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Thank you for putting on such an imaginative and daring series of programmes, for honoring Purdy, and for inviting my little buddy, Neil Besner, and me to participate. We both thought it was the right thing and better still a hoot. This was a wild and wonderful scheme! A fabulous act of imagination and daring. - Poet Dennis Cooley (on Mondo!Purdy 2009)

ideaExchange Transcript 1.22.05


Our Guitars are Tuned to Despair:
Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain, and the Book of Ecclesiastes - Rev. Jamie Howison, st. benedict's table 1.22.05

A word or two of introduction. In considering the Book of Ecclesiastes, it is important to acknowledge that there are many, many critical questions to which biblical scholars respond with a range of possible answers. The least of these is certainly not the question of authorship, with many conservative scholars defending the book's traditional attribution as being from the pen of King Solomon, and others positing a variety of alternative answers. Rather than bogging down on this question, I have simply taken the route of dealing with the book on its own terms, and in designating the writer as "the Teacher," after the manner of the Hebrew original. I have also made a fairly negative and bleak reading of the text, and must acknowledge that there is an array of alternate interpretations (as was made abundantly clear during the question/discussion time when I first delivered this material at IdeaExchange!). For an interesting and readable introduction to these issues, you can consult the chapter "Ecclesiastes: The End of Wisdom" from Philip Yancy's The Bible Jesus Read.

I am fascinated by the relevance of Koheleth (otherwise known as the Book of Ecclesiastes). Unlike any other book of the Bible we can read him without intermediaries and think that we understand him. Key sentences and insights can be directly translated into our everyday phraseology of resignation, although admittedly they lose something in the process. His summation, "all is vanity" or emptiness, a stirring of the air (hebel; 1:2; 12:8), is really not so different from our modern "everything is shit."

That from the German Old Testament scholar Frank Crusemann, in an article entitled, "The Unchangeable World: the 'Crisis of Wisdom in Koheleth." "Everything is shit," or perhaps more gently, "Life is hard, then you die." That one is from a bumper sticker that had some popularity about a decade back; a bumper sticker designed to make us laugh, partly because on at least some days we recognize it as true. My starting point in this paper is to suggest that if the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes had decided to put a bumper sticker on his chariot, he would not have been drawn to one of those more religious ones you often see - "God is my co-pilot" or "honk if you love Jesus" - but he may well have opted for "Life is hard..." In fact, he might have been a little tempted to choose one of the more cynical and mischievous stickers I've seen riding the back of a car; one which proclaimed in large letters "I found Jesus," and then added in a much smaller font, "he was behind the couch the whole time."

You see, the writer - "the Teacher," as the Hebrew word Koheleth is best translated - might have at least smiled darkly at the thought of such a phrase, for deep in his heart lay a fearful sense that God is unknowable, ineffable, un-findable. The Teacher does not for a minute doubt the existence of God. He just despairs, and that is a very different thing from doubt. As the Twentieth Century theologian Paul Tillich emphasized, far from being the opposite of faith, doubt is encompassed within faith. To care enough to seriously struggle with doubt is to be in the grip of faith. As Frederick Buechner so elegantly phrased it, "If there is no room for doubt, there is no room for me."

No, despair cuts deeper, because the one who has reached a place of despair has begun to fear, to recall the phrase from Sartre, that there is "no exit." This all means nothing, it is carrying me nowhere, and there is nothing I can meaningfully do to change that. The Teacher is struggling with such despair, because he cannot entirely believe that God's existence makes any real difference in his very particular life. For all that he tries to insert something more affirming or hopeful into this strange book, on balance you cannot help but be washed over by his despair.

1:10 - Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been, in the ages before us.

1:18 - For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

2:17 - So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

8:17 - Then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

11:8 - Even those who live for many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

This is in the Bible? What sort of a religious faith carries such texts in the heart of its scriptures?

In his suicide note, rock music icon Kurt Cobain wrote, "Since the age of seven I've become hateful of all human beings in general." The age of seven, the age when his parents divorced. Say what you will about divorce and broken families, for that seven year old it marked the birth of a hateful despair. The world as he had known it changed, and there was not a thing he could do about it. Angry despair surfaces in the music of Cobain's band, the ironically named Nirvana. It is evident in the rage of the big "grunge" sound, but also in the bleakness of a song like "Something in the Way," from 1991's Nevermind. It is written all over his face in photographs, and it is pushed right in the listener's face in a song like "I Hate Myself and Want to Die," which had actually been intended to serve as the title track for 1993's In Utero. It is hauntingly evident in the anguished vocals on the posthumously released and raggedly beautiful Unplugged in New York.

For all that Kurt Cobain seemed to have an aversion to success and celebrity, one of his biographers suggests that the musician's entire career was a prolonged scream for attention. The agony, of course, is that fame did not deliver on its promise to fulfill. Fame could not fulfill, nor could his marriage to Courtney Love, his deep dependence on heroin and various other drugs, or even fatherhood. He remained in pain, angry, and empty. It is the Teacher again:

2:1 - I said to myself, 'Let me experiment with pleasure and have a good time; but this also turned out to be a vapour. (Anchor Bible translation )

Endless entertainment, sexual excess, fame, wine, stuff... nothing fulfilled, and so eventually Cobain put a rifle in his mouth and blew his brains out. The Teacher hung on by his fingernails, maybe just a bit too proud or maybe just a bit to humbled by his belief in an unknowable God, to slit his wrists.

