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Kohelet à la française: French poet Charles Juliet Meditates on “Ecclesiastes”

By Benjamin Ivry

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Apart from historically being a nation of skeptics, France has been hampered in its literary appreciation of the Old Testament by the problem of translation. After a solid start in 1902 with the “Rabbinate Bible” overseen by then-Chief rabbi of France Zadoc Kahn with the assistance of such eminent 19th century scholars as Mayer Lambert and Lazare Isidor things have declined into squabbles among more recent Jewish translators like André Chouraqui and Henri Meschonnic, neither of whom embraced a “literal” approach to translation.

French readers duly have nothing as useful and compelling as “The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes” to guide them, so it is all the more extraordinary that French poet Charles Juliet, 75, should now produce a thoughtful, candid mediation on Ecclesiastes, “Wisdom and Wounds” (Sagesse et Blessures; Bayard Éditions.

A friend of Samuel Beckett and Michel Leiris, among other literary eminences, Juliet explains why he sees the writer of Kohelet as a “false sage but genuine man,” and that Ecclesiastes’ textual beauty is not diminished by its narrator’s failures as a moral guide. In the second part of his essay, Juliet lauds the Taoist philosophy of Zhuangzi.

Juliet charges Kohelet with “snobbery” (forfanterie) and merely observing human suffering instead of trying to improve things. Juliet asserts that knowledge and wisdom (the latter requires self-knowledge) are not the same things, although Kohelet seems to think so. Juliet further scorns Kohelet’s misogyny and adds about his self-described wealth:

Generally, when one has money and power, the ego grows and we become severe, unfeeling, and the misery of others leaves us indifferent.

Juliet’s fresh observations are backed by a disappointing bibliography including only one Hebraist’s translation of Ecclesiastes (Meschonnic’s) and one Jewish commentary, by André Neher. Even so, given literary France’s time-honored anticlericalism, it is remarkable that Juliet’s intriguing new book exists at all.

Watch Charles Juliet describing his friend Samuel Beckett in 1989 here.

Watch Juliet describing the painting of Cézanne in this 2006 TV excerpt here.


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