herding the wind: hopefulness and futility in ecclesiastes
Leonard Bernstein’s score for the 1961 film West Side Story (originally written for an earlier stage production), specifically Tony and Maria’s duet “One Hand, One Heart,” came to mind while reading Ecclesiastes. For those who haven’t seen the film, Tony and Maria are star-crossed lovers (based on Romeo and Juliet), who cannot be together because they are affiliated with rival gangs (the Jets and Sharks, respectively). In the scene from the film for “One Hand, One Heart,” the couple imagines their wedding, using mannequins to role play a fantasy version of a world in which their families/communities can co-exist non-violently. The scene ends with the haunting song, a private version of their imagined wedding vows, culminating in the refrain, “Even death won’t part us now.”
Perhaps it is an overshoot of poetic thinking to connect Ecclesiastes with West Side Story, but I want to suggest that both the text and the film rendition of the song are characterized by their bittersweetness. While the prose is certainly, at times, dark (“No man has power over the wind, to shut in the wind, and there is no power over the day of death [...]” ), it maintains a quality of beauty, reassurance, naturalness, and comfort–even in its recognition of futility, death, and suffering. Tony and Maria’s relationship is futile in the sense that their fantasy of marriage can and will never be fulfilled, and their interaction in this scene, despite its playfulness, betrays their awareness of the impossibility of their union in their earthly lives. Both Ecclesiastes and “One Hand, One Heart,” are heavy hitting poetry: they manage to address the naivete and beauty of life even in the face of oppression, suffering, sadness, and the inevitability of death, suffering, and sadness. In this poetic union of opposing forces, both text and song achieve a beauty that is made poignant by sadness, and a sadness that is rendered beautiful in its poetic form.