Thursday, April 03, 2014

The gathering darkness


12 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccl 12:1-7).
Traditionally, this passage is taken to be an allegory of senescence. Some recent commentators challenge that interpretation. However, the set-up in the first verse, with its implicit contrast between youth and the ravages of old age, favors the traditional interpretation. 
Although many of the images clearly lend themselves to figuratively depicting our declining years, some of the images are less transparently illustrative of the aging process. Attempting to locate the analogue is fairly arbitrary. Indeed, that's one reason the traditional interpretation has lately been challenged.
However, this may simply mean the author is not attempting a create a rigid correspondence, but using a variety of metaphors impressionistically to build a general picture. 
Commentators who view this passage as an allegory of senescence try to identify how the metaphors depict different physical aspects of aging, like sensory deprivation or loss of balance. And that's valid as far as it goes.
However, some of the imagery can also allegorize the psychological aspects of senescence. An allegory of senility. If so, this may be the earliest literary record of senile dementia. 
Aging can darken the mind as well as the eyes. Aging can cloud our memories. 
On the one hand, an aging body leads the elderly to withdraw by stages from the physical world. Their field of action contracts over time. At first they may walk around the block. Then walk around their yard. Then they may become housebound, and finally bed-ridden. Their physical world becomes concentrically smaller. From a city, to a city block, to a house, to a bedroom. 
On the other hand, an aging brain leads the elderly to withdraw by stages from the mental world. At first they forget the present. Then they begin to forget the past. Their field of recognition contracts, from friends to family. Eventually, they may forget their own identity. Their psychological world becomes ever smaller. 
If physical decline contracts our access to space, psychological decline contracts our access to time. Increasingly isolated in all dimensions. 
If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, then this may be an elegy to his father David's atrophy from the mentally and physical vigorous king to the shell of his former self in 1 Kings 1. 
I had a relative who began to lose her mind in her final years. Thankfully, she passed away before the process was complete. It was startling how she could alternate between lucidity and senility. There was often a deceptive normality. Her personality intact. Yet chunks of memory were missing. You didn't know from one hour to the next which person would emerge.  
Sometimes the soul could reroute around the washed out bridges of a deteriorating brain, but other times it was lost–stranded on the wrong side of the riverbank. Habit was all she had to stay centered. Habits of the mind. A daily routine. 
Without God we are all so pitifully vulnerable. 

3 comments:

  1. As an old school Reformed Episcopalian, Reformed in most senses, but a Prayer Book Churchman, we memorized this as lads. It applies to old and young alike. Fear God, believe his Gospel, walk quietly, trustingly, obediently, and piously.

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  2. Without God we are all so pitifully vulnerable.

    I'm reminded of Calvin's Intitutes book I, chapter 17, section 10:

    10. Here we are forcibly reminded of the inestimable felicity of a pious mind. Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms. Not to go beyond ourselves, since the body is a receptacle, nay the nurse, of a thousand diseases, a man cannot move without carrying along with him many forms of destruction. His life is in a manner interwoven with death. For what else can be said where heat and cold bring equal danger? Then, in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger. If a sharp instrument is in your own hand, or that of a friend, the possible harm is manifest. All the savage beasts you see are so many beings armed for your destruction. Even within a high walled garden, where everything ministers to delight, a serpent will sometimes lurk. Your house, constantly exposed to fire, threatens you with poverty by day, with destruction by night....

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    1. ....Your fields, subject to hail, mildew, drought, and other injuries, denounce barrenness, and thereby famine. I say nothing of poison, treachery, robbery, some of which beset us at home, others follow us abroad. Amid these perils, must not man be very miserable, as one who, more dead than alive, with difficulty draws an anxious and feeble breath, just as if a drawn sword were constantly suspended over his neck? It may be said that these things happen seldom, at least not always, or to all, certainly never all at once. I admit it; but since we are reminded by the example of others, that they may also happen to us, and that our life is not an exception any more than theirs, it is impossible not to fear and dread as if they were to befall us. What can you imagine more grievous than such trepidation? Add that there is something like an insult to God when it is said, that man, the noblest of the creatures, stands exposed to every blind and random stroke of fortune. Here, however, we were only referring to the misery which man should feel, were he placed under the dominion of chance.

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