After a life pursuing knowledge, Qohelet concludes: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" [i].
The Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard criticized the work of his predecessor, German metaphysician Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who believed humans could arrive at objective truth through a rational systematic approach to knowledge [ii]. Conversely, Kierkegaard emphasized that we are temporal and finite beings, and the best we can do is with 'fear and trembling' take a leap of faith.
The barren Icelandic black sand landscape in my painting is metaphorical of the epistemic nihilism we can experience in our quest for understanding. Certainly there is merit in studying broadly, and logically evaluating a plethora of truth claims. Being well-read is part of a rich and full life. Fine novels ignite our imaginations, and books about history, science, religion, and politics, expand our horizons.
But at the end of the day no one can possibly read every book written and assert omniscience (all-knowing). Contrary to what our 'smart' phones would have us believe, we are sadly no more the wiser! What we really need is not additional information, but true wisdom. In our modern era we should remind ourselves that some of the most diabolical dictators and eugenicists were well-educated men. I believe that when we seek to find our entire purpose and meaning through the acquisition of knowledge we self-delude and reject our relationship with our omniscient Creator - the Light that can help us distinguish true wisdom from the wisdom of this age.
Viewers of this painting may notice the allusion to the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, as evidenced in Qohelet's place within the skeletal rib cage of a massive Sperm Whale. These intelligent mammals have brains six times the size of humans yet, like us, they suffer the same fate of death: "the dust returns to the ground it came from" [iii].
The Elf Owl perched atop Qohelet's head is a reference to tales of Celtic saints such as St. Kevin of Glendalough (498-618). Living in complete solitude in the wilderness, he was in such earnest contemplation and prayer that a blackbird built a nest in his open hands [iv]. For me, the insertion of the curious owl evokes the irony and humour indicative of when we get 'lost in a book' oblivious to the world around us... as I am often prone to doing!
[i] Ecclesiastes 12:12 (NIV)
[ii] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard. 12-13, 27.
[iii] Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NIV)
[iv] Tracy Balzer, Thin Places. 114.
Swallowed by Knowledge is a new work from my painting series Vanitas and Viriditas, which will debut at Rehs Contemporary Gallery NYC in Spring 2023.