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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Qohelet and Deconstruction

I am excited for this Friday's Evangelical Theological Society Midwest Regional Meeting. Unfortunately, for the second consecutive year in a row your's truly submitted a paper that was turned down for a reading.....Yes, I hear the violin music playing...and, yes, I will take cheese with my whine....In any case, I thought I would take a break from wallowing in self-pity (see my previous post on narcissism!) and post this year's failed submission for your thoughtful consideration.


This paper is only the beginning of my research on Qohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes). I am fascinated by it because I see many themes which contemporary philosophy is exploring, or should explore as far as I am concerned. One of these themes is deconstruction. In this paper I make an attempt to show that Qohelet is deconstructing the human experience. I do that by exegesis of the key word hebel (the "b" is pronounced more like a "v" in Hebrew, and if you really want to sound Semitic you will might sound the "h" with a gutteral!) and showing that at bottom hebel is functioning as a destabilizing device.

There is by no means a consensus on the study of hebel, or even on anything related to Qohelet for that matter. So, in this current paper I take a look at Douglas Miller's recent work and pit it against Michael Fox's highly respected studies. The result is a tension on interpreting hebel. Hebel, as I mentioned, is the key word in Qohelet's thought and is sometimes translated as "meaningless" or "vanity", etc. It occurs nearly forty times and has produced varying interpretations. Fox, on the one hand, wants us to preserve a common meaning to hebel, while Miller leans more towards seeing diversity to the term (but also wants us to see hebel as a unifying symbol). This is an important and key philosophical contrast: Is there one thing that is true of all experiences in this world, or is Qohelet leveling different critiques as he examines different aspects of the human condition.

I believe I have an interesting solution to this tension, and I find it by interpreting hebel as a destabilizing device that is used in a deconstruction of the human experience.

Enjoy and don't forget to leave a comment.


Lindsay said...

Sorry, your paper didn't make it in the meeting for the reading, but I bet the paper was well written! They just don't know what they're missing. Do you have another chance next year?

ktismatics said...

Sorry to hear it got rejected. Did the reviewers say why? I found my comments on your paper from an email correspondence of a couple months ago:

Jon -

I'm persuaded! This is a good argument.

I think you're right about hebel being a destabilizing term. On first reading I thought Qoheleth spoke of hebel only when describing the futility of effort, labor, striving, etc. But, as you point out, it's not just about doing; it's also about being. You chase after something and find hebel at the end of the chase. Hebel isn't an adjective or an adverb; it's a noun. It's not just a qualifying description of life or of living; it's life itself. I agree: Qoheleth uses the word to describe the intrinsically destabilizing thing, or lack, that's undermines all of life.

As to the notion of hebel as "tensive symbol" -- "chasing after wind," or "under the sun" seem to fit the idea of symbol more clearly: they are concrete things used to symbolize a more abstract concept. Hebel is already an abstraction. What seems to happen is the inverse of symbolization: Qoheleth takes this abstract word and makes it into something almost concrete -- as if hebel is an object that all these futile aspects of life share. The specific examples Qoheleth cites are perhaps the symbols, pointing to the abstract thing of hebel.

And hebel is a thing that is not a thing: it is a thing defined by its absence. Now we're moving into Lacan territory, and his concept of the phallus as that obscure object of desire that is defined by its absence. Successful Lacanian therapy involves coming to grips with the truth that no one has this absent thing -- or so the secondary sources tell me: I find Lacan almost completely impenetrable as a writer. But I think that's kind of the idea here too: life seems like the pursuit of something, but in fact it's the pursuit of the absence of the thing. We're all really pursuing hebel.

Good paper, nicely reasoned, good use of textual evidence, good engagement with the literature.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics says....Sorry to hear it got rejected. Did the reviewers say why?

I am not an actual member of ETS, so I submitted my paper as a student submission. They take a limited number of student papers, and they said that "there were too many student papers submitted this year." So, really, I don't even think my paper was read or reviewed. I have a feeling that the review project for student papers is not rigorous or a "blind review". My hunch is that there is just one guy that picks one or two papers he likes and then pitches the rest of them!

ktismatics said...

You're probably right. Or maybe some students' advisors are on the selection committee or are big names in the field whom the selectors want to kiss up to.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I just found out that there is some sort of "student competition" this year, so hence the large number of submissions....that, and these regional meetings are getting quite popular. So, all this will make for some good papers, I think. I look forward to it....Of course, I wouldn't want to discourage conspiracy theories!

ktismatics said...

I guess I hold a dim view of human nature, even as manifested by a respected cadre of evangelical academics.

Melody said...

Meh, just because they're evangelical academics doesn't mean they don't have the same dim human nature as every one else.