-the Queen, anti-the palsied values of present day society. I am a revolutionary. ... An anarchist. I want to stir people up to think for themselves. That’s all. – John Lydon
But a growing segment of England’s youth was dissatisfied with escapism – especially the British youth who had been exposed to the influences of the New York punk scene. This included members of both the Sex Pistols and the Clash, who encountered the Ramones during that band’s 1976 trip to the UK. These bands transformed the “irony, pessimism, and amateur style of the music” of New York punk into a socially conscious style that was “as self-consciously proletarian as it was aesthetic.”

As focal point for the Sex Pistols and their music of annihilation, Johnny Rotten’s crowning achievement – and a truly proletarian protest of British culture – would occur in June 1977. Manager McLaren had arranged for the Pistols to perform their most controversial song, “God Save the Queen,” in a floating concert aboard the Queen Elizabeth during the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Lydon, who scribbled the lyrics months earlier in a Hampstead squat, had no idea of the impact the song would make on British society. Much like Ecclesiastes seems an odd and incongruous insertion into the Old Testament’s beautiful, poetic “wisdom” books, an abrupt interruption into the bridge from wisdom to the prophets, so the release of “God Save the Queen” interjected chaos into the cadence of the hyped, whitewashed celebration of the queen’s 25th anniversary on the throne.

Jon Savage recalls the occasion. With this performance, “The Sex Pistols appeared with all the force of a hand-grenade tossed into an arrangement of gladioli,” he writes. “God Save the Queen,” and the Pistols’ inauspicious performance of it aboard the ship on the Thames, was “the only serious anti-jubilee protest” to accompany the pomp. The Pistols “leapt into the abyss that had suddenly opened but very few followed them.” Nevertheless, the song split open a fissure in British society, exposing the social cracks in the mortar that had been spackled over during the Silver Jubilee.

It’s difficult, now, to imagine just how the song and the Pistols’ antics shocked Britons. “Noisy bands, weird clothes and swear words on prime-time TV don’t amount to much in the Eminem age,” writes one commentator, “yet the surge of creative energy punk released, and its defiance of the stifling conformism of the times, changed Britain for good, and for the better.”

One struggling singer-songwriter emerging on the scene at that time, Declan MacManus – better known to us today as Elvis Costello – recalls the shock waves “God Save the Queen” sent through the nation. “We were all living in this block of flats, and nobody had an awful lot of money. ... And there were all these people in 1977, when the Jubilee was on, wasting their money on a bloody street party for the queen. Perhaps it sounds small-minded now, but I used to really enjoy playing ‘God Save the Queen,’ loud, because all the little old ladies would be so outraged.”

The song itself strikes as hard and fast as an IRA terrorist’s Molotov Cocktail. It kicks off with Steve Jones’ “multi-tracked guitar fanfare,” evoking the opening licks from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Undergirded by “Paul Cook’s crisp drumming, ‘God Save the Queen’ declared itself very quickly.” But again, it is Rotten who gives voice to the protest, as Jon Savage explains. “‘God save the queen,’ enunciated Lydon very clearly in the spaces between Steve Jones’s guitar, before filing his ‘R’s to points: ‘The fascist regime. It made you a morrron – a potential H-bomb.’”

As incendiary as that opening salvo was, it was the song’s final chant – the refrain of no future, no future, no future – that came to define punk as a truly nihilistic movement. “No future” became the rallying cry of punks throughout England – and soon, throughout the western world.

Just as the author of Ecclesiastes concludes that life was nothing but “a bad business from start to finish” (Eccl. 2:21, Message) and advises his readers to simply “have a good time and get by the best you can” (Eccl. 2:24, Message), so the Pistols declared that nothing matters but the moment: There is no future/in England’s dreaming. Or in any other nation’s dreaming, for that matter.

“God Save the Queen,” writes Savage, “was shocking, not only because it said the present was a lie but also because it prophesied a dreadful future. .... ‘No Future’ was both a matter-of-fact statement and a terrible warning which had multiple applications, not only for the crumbling postwar consensus, but for the whole idea of youth culture and for the group themselves.” It was “the last gasp of youth culture as a single, unifying force.”

In a single refrain, “God Save the Queen” foretold the splintering of youth culture into myriad tribes and tongues.

No Feelings, No Fun, and No Holy Future
There was a nihilism in the atmosphere, a longing to die. – Mary Harron
Placed alongside two other Sex Pistols songs, “God Save the Queen” – which Lydon originally titled “No Future” but which McLaren, in his typical penchant for controversy, changed to make it more seditious – completes a type of nihilistic trinity for the nascent punk movement. Joined to the themes of Pistols songs “No Feelings” and “No Fun” (a Stooges tune that the Pistols “reframed and recontextualized so that it finally made sense”), the refrain to “God Save the Queen” completed this trinity and gave punks a belief system, based on a single word: No.

“The Sex Pistols’ music was an outburst of hatred and despair,” writes Tricia Henry. “Face life as we see it, they cried – frustrating, meaningless, and ugly. Scream it out with us ... ‘There’s no future!’” Pop music critic Greil Marcus adds that Lydon, in creating “God Save the Queen,” was “responding to an overwhelming sense that ... culture – political, economic, and aesthetic – has collapsed,” and left him “stranded in a society that seems not only without prospects but without meaning.”

But this existential angst, as we have seen, is nothing new. As old King Solomon (or whoever is the true author of Ecclesiastes) wrote, “There’s nothing new on this earth” (Eccl. 1:9, Message).

