Saturday, January 11, 2014

Word for Word

I'm reading Rebecca Solnit's new book The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), because she's an interesting and thoughtful writer most of the time.  I nearly gave up on her during the 2012 election campaign, when she wrote a repulsively dishonest attack on Obama's critics from the left, which got reposted in several different places, and also rebutted.  It was a shameful performance, and not at all like her usual work; any Obamabot could have written it.  That -- and the fact that she didn't link to it on her own site with other essays she wanted to share -- is why I'm not going to link to it here; if you want to find it, it's easy enough to track down on the Web.  I am not sure I'll ever respect her politically again, but she does other things that I appreciate.  The Faraway Nearby, which I've nearly finished, is one of them.  But it also has some weaknesses, mainly when she talks about religion.

At one point she mentions the famous line from the book of Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
There's a sort of decay or mutation of language at work.  Vanitas is Latin.  It means emptiness and is related to the word vacant.  The Latin Vulgate Bible, the standard version for most of Europe for a thousand years, derives from the Greek Septuagint, where the word that occurs thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes is mataiotes, which means emptiness, meaninglessless, but also transience.  Does transience render all things meaningless?  The Hebrew word in the original of Ecclesiastes, unavailable until modern times, when scraps of surviving manuscript were found in dry caves, is hevel.  It means breath or vapor, and the sense of transience is vivid but the condemnation of the transient is nowhere to be found [90].
One of Solnit's best-known writings, at least on the Web, is "Men Explain Things to Me Facts Didn't Get in Their Way."  It was, I believe, the first thing I ever read by her, and it won me over.  She has a link to it on her website, so I figure she still stands by it.  So it's with trepidation that I am going to explain some things here.

One is that Solnit has evidently confused Ecclesiastes with Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach.  Ecclesiastes is part of the Hebrew canon, known to Christians as the Old Testament; the Hebrew text has always been available.  Ecclesiasticus is not part of the Hebrew canon.  It was written in Hebrew and eventually translated into Greek. The early Christian churches accepted it as part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which they used as their Old Testament, but nowadays you'll only find it in Catholic Bibles or study Bibles that include the Apocrypha. The original Hebrew version was lost until manuscripts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (Solnit's "dry caves") and elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As for the Vulgate, it doesn't derive from the Septuagint.  According to the Wikipedia article, Jerome (the priest and later saint who did most of the work) started by translating the gospels from the original Greek, and eventually translated all of the Old Testament from the Hebrew.  The only parts of the Vulgate that come from the Greek are the New Testament and those parts of the Apocrypha for which the Hebrew originals weren't available.  Solnit evidently thought it was important to discuss the Vulgate, though I'm not sure why; but if so, why didn't she bother to do her homework?

I considered sending Solnit an e-mail about this, but while she has a website, her only contact information is for her agent, since "I can’t reply to all the communications that come my way, and I apologize, because I’m grateful people read my work and think about it and want to talk about it."  Fair enough; I'm not criticizing her for that.  I'm just explaining why I didn't ask her about it first.

As you can guess from the quotation above, Solnit is rather too fond of taking isolated words and telling you their etymology, implying that a word's origins determine its present meaning.  So, near the end of the book, she writes about the word "emergency":
If you look up the origin of the word you will be sent to the word emergence, and emergence leads to emerge: an emergency is a sudden emerging.  The first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for emergency is the same as for emergence: "the rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.  Now rare."  ... And then the definition we're used to, "a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action."

An emergency is an accelerated phase of life, a point at which change is begotten, a little like a crisis ... If an emergency is an accelerated emergence, merge is the opposite condition, "to immerse or plunge (a person, esp. oneself) in a specified activity, way of life, environment, etc." or "to immerse or plunge in a liquid" or "to cause to be incorporated, absorbed, or amalgamated" [249-50].
All this isn't without interest, I suppose, but it is largely irrelevant.  As the New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin says, "The etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning" (Sex and the Single Savior [Westminster/John Knox, 2006], 39).  Solnit concedes that the English word "vanity" has a pejorative sense that the Hebrew, Greek and Latin words it translates apparently didn't have -- but "vanity" didn't have that connotation even in English, when King James's men used it in their translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Whether "condemnation of the transient is ... to be found" there can't be settled by obsessively focusing on one word, it can only be settled (if at all) by looking at how the word is used in context.  Read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes yourself, and see what you think.  I don't think the transient is exactly condemned, but it isn't seen positively either.  I think the writer is saying that what people (including himself when he was younger) think is important is not important; nothing lasts.  Since the original words indicate not merely transience but emptiness and meaninglessness, transience here is hardly a neutral quality.

I enjoyed The Faraway Nearby, but Solnit's at her best when she's talking more directly and personally about mortality, human connection, and other matters.