Monday, April 26, 2010

Better than Qoheleth?

The French have a proverb - le meilleur est l'enemie du bon. I found myself irritated at the small ignorance that I sat through in a sermon. Was this an anger I should have had? It was an ignorance I have known of all my life. I was like everyone else born into it. It is a limitation to our language that is from our beginning. Why should I be angry? Because the limitation attempts to define faith and fails to see that it is appealing to a power structure and not to love.

I imagined the proverb in Hebrew הטוב האיב מהטוב and I back translated it - without using the word better since Hebrew doesn't really have comparative forms. The battle is with the light that it was good. Elohim did not see the light and say - that'll do. Was there anything better than the light? When we taste and see, (Psalm 34:8-9) are we looking for the better? Like those chorus daughters of Zion in the Song! (Song 5:9)

Now you will know I am struggling with Ecclesiastes. The declaimer-philosopher-king-preacher is trying to work out from his position of richness what in the life of the world is not futile. (Bored with the irritating sermon, I read some of Ecclesiastes in the New English Bible and I see they chose futility for havel. Nice, I said to my heart, I am not so out to lunch in my picking of glosses as I might have thought.)

But I am not making the assumption that 'x m-y' in Hebrew necessarily means x is better than y. It might mean something quite different if we are not too quick in our juxtapositioning and comparisons as we normally are when we read. Must we put everything on a 10 point scale? My mother-in-law used to say - comparisons are odious. A good sentiment much of the time. It's the usual problem - we ought not to jump to the conclusion that we know the meaning and can therefore communicate it with 'plain' or 'natural' English. Meaning and understanding come from something much deeper - like the name I heard this morning for the lad, Derin, which in Turkish means 'deep'.

The same day as the sermon, we heard the 3rd symphony of Sibelius played wonderfully by the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra. The third movement is first like a set of cells of what eventually emerges as the final theme. It is like humanity and like my thoughts before they emerge. There is a grand theme but it is first perceived in snatches.

Like the sermon on money and faith, a misrepresentation of both though there was some use in it, my reflections on Ecclesiastes are suffering confusion. In some ways I don't even want the translation to 'make sense' - perhaps it should be rendered in the rhyming doggerel of Dr Seuss.

Say to me, my Hebraic friends - how would you back translate הטוב האיב מהטוב if you found this phrase in front of you? Hellenistic ones, please also try too. Does Greek have comparatives? Is this prefiguring the dissociation of good from good and the failure of satisfaction all over again? Why is satisfactory an inadequate word in our language?

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