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Vanity and V-8sVanity and V-8s

Vanity and V-8s

In a wrecking yard south of Ottawa, Convivium publisher Peter Stockland finds cars that people might have cried in coming home from a funeral, giving him a key to one of the most perplexing books in the Hebrew Bible.

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Vanity and V-8s August 1, 2016  |  By Peter Stockland
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Walking in Joe Martelle's Boneyard under a hot summer sun, I picture myself stumbling in surprise upon a worse-for-wear luxury Chrysler Ecclesiastes. It is a vain imagining. Automakers rarely, if ever, draw their product names from the Hebrew Bible. If their marketing wizards ever descended upon the Boneyard, though, they might appreciate why the Scripture "vanity, vanity, all is vanity" so perfectly registers the true book value of their products. Imagine: new car showroom. Visualize: clunker in the driveway. Haven't we been around this block before?

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun," says the world-weary sage in Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth in Hebrew). "Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time."

What better confirmation of that could the modern eye receive than to encounter whole meadows and forests overflowing with the hulks of broken-down cars, trucks, vans, campers, trailers and buses? For the Martelle family's Boneyard is not your garden variety wrecking yard. It actually is, or at least parts of it have been, a garden.

Situated among side-road cornfields a few kilometres from Spencerville, Ont., an hour's drive south of Ottawa, the land was a family farm when the Martelles bought it in the 1950s. Joe's father worked a small-scale dairy on it for a while and drove the local milk truck; but at some point, it became a place where old or incapacitated cars were brought to be, well, put out to pasture.

There's much more soft earth and long grass than grit and gravel. There's plenty of rust, but no piles of car bodies beneath behemoth machines waiting to be crushed into cubes of compacted scrap. Pushed into the shadowed trees, overburdened with white wildflowers, going down for the last time under green weeds and broadleaf brush, the vehicles look as if they all floated down from an elevated freeway that ended without warning above a graveyard. Even the newer arrivals look like they were already here long ago; here before our time.

"I think there was a point when we tried to neatly arrange vehicles in lines and keep the grasses down," Martelle tells me. "Mother Nature is really hard for us to compete with."

Walking the overlapping paths, squatting to verify the date on a half-buried Ontario licence plate from 1968, there is the inescapable sense that human nature, too, is really hard to overcome. Despite the 19th century scientific managers who declared man an economic animal, each scrap of scrap testifies to the ancient wisdom of Qoheleth (the Assembler) in Ecclesiastes that what ends in the discard pile begins, always, in joyful hope.

"So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun," the sage says. "For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is vanity, and a great evil."

Or as Martelle puts it: "Sometimes when you walk through there in the morning or at night, you think 'That was once brand new' or 'Someone's kids went to the beach in it' or 'Someone came home crying from the funeral.' Each car is a story."

The question, of course, is whether the central story of the Boneyard, as much as of Ecclesiastes, is purely tragic gusting to nihilistic. Or is there redemption built into the vanity itself; that is, into the purpose of the realization of purposelessness?

The scholar Harold Bloom calls Ecclesiastes a "festival of negation" whose religious vocabulary is "deceptive" and the expression of a "sensible desire to keep God at a distance."

Bloom, the quintessential Grandpa Grumpy Pants of literary critics, personalizes this in his 2011 book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, by meditating on Ecclesiastes as he nears the end of his own days.

"I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shut, bird-song grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling and even walking finds fears in the way. Spring will begin again [in Jerusalem] with the flowering of the almond tree but the burgeoning grass will bring no seasonal renewal to desire because the [eternal grave] is prefigured by my generation's mourners."

Yet even Bloom finds in the essence of Ecclesiastes ground to agree with Northrop Frye's argument that, far from being a book of despair and surrender, it is a "program of vigorous mental energy" expressed by a "vigorous realist" who discovers through the emptiness of life its authentic fulfillment.

"Only when we realize that nothing is new can we live with an intensity in which everything becomes new," Frye writes in his 1982 opus, The Great Code. "In the Bible the invisible world is not usually thought of as a separate and higher order of reality; it is thought of rather as the medium by which the world becomes visible (see Romans 1:20 and Hebrews 11:3). The invisible world, like the cyclical machinery of nature, is an opportunity for human energy, not a stifling darkness or a concealed revelation."

The very vanity that the Assembler seems to decry, Frye contends, is not meant as moral denunciation. The word in Hebrew means breath or empty wind rather than our contemporary connotation of egotism or selfishness. Recognizing the encompassing nature of vanity, Frye says, opens our eyes to our very purpose in life.

"We are all born lost in a forest: if we assume either that the forest is there or that it is not there, we shall follow the rhythm of nature and walk endlessly in circles. The metaphor of fog or mist present in 'vanity' suggests that life is something to find a way through, and that the way of wisdom is the way out," he writes.

More recent scholarship on Ecclesiastes adds a different wrinkle to the argument for wisdom as the way out. Frye, in the 1980s, was working from the tradition that the very end verses of the book were additions by "some editor with a 'you'd better watch out' attitude" as a way of bringing what Bloom calls its "sensible desire to keep God at a distance" into line with Abrahamic orthodoxy. But in his 2006 book, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes, Martin A. Shields contends that it's entirely probable there was only one author for all the verses from beginning to epilogue and that his voice was entirely ironic throughout. Ecclesiastes ends as follows:

"Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."

