Friday, July 24, 2015

Death and Gilgamesh

I don't suppose it's all that strange that death has been on my mind a lot lately. I suppose that it's not so strange though, as men in their forties have been said to start coming to grips with their own mortality. Supposedly, we're supposed to go through some sort of midlife crisis or something, and while I don't know if I'm doing that, I am starting to feel a bit different.

When you bring up death to some people, the topic is depressing all on its own. I'm an atheist myself, and I often take note of how some believers will speak of what's in store for them after death. One older lady I knew was a big fan of stories about people who supposedly saw heaven after being temporarily "dead". It gave her some comfort, as she talked about how it made her feel good to know that something wonderful was waiting for her when she graduated from the land of the living. I didn't have the heart (or time, really) to tell her that I didn't believe in any of that. I'm not sure what she would have said in response to it, but I wouldn't be surprised if I'd get that same sad sort of look that other believers have given me when I say that I don't believe in anything beyond this life. I've even been told that supposedly everything is "hopeless" with my point of view.

I don't see it that way though. I'm completely comfortable with the thought that when this life is over, that's all there is to it. I'm not even sure that I'd want to carry on after this. But then why am I thinking about it so much? I'm not sure. Maybe because it seems like more of a real possibility. And now I find myself really drawn to stories where the protagonists make peace with mortality, whether it's going over Hamlet for the billionth time with high school seniors or simply watching The Wolverine yet again.

This brings me to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which features a hero who cannot bear to think that one day his life will be completely over. He loses his most beloved friend, and then he seeks out how to achieve immortality from the one human who was granted the gift from the gods - Utnapishtim. Ultimately, Gilgamesh has to accept that he will one day die, but the ending is not depressing, as the poet reminds us all that what we do while we live carries on beyond our time on Earth. It's done subtly though, because coming to grips with mortality is still a heavy concept to grasp, although it need not be soul-crushing.

I first encountered the epic while in college, and I bought it for an Ancient Epic Tales class. At least, I think that's why I bought it because I don't recall ever having to read it. From there, it remained in my book collection and survived every visit to Half Price Books when I purged my collection, as I figured that I'd eventually get around to reading it. I even attempted it a few times, but familiarizing myself with the Sumerian pantheon seemed like a daunting task, as I already have my head filled with the gods of Greece and Scandinavia, not to mention various comic book and Star Wars characters. (I should note though that fear of learning more gods should not detract anybody from reading this. The story tells you all you need to know about the gods who appear to alter the destiny of Gilgamesh. You don't need to know complex genealogies and histories like you would with The Iliad.)

I finally sat down to read a version of the story when I purchased a graphic novel adaptation by Andrew Winegarner. It's an obvious labor of love on his part, and it makes the story highly accessible to pretty much everybody. I was initially taken aback by a rather explicitly drawn sex scene, but I know my mythology in general well enough to know that ancient peoples didn't necessarily have the hangups that we do today. (And later I would find out that the descriptions in the actual epic are pretty detailed, making the adaptation very appropriate.)

I definitely enjoyed it, and I guess this blog entry doubles as a "Read These Comics!" entry. It does everything that comics do best, and it lets the pictures tell the story when necessary. The artist really manages to capture the action scenes along with the various emotions that this sort of story goes through on its journey through the human experience.

My next encounter with the man who's two thirds divine was the album Gilgamesh by Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda. I suppose that it's a story unto itself as to how I wound up with their CD, but the short version is that I was introduced to them when I watched the documentary Heavy Metal Baghdad. I then followed them on Facebook, and I joined their Kickstarter in order to get a signed copy of their first full-length release, which is named after the ancient hero. Not only that, but the songs are inspired by events in the story as well. I'm not much of a connoisseur of this particular style of growling metal (that's definitely not the right word for it) but I have found myself enjoying it quite a bit. My son, who's four, even asks to hear it in the car, asking for the music "where the guy shouts". 

On several occasions, I've opened up the booklet to have a gander at the lyrics. This kept the Sumerian myth on my mind, and that old dusty copy on my shelf started calling out to me.

However, I didn't read that one. I was curious as to whether there was a new translation that preserved the poetry but also was aimed at a modern audience. That's what you have with Seamus Heaney's Beowulf and Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While at the bookstore, I was lucky enough to find Stephen Mitchell's version. Interestingly enough, he's not able to translate the original language of the text, but instead he examined various English translations in order to create his own.

I was really pleased with it. You can just read the poem by itself, or you can read all of his comments in the foreword and the endnotes. It's a pretty breezy read, and that's not just because of the epic's relatively short length. (It's amazing how it's so much shorter than works like The Odyssey or even Beowulf, but it feels just as sprawling and just as, well...epic.)

When I finished reading it, I had a stack of other things to read before I finally went to sleep for the night. It wasn't that late, but I just felt like I needed to go to bed and let it all sink in. While Winegarner's graphic novel pretty much spells out the moral for you at the end, Mitchell's poetry is more subtle, but ultimately more powerful. (Although I do worry that I might have been too dense to understand it if I hadn't already read Winegarner's.) 

Mitchell makes use of ending the story right where it begins. At first the reader is invited to "look" at the wonders of Gilgamesh - the city, the palace, the orchards, etc. At the end, when Gilgamesh fails in his quest to attain mortality, we are brought right back to this place. He may be gone, but yet he remains, and he does so because of his accomplishments. He starts the story as an oppressive brute of a king, but he ends having become fully human, despite his divine heritage. And the main reason he's able to do so is his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man who was more beast than human until a woman showed him the art of love making. Through Enkidu, we see the loss of innocence. Through the relationship with Gilgamesh, we are reminded of our humble origins. Through the loss of Enkidu and the quest of Gilgamesh, we are reminded of how precious it all is.

I hear people talk about an afterlife. Sometimes they say that there "has to be more to life than this" as though "this" just isn't impressive enough for them. They'll sometimes get condescending and act like I'm missing something, as though my life must be a state of hopelessness and cynicism. If only I could get them to see things through my eyes. I realize that it might sound like from the beginning of this blog entry that I'm dwelling on it, but that's not it at all. Dwelling implies to me that I'm spending time with an unwelcome thought. And while it's not true that I'm eagerly looking forward to death, I have no fear of it. I don't worry for a moment about what it will be like, so stories of a glorious, happy place hold no appeal to me.

Part of this acceptance is also possible because I feel pretty happy with my life. I feel like I've done some good. As a teacher, I've had students and former students tell me what my class has meant to them. Does it affect every student that deeply? No. But if I only have a few of them, then that's something. I'll never build cities like Gilgamesh, but the good that I have done carries on even when my name is forgotten. I also have a son, and I have so much more good left to do as far as I'm concerned when it comes to him. I also think that my marriage has many good years left ahead of it.

Ancient people weren't so different from us. The brilliant thing is that they have their ways of reaching out to us and letting us know how to deal with the issues that trouble us. For me, The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches us to accept our lot in life and enjoy what we have.
Shiduri said, "Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life
that you seek. When the gods created mankind,
they also created death, and they held back
eternal life for themselves alone.
Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Svor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

- from Stephen Mitchell's translation

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