For the last few weeks, my church has been teaching through the book of Ecclesiastes for the Sunday sermons. I’ve really enjoyed digging into this chunk of Scripture, especially as an English major who has had more than his fair share of exposure to modernist literature. Anyways, as we began reading Melanctha, I began to notice a very common theme between the two texts: vanity. This vanity is not the condition of excessive pride or preoccupation with appearance; this vanity is the state of being futile or worthless.
Solomon, the widely accepted author of Ecclesiastes, begins his writings with the declaration that “vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (v.2). It’s a rather bleak introduction, but anyone with any experience in modernist literature will immediately sense a similar atmosphere being evoked to that of T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, or numerous other works. Later in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon again declares, “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (v.14). This idea of striving after wind is a very clear image of the feeling of vanity Solomon is referencing, and it creates an interesting parallel to the Modernist Period.
First, it is important to understand what this striving would look like. Wind is an interesting thing. It is not necessarily abstract because it can be felt, but it is not necessarily tangible because it can never be fully possessed or obtained. Second, it is important to distinguish the two situations in which we experience wind. In one situation, we are moving at a fast speed through the air that surrounds us. The other, more common experience, is when are standing still and the wind itself is now the traveling entity. While both could certainly be applied to the Modern experience, the second situation seems more relevant to Melanctha.
In Melanctha, the narrator provides an insight into Melanctha’s mind, and we see that there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment at what she finds. For instance, in one passage we see that “she always wandered, always seeking but never more than very dimly seeing” (96). Even in her relationships, we see that she “talked and stood and walked with many kinds of men, but she did not learn to know any of them very deeply” (96). Finally, in summary, the narrator tells us that in all she did she “herself did not feel the wonder, she only knew that for her it had no real value” (96). Like the passage in Ecclesiastes, we see Melanctha at a standstill, as men pass in and out of her life without her ever really being able to possess or obtain any of them. Her experienced is characterized by the sense that everything is pointless, that all of life is a series of ups and downs to be endured.
Overall, it is very interesting to notice the similarities between Melanctha (representing the Modern era) and the writer of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this connection proves another of Solomon’s declarations by suggesting that there is truly nothing new under the sun.