And there are other voices, other instances of this sense of emptiness in our privileged cultural milieu. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus writing existential novels, plays and essays of despair... ironically from the beauty, security and relative affluence of post-war Paris. Did you realize that San Francisco, one of the most beautiful and certainly most affluent cities in the United States has that nation's highest suicide rate? It rings so true, this insight of the Teacher, that getting everything you want ultimately will not do it; will not satisfy or create meaning. The hungry emptiness remains.

Elliott Smith is yet another case in point. A member of a legendary grunge band turned intense solo artist turned surprising celebrity, thanks to his song Misery being included in the soundtrack to the film, Good Will Hunting. A surprising/surprised and reluctant celebrity, who, after performing at the Academy awards, was much perplexed to find that he quite liked Celine Dion. There was a serious drug habit already in place by the time of this success, but it only deepened in the chaos and confusion of making the big time. And now, Smith is dead, probably due to a suicide, though there is renewed speculation that it might have been a murder. If Cobain's agony and despair was given voice in the sonic force of Nirvana's music, with Smith it is the lyrics that tell the story. In fact, his music is oddly pretty, Beatlesque, almost unsettling in the words that it bears.

one hit wouldn't hurt a bit at all
slow down sleep
what's
if it's good shit you won't know
and I won't know the fact that I'm dying
If I seem to be reckless with myself
it's the fault of no one
all things have a place
under the moon as well as the sun
one more
little one I love you

from "A Little One"

>From a Basement on the Hill

It is all but impossible to miss the reference to the Teacher's "there is nothing new under the sun."

he said really I just wanna dance
good and evil perfect it's a great romance
I can deal with some psychic pain
if it'll slow down my higher brain
veins full of disappearing ink
vomiting in the kitchen sink
disconnecting from the missing link
this is not my life
it's just a fond farewell to a friend
it's not what I'm like
it's just a fond farewell to a friend
who couldn't get things right

from "A Fond Farewell"

>From a Basement on the Hill

These from his album From a Basement on the Hill, released after his death, but more notably recorded before he ostensibly kicked his addiction.

everything is gone but the echo of the burst of a shell
and I'm stuck here waiting for a passing feeling
in the city I built up and blew to hell
I'm stuck here waiting fro a passing feeling
still I sinned all the time
my request for relief
down the dead power lines
though I'm beyond belief
in the help I require
just to exist at all
took a long time to stand
took an hour to fall

"A Passing Feeling"

>From a Basement on the Hill

It would be a luxury at such a point in one's life to care about something enough to have doubts. This is despair.

And that, you see, is the dread of the Teacher. Though he believes that there is a God, God's will is hidden, God's purposes unknowable, God's presence unthinkable. Some prosper and some suffer, and it seems to have little to do with goodness or righteousness. You can get it all, but still feel empty. You can get it all, but still you die. It is but a grasping at the air. He squeezes out just a little more, but it seems almost born of stubbornness. Youthfulness, he says, has some joy; yet we age. Food and wine and love can bring satisfaction, but they can easily become empty strivings as we invest them with too much weight. Wisdom is better than folly, yet do not think it will solve anything. "Remember God in the days of your youth" (12:1) he says. Reverence God and obey torah, and it might offer some balancing of the dread.

The parallels between the Teacher and these musicians and writers are not incidental. The Teacher writes out of a context of affluence and relative stability, out of a time when people had the luxury to consider such things. It does not come from the struggle of the Sinai desert or from the experience of slavery or from the hellish nightmare of the Babylonian exile. The Teacher writes from a place not unlike a Paris café or a Seattle mansion, or even a relatively affluent Prairie city in which most of can take food and shelter for granted. His world had also forgotten the struggle for justice for the broken and impoverished of the world.

It should come as no surprise that he felt and expressed such things, but it should strike us as odd that it has landed in scripture. In Judaism, part of the Feast of Booths is to read the book aloud in its entirety to the assembled family. Christians do no such thing; in fact we rarely read it at all, and almost never in public worship. Yet maybe we should. J.I. Packer calls this, "the one book in Scripture that is expressly designed to turn us into realists," and in a world of alluring affluence one thing we might just be most in need of is a hit of reality.

What kind of a religious faith includes such a text in its scriptures? One that at its best understands that we will feel and fear such dread and despair at some point in life, and that we must not be left to do that alone. We need to know that my despair has been given voice before, right in the heart of scripture.

Yet it is also a faith that knows that this is but one voice, one piece of the story, one of the seasons of life and faith. And just as you can't proof-text your way to happiness, you can't proof-text yourself to despair. It is one voice. It should unnerve, unsettle, and even shock us from our easy answers. Yet it is but one voice, and beside it and across the seasons of faith we must hear those other voices as well, such that the monotone of the Teacher can find harmony with the joy of the praise psalms, the liberating texts of Exodus, the grace of the Gospel.

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