When, years ago, I heard that our grandson, a graduate in English, had elected to research comics for his Ph.D. degree, I decided not to ask for any details, to prevent me from making derogatory comments. For I was wondering if the world of academia had gone mad, offering university degrees in pop music and football, as well as doctorates in comics!
Then, recently, he blessed me with a signed copy of the published paperback of his doctoral thesis, entitled Reading Art Spiegelman, which I devoured with growing interest. In actual fact, the conclusion of Dr Philip Smith’s research led him to ‘. . . discover that there is no sane world . . .’ – an actual (but abbreviated) quotation made by one of the comic characters!
So who is Art Spiegelman? He’s a political cartoonist, the son of a Jewish father who had survived the horrors of Auschwitz. Spiegelman deemed the Holocaust to be ‘the death-knell of the Enlightenment.’ He remarked in 1999, ‘Western civilization ended at Auschwitz. And we still haven’t noticed it.’ He tells of Elie Weisel, another Jewish internee, who quoted an anonymous S.S. officer: ‘One day you will speak of all this, but your story will fall on deaf ears. . . You will possess the truth, but it will be the truth of a madman.’ Spiegelman includes the September 11 terrorists’ assault on U S A in 2001 in his assessment of the hidden state of civilised society.
My learned grandson has never been to Auschwitz. However, I had visited that museum of horror many years ago during one of my many journeys into Poland. I heard no birdsong in its eerie atmosphere, as all us tourists moved among its memorial displays in funereal silence. At the conclusion of our tour I rushed out of the main gateway ahead of my Polish friends so that I could howl aloud the intense agony of my soul at the evidence I had seen of civilised ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. I rarely weep, although I am able to empathize moist-eyed with those who are suffering, but that day the tears gushed freely, accompanying my full-volumed sobs.
Ecclesiastes – Solomon’s thesis on the world’s madness
On five occasions, in most English translations of Ecclesiastes, the subject of ‘madness’ occurs. Eugene Peterson’s version, The Message, renders the adjective ‘mad’ as ‘mindless’, ‘stupid’, ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’. Dictionaries render ‘madness’ as: ‘senseless disorder of the mind deranged by violent sensations, emotions, and ideas that lack restraint or reason.’ And, as Dr Smith observed, it causes the [affected] individual to be marginalized by rational society.’ We would doubt the testimony of those who are currently mad because of the distorted way they might view the world; indeed, even when they have recovered their sanity, their memory of events can still be distorted. For example, Edith P’s oral testimony of Auschwitz includes this statement: ‘When the sun came up it was not like the sun! I swear to you it was not bright! It was always red . . . [or] black to me, it . . . never was life to me. It was destruction’ (1966; quoted by Smith, pages 69-70).
Peterson, in his brief introduction to Ecclesiastes, reckons that ‘The Teacher’ (or ‘Quester’ as he refers to him) had investigated the ‘futility . . . of money, sex, power, adventure and knowledge’; to which we could add: and the pointlessness of entertainment, valuable artwork, religion, spirituality, justice, longevity, diligent labour, regular routines and self-improvement. He’d left no stone unturned!
I will consider briefly these five references to madness in Ecclesiastes 1:17; 2:12; 7:25; 9:3 and 10:13 in the New Living Translation, each within one of the five sections of the book, as I perceive its structure.
The author began and ended his thesis with the conclusion from his wide-ranging research that: ‘everything is meaningless . . . completely meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 and 12:8-13).
- Serious effort spent on pleasures and treasures is pointless (Ecclesiastes 1:3 – 2-11)
‘. . . I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly’ (Ecclesiastes 1:17a). The Teacher could have written simply that his research ranged from wisdom as one extreme and folly as the other. So why did he also mention madness? Perhaps the clue is in the next sentence: ‘But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind’ (Ecclesiastes 1:17b).
Having observed the world in general as ‘the same old same old’ (Ecclesiastes 1:3-8) he concluded that ‘history teaches us that history teaches us nothing’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11). After recording his qualifications and methodology (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18) he tells how he found pleasures (including entertainment) are pointless, as also are treasures (including the hard work of the designing and construction of grand building and gardens (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).
- Philosophy is futile (Ecclesiastes 2:12-26)
‘. . . I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness’ (Ecclesiastes 2:12). Of course, he concluded that wisdom is best, but the mad part is that clever folk eventually die, not just the clueless (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17). And, annoyingly, the diligent worker often leaves his legacy to some bumbling buffoon; so it’s best to take time to enjoy the fruit of your labour and lose your anxiety in fellowship with the God who gifted you and enables your labours (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26).
- Logic is limited (Ecclesiastes 3:1 – 7:29)
The Teacher seems to arrive after these seven chapters of research at the conclusion that logic (‘the reason for things’) is limited. He said: ‘I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness’ (Ecclesiastes 7:25). So, how did he arrive at that opinion? What were his observations on his journey? Here’s my summary of his thesis.
- Respect God’s changing seasons (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)
- Life can be unfair – but God will be the final Judge (Ecclesiastes 3:16 – 4:6)
- We work better together than alone (Ecclesiastes 4:7-12)
- Popularity is fickle (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)
- Think soberly before making a promise (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
- Wealth is unfulfilling – without God (Ecclesiastes 5:8 – 6:9)
- You were designed to be virtuous – but how long have you got? (Ecclesiastes 6:10 – 7:29)
Any or even all of the above could drive you mad!
- Have fun, be happy while you can (Ecclesiastes 8:1 – 10:4)
‘It seems so tragic that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. That is why people are not more careful to be good. Instead, they choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway’ (Ecclesiastes 9:3)
 Maintain social order (Ecclesiastes 8:1-17)
 Never forget we’re all mortal (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)
 So, wisdom is better than folly (Ecclesiastes 9:13 – 10:4)
- Keep in mind that your Creator will eventually assess your life (Ecclesiastes 10:5 – 12:14)
‘Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions, so their conclusions will be wicked madness; they chatter on’ (Ecclesiastes 10:13-14) with their empty-headed assumptions.
 Life is a conundrum (Ecclesiastes 10:5 -11:6)
 So, get smart (Ecclesiastes 11:7 – 12:7)
 Conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14)
‘Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 The Message).
- Solomon’s is not God’s last word, however. ‘. . . now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son . . . And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again . . . to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him’ (Hebrews 1:2; and 9:27-28).