In the 50 last words, Shields argues, the epilogist stands on its head not merely the "festival of negation" that runs riot in the previous chapters written in the guise of Qoheleth the sage but the very idea that wisdom is, as Frye and many others would have it, the way out of the forest. The epilogist is not, Shields says, advancing the cause of anti-intellectualism, much less obscurantism. Rather, he is saying that when the finite human capacity for seeking wisdom finds its natural end in futility, God and God's commandments endure.

"The epilogist does not contradict Qoheleth," Shields writes. "Indeed, both Qoheleth and the epilogist are critical of [formalized wisdom seeking] in their own ways. The fundamental difference between them is that Qoheleth admits knowledge of no alternative to the way of wisdom. For Qoheleth, once wisdom has shown itself inadequate for determining value in life, there is no viable alternative. By contrast, the epilogist points the reader to an alternative: obeying the commandments of God."

If all truly begins as joyful hope yet ultimately ends as bones in a boneyard, then all is, in fact, vanity, vanity. Contrary to Bloom's suggestion, however, keeping God at a distance in such circumstances is not sensible but senseless. It makes no sense because the wise themselves, or at least those who hear the voice of Qoheleth, recognize that even they cannot account for the world through wisdom alone. Wisdom cannot be an answer at the end of wisdom. It can lead only to a frightening overturning of the essential human desire and capacity to begin each day anew again.

The very act of beginning each day new again shows there is a means to prevail against despair over all our toilsome labour under the sun. It is by bringing a sometimes seemingly distant God close to us through earthly obedience to His commandments. Whether we are driving the kids to the beach or crying in the car coming home from a funeral, we know in our bones there is a purpose to everyone and everything under Heaven. The essence of that purpose is not to bemoan the emptiness and vanities, as the nihilists do, but to overcome it by striving for obedience.

"The epilogist offered an alternative to the way of the sages by pointing the readers back to the commands of God and warning that all will have to account for their deeds," Shields writes. "The sages offered no means to escape this judgment, but the epilogist showed that escape may be found in obedience, not in the misguided wisdom of the sages… In Ecclesiastes, the epilogue proves to be an essential part of understanding the message of the book."

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As it turns out, Martelle knows more than imagined stories of cast-off cars. While his home is at the edge of the Boneyard, he's also the publisher of and a columnist for the local Prescott Journal and has written collections of short stories. He's also a devout Christian for whom the smallest details of the world signify meaning.

"If I'm going down the street and I see an empty chip bag lying on the sidewalk, I don't start thinking analytically about how many potato chip bags this society produces and how much of it is going to waste in the landfill. Immediately, there are stories that start going through my mind about how it got there, who dropped it, why they dropped it there.

"Usually the supernatural is there, evil but also good. My writing always has an underlying good versus evil thread. To be honest with you, I don't like Christian music; and Christian writers irritate me a bit because they all write for other Christians. When I talk about good and evil, I don't mean some goody two-shoes. I mean someone who's a bit broken, who's walking home from the bar late at night knowing what's right and what's wrong but struggling between those forces. I mean his dark side and his light side."

He takes me to a side patch of the Boneyard where an old town car sinks into the grass. It's hearse long, but silver not black. If it had vanity plates, and it's a safe bet it did during its hustling days, they've long ago been stripped away. So has much of the rest of it, and it looks less like the high-tone luxury automobile of marketing department dreams than an old lady hunkered against a pillow watching TV with her legs stretched out under a blanket on the couch and a ratty shawl around her shoulders.

He holds the door open for me and we slip inside to take up positions on the once-upon-a-time powder grey pseudo-Corinthian leather seats. Everything's a mess. Stuff's been torn apart. You can tell what was once a state-of-seduction-art sound system by the wires that dangle like an old man's hospital legs. Still, the stories of what went on in here might as well be written in fluorescent paint on the roof. Or in a chapter of Ecclesiastes.

"There is another vanity that occurs on earth," the Assembler says. "Righteous men who get what the wicked deserve and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This, too, I say, is vanity. So, I commend the enjoyment of life because nothing is better for a man than to eat and drink and be glad… Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart… Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil… Enjoy life…all the days of this meaningless life."

Martelle pulls a face of feigned disgust as we imagine the hell-on-wheels debauchery the town car might have contained.

"I'd wash my hands if you touch anything in here," he laughs. "I always do."

Vanity sinks to the earth like evening mist. We get out and walk past all the wrecks in the long grass to Joe's house. The grass will turn sooner than we know, and we know the leaves will turn soon as well; and we will yet be surprised in the midst of our knowing and their turning.

Mother Nature is hard to compete with and bids our obedience whether we wish to abide her or not. She who was here before our time, we cannot escape. God, by counterpoint, gives us the luxury of choosing obedience through the ultimate gift: love.

We say goodbye. We turn to go.

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