Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Brief Musing from Qohelet - Joy in the Fray: a Subversive Work Ethic

Odium tremendum
morally slanted—frayed,
mysterium tremendum
hidden in the mundane.
~ DJ Seifert (from "Holy Irony")

But yield who will to their separation,
My objects in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really ever done
For Heaven and the future’s sake.
~ R. Frost,  (from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”)

The legendary sage in the ancient Hebrew text, Ecclesiastes, is known for his gentle to almost gloomy cynicism. Yet interspersed within a diversity of life-giving expressions in the form (genre) and tradition of lament and complaint, there are peaks of commendations that assist the human quest against the futility, meaningless and absurdity experienced by thoughtful beings. The primary question of this text seems to revolve around the question. “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?"

The sage provides several responses to this common yet troubling question. One such response takes on the subject of work itself, which is a radical, ruthless testing of the traditional views in light of reason and experience.

The sage finds enjoyment and intrinsic value in work itself; he commends devotion to one’s work, for toil resides exclusively in the land of living (9.10); so the positive values of labor are set within the formative context of rest, refreshment, and fellowship (4.9).

Moreover, the sage, rather than disparage work, redefines it by dislodging it from the realm of the marketplace and setting it within the ethos of enjoyment. This “work ethic” is profoundly subversive and relevant in our modern monetary, capitalistic culture, it is necessary for the those who seek to live more fully human.

The commendation of enjoyment (seven times) is seemingly at odds with the stark sobering, if not down-right pessimistic, view of life (2.24; 3.12-13, 22; 5.18; 8.15; 9.7-10; 11.8-10). The sage’s tensive reflection makes existential sense, saying that enjoyment has the power to redeem the notion of toil amid (verses over and against) the vicissitudes of life, the elusiveness of gain, and the ravaging power of death.

Perhaps the sage was a self-pronounced “minimalist” when it comes to discerning what is ultimately worthwhile in human existence. The examples of the “good life” are simple, unpretentious, and consistently commonplace: eating, drinking, and finding some shred of satisfaction in one’s toil.

The value of enjoyment (defined negatively in relation to a valuative scale: “there is nothing better than”) carries superlative force and set against the bleak landscape of life that is impenetrable to human discernment (1.15; 3.11), governed by God’s inscrutable will (e.g., 9.11-12) and devoid of gainful purpose or progress. These commendations are embedded in examples of absurdity: the arduousness of toil (2.23), the impenetrability of time (3.11), the fragility of life and ignorance about the future (3.21), the tragic loss of gain (5.13-17), and the overturning of moral standards (8.14). Set against these absurdities, joy becomes absurdly minimal yet remains redemptively significant. “There is joy in the fray.”

   William P. Brown, “Whatever Your Hand Find’s to Do”, Interpretation, 55.03 (2006), 280-281
   Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
   DJ Seifert, “Holy Irony” (2013)
   Image: Andrew Wyeth, Pentecost, 1989