Nov 9, 2009

Gilgamesh and the Search for Meaning in a, "I love you, man!" kind of way

Bonnie asked me a rhetorical question once when I worked at the public library, “Who, Greig, would want on their epitaph, ‘He cleaned her dishes well'?"

My dishes are not clean. But, I want to be remembered for more than just washing my dinnerware well.

Unclean cups, dirty knives and forks, an unsealed peanut butter jar, torn packets of splenda and granules of instant coffee are splayed as
objets d’art.

Waking up this morning thinking about Gilgamesh and that scene at the end of Superbad when Seth and Evan exclaim to each other, "I love you man!" I take solace in Bonnie's aphorism

I can explain the significance between the two. I really can.

At the end of Gilgamesh, the hero has his epiphany. He knows he cannot uncover the elixir of immortality even though he swam to the depths of the sea. Having stayed awake for an interminable amount of time our hero is consoled by the fact that he WILL live forever, not by a potion or a magical plant, but by his cultural deeds. Immortality is what you receive from society (if you are lucky). I take comfort in this epic anecdote.

Now, how do I relate all of this to pedagogy -- and oh yeah, to Superbad?

Over the summer my ninth grade English class read the epic for their mandated summer reading project. When you are thirteen — as my students are — you probably seldom ponder death and you for damn sure are convinced that wisdom DOES not come from an ancient tome. Leave that to Lady Gadget -- or is it Inspector GaGa?

I am not sure if they liked it or “got it,” but several of them, including parents, were quick to point out that the sexuality in the book was ripe, and “inappropriate reading material” for high school -- at least I was not pulled into a disciplinary hearing for distributing inappropriate material to freshman.

Kids and adults miss the point. Do I need to teach the obvious truth that fiction is fueled by desire?

For me it is a moot point.

Get over it.

Immortality gained by deeds is a fertile topic. Folks fail to catch the heart of Gilgamesh and instead focus on the lust (Shamhat, the prostitute being one example). People who complain to me are similar to those who get hot and bothered because The Catcher in the Rye has swear words. Controversy is everyone’s favorite past time anyway. Innuendo must be banned so it will be given a reason to be read. If it were not banned then people would say, "oh that is bland." Banning it gives us impetus to actually pick up the book and read it. It's some kind of whack reverse psychology that I have little patience for.

Gilgamesh could easily populate the world with greedy Calibans but he knows in of itself this is not the ticket to eternal life. The story is not about brute sex. The story is similar to Superbad: it is about friendship and the pain of loss. Seth has to give up Evan just as Gilgamesh has to give up Enkidu.

In the story, Gilgamesh — like Achilles mourning Patroclus — is unconsoled by the death of his best friend Enkidu. Mortality strikes him at the heel and pains him for the first time. Since Gilgamesh is a king and somewhat related to the divine, he has never brushed past death until his friend’s death opens a wound in his psyche and he ponders his transience for the first time. Gilgamesh is a king, half-god, civilized and blessed with superhuman powers — but the love of the wild man Enkidu forces him to reconsider his life. All of this — life on earth — cannot give him immortality. Enkidu’s death makes him stabbingly aware of his limitations. The death forces him to think beyond himself — and to not base decisions on his own prowess — immortality comes from accomplishment — not born out of pride but through cultural achievement.

Gilgamesh is like the privileged son of a wealthy entrepreneur who has never had to fight for anything in his life. One day he loses something. Something he cannot regain. It is in this loss that he realizes that there are values irretrievable. Most accomplishments are for naught. The only true lasting legacy is greatness. The question becomes not “Will I live forever?” but, “Who will remember me?”

My students groan at the repetition and seeming irrelevance of an ancient oral tale. Most think Gilgamesh and Enkidu are gay. In their homophobic worldview two men can never really LOVE each other — GROSS ! — but, that is a discussion for another post (which will be how loving the same sex is not necessarily the same as being gay) but, we have a good discussion about deeds and achieving immortality — that love, no matter the gender — we are not talking about who’s hot and who’s not, people — can embolden us, change us, scare us.

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