At some point in our lives, each of us must confront the existential crisis of No Feelings, No Fun, No Future. Each of us must peer into the abyss of existence – if not leap into it – and see what peers back at us. For such a journey of soul-searching, the Book of Ecclesiastes serves as a suitable guidebook after all. Looking at the Old Testament text within the context of punk’s nihilistic trinity, we can see that the Sex Pistols’ sermons resonate with the writings of the ancient preacher.

No Feelings: “I said to myself, ‘Let’s go for it – experiment with pleasure, have a good time!’ But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke” (Eccl. 2:1, Message). The preacher/teacher (or, perhaps more aptly, the “Quester,” as The Message calls Ecclesiastes’ author) sought pleasure – through love, through hedonism, through every conceivable avenue – yet concludes that it is all a waste of time. He put into practice a line from “No Feelings” – “I’m in love with myself/no feelings for anybody else” – but found that self-serving hedonism left him empty.

No Fun: “I piled up silver and gold, loot from kings and kingdoms. I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song, and – most exquisite of all pleasures – voluptuous maidens for my bed. ... Everything I wanted I took – I never said no to myself, I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing. I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task – my reward to myself for a hard day’s work!” (Eccl. 2:8-10, Message). Even so, all the pleasures of this life amounted to “nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing” (Eccl. 2:11, Message). All of the fun the preacher sought amounted to nothing, to no fun at all.

No Future: “Whatever happens, happens. Its destiny is fixed. You can’t argue with fate,” wrote the preacher (Eccl. 6:10, Message) And, “who can tell any of us the next chapter of our lives?” (Eccl. 6:11b, Message). Echoing the words of Ecclesiastes and Lydon – but perhaps more resonant of Lydon – Brad Warner, a former punk rocker-turned-Zen Buddhist priest, concludes: “There is no future for you. There is no future for anyone. There is no future at all. Future is an idea.”

(Part 2: 'The malaise of modern life')

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Blogger julie said...

Always thrilled to read a new installment! So, here are my off-the-top-of-my-head comments:

- RE: the beginning: I can't quite put my finger on what's hitting me differently...are you being intentionally elusive to not sound too Christian? (about "the preacher")

I still have the same "complaint." Where's the punk rock? Yancey, Shaeffer...if I pick up a book about punk music, then I expect to read about punk music, not rehashed philosopical musing on ennui.

That first part reads like it's a different book - great stuff, indeed, but still lacks the focus I commented about on the last chapter.

I can see it being taken out, and going from the first bits about Solomon, straight into the Sex Pistols, without all the extra 'splaining of the futilty of our existence(s).

There's a balance/ fine line between giving a bit of background to support what you're saying, and going off down a route that doesn't, essentially, pertain to the topic at hand. Like the bit about Eric Clapton - could be used as a footnote, perhaps.

And I still feel it's reading an awful lot like another history of punk (though, I totally might not be the target audience, as a fan of punk lore and a drop out philosophy/theology major *insert eye roll at self*) - weave the two together, more.

Like comparing Johnny Rotten to John the Baptist. That, I could have read more about. The parallels that are in the title of the book are what I'm looking for, not Hemingway's personal philosophy.

Though, thank you for not referring to Camus as an existentialist!!

The ending bits (at least one of which you already used earlier - yes, we get it, "smoke") definately could have been woven in earlier, with the historical information following...or something.

I liked this bit:

"Just as many in the church prefer to overlook dark portions of scripture such as Ecclesiastes in favor of happier or more pragmatic texts – many Christians treat Ecclesiastes “with polite distaste, as if it had sneaked into the canon when no one was looking,” says Yancey – so many in the music and entertainment business of the time preferred to turn their backs on the Sex Pistols’ gospel of nihilism to continue business as usual."

Absolutely! More of the two subjects being examined simultaneously - those are the best parts, so far. The meaty little pasties I'm interested in reading about.

And I'm trying very hard to sit atop my copy-editor's hat, but just a few things I noticed:

- "Well respected" should be hyphenated, well-respected

"He begins with a thumbnail assessment of the world situation, and, like a modern-day newspaper reporter.."

no comma between "situation" and "and"

"through study and the life of the mind; through the amassing of material wealth; through debauchery; and through hard work."

improper use of semi-colons

"Warner, echoes Ecclesiastes’ perspective, but in"

I'd get rid of that comma before "but..."

If you'd like me to red-pen it, I'd be more than happy to! I don't know if you had an editor, before sending it out or wot...

Oh, the only other comment: stop taking so long in-between installments! ;)

1:22 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Hey, Julie, thanks for the thoughtful and thorough commentary. Very constructive. Good copy editing, too. No, I don't have an editor yet -- but I'm not quite ready for one, either. If your offer still stands, though, I'll give you a shot at the stuff in the future.

I really have no idea who my target audience is. Originally I had planned to pitch it to evangelical Christian publishing houses (see generic proposal), but there is little demand for it. It's caught in the nether realm between Christian reader and ardent punk. Too worldly for the church and too churchy for the world, as they say...

What I'm throwing up at the blogosphere could definitely stand a solid dose of editing, and I realize this. Everything I've posted thus far could be cut by one-third and no harm would be done.

As for taking too long between installments, well, I just don't write that quickly. I've got part 2 of chapter 3 ready to go, but after that, I'm stuck. I was hoping to have some quality think time and writing time this month to work on this project but my "day job" had other plans. I've been cranking on 60-hour weeks, high stress level lately, and it saps my brain.

OK, OK, enough whining. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to share your thoughts. It is very much appreciated.

3:44 PM  

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