Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is the Bible good English literature?

I'm surprised — amused, not irritated—to find Richard Dawkins arguing in favor of the idea that the King James Bible is "a great work of literature", deserving a place in the libraries of UK state schools.

We get a better grasp of Dawkins's motivations (likes and dislikes) through his comments concerning the famous words of Ecclesiastes 1:2 evoking the absurd emptiness and fleeting futility of our human existence: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." Countless members of my generation in the English-speaking world have been struck by those Biblical words—now replaced, in modern translations, by more down-to-earth terms—but it's not at all certain that we've all understood what the speaker was really saying. In any case, this sentence cannot be looked upon as a sample of fine expression, neither in modern English nor even in old-fashioned words.

First, the all-important word "vanity" means little more these days than excessive and foolish pride in oneself. Admittedly, the expression "in vain" starts to hint at what the unidentifiable speaker (named Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and, incidentally, not at all a "preacher" in the modern sense of this word) was saying: namely, that our existence is vaporous, a brief gust of wind. Indeed, the Hebrew term הֲבֵל (havel) signifies "a breath". It is not by mere coincidence that this same word appears in Genesis as the name of the first human being to die: Abel, slain by his brother Cain.

The expression "vanity of vanities" is not ordinary English, but we end up understanding what the Bible seems to be saying. In Hebrew, havel havelim (literally "breath of breaths") is a superlative form that might be translated literally as "ultimate vaporousness". In other words, in the context of all that might be thought of as vaporous, Qoheleth evokes a supreme instance, like the terminal value in calculus of a function, expressed as the sum of a series of increasingly-infinitesimal elements, when the number of summations approaches infinity.

In the line of the King James Bible that Dawkins appreciates, the presence of the archaic form "saith" of the verb "to say" is hardly a sign of great English. It's rather obsolete English. Consequently, I can't help wondering whether Dawkins might not be making a donnish attempt to pull our legs when he evokes the alleged literary greatness of the King James Bible.

The explanation, I believe, is more subtle. In the '50s, for the youth named Richard Dawkins, as for me, the "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" declaration was a kind of absurdist slogan, on a par with other attractive existentialist nonsense such as Sartre's "Hell is other people". It conveyed the charming image of frocked but befuddled archbishops (we were Anglicans) who paraded like peacocks, and tried vainly to adjust their faith to science. We liked this kind of language, because we sensed that it was dynamite, and we soon set about investigating its supposed profundity and ramifications.

In the case of Richard Dawkins, the former Anglican lad, a latter-day Qoheleth, metamorphosed into a poet of science, hit upon a fantastic new way of saying that "all is vanity", that we were struck by the fleeting breath of awareness:
The Universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple -- just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not -- the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved literally out of nothing -- is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even this is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.
                                       — The Ancestor's Tale  2005  p 613
Yes, Richard, we must honor the King James Bible. It's an indirect way of honoring your fabulous intellectual path and quest.

Now, were you really serious about promoting the presence of antiquated religious documents in UK school libraries? Or were you joking? And what about Shakespeare?


  1. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"

    My first thought was "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!"

  2. I like Chouraqui, who translates
    Smoke of smokes, everything is smoke.