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Stories do not need to inform us of anything. They do inform us of things. From The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, we know something of the people who lived in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the second and third millenniums BCE. We know they celebrated a king named Gilgamesh; we know they believed in many gods; we know they were self-conscious of their own cultivation of the natural world; and we know they were literate. These things we can fix — or establish definitely. But stories also remind us of things we cannot fix — of what it means to be human. They reflect our will to understand what we cannot understand, and reconcile us to mortality.
We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written, in part because we are scholars, or pseudo-scholars, and wish to learn something about human history. We read it as well because we want to know the meaning of life. The meaning of life, however, is not something we can wrap up and walk away with. Discussing the philosophy of the Tao, Alan Watts explains what he believes Lao-tzu means by the line, “The five colours will blind a man’s sight.” “[T]he eye’s sensitivity to color,” Watts writes, “is impaired by the fixed idea that there are just five true colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it down into divisions with names distracts the attention from its subtlety” (27). Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to the meaning of life is impaired by fixed notions or perspectives on what it means to be human. There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.
To see for ourselves the meaning of a story, we need, first of all, to look carefully at what happens in the story; that is, we need to look at it as if the actions and people it describes actually took place or existed. We can articulate the questions raised by a character’s actions and discuss the implications of their consequences. But we need to consider, too, how a story is put together — how it uses the conventions of language, of events with beginnings and endings, of description, of character, and of storytelling itself to reawaken our sensitivity to the real world. The real world is the world without conventions, the unnameable, unrepresentable world — in its continuity of action, its shadings and blurrings of character, its indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean most to us bring us back to our own unintelligible and yet immeasurably meaningful lives.
The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with the convention of a frame — a prologue that sets off the story of Gilgamesh’s life. An unnamed narrator states, “I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh” (61). Thus the narrator introduces himself before he introduces the hero, and by doing so, welcomes us, as the imaginary listeners and actual readers, into the endless present of the telling of the tale. The deeds of Gilgamesh took place in the past. Having returned from his journey and resting from his labor, Gilgamesh, the narrator recounts, engraved the whole story on a clay tablet. What we are reading, then, is the transcription of an oral telling that repeats a written telling. On the one hand the frame helps verisimilitude. By referring to Gilgamesh’s own act of writing, the narrator attempts to convince us that Gilgamesh was an actual king and that the story that follows is a true story. On the other hand, by calling our attention to the act of telling, the narrator reminds us that the truth of a story might lie in the very fact of its being a story — the undeniable fact of its narration. To deny its narration would be to deny our own existence. Either way, the frame blurs the distinction between Gilgamesh’s world, or the world of the tale, and our own.
And yet there is an irony in the prologue of which the narrator himself seems unaware — an irony that highlights our position as readers and not listeners. Praising Gilgamesh’s accomplishments, the narrator invites us to survey the city of Uruk: “Look at it still today…. Touch the threshold, it is ancient…. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The seven sages laid the foundations” (61). It seems as if the narrator is counting on the walls themselves to verify his story, while from where we stand in time and space, these walls are nowhere to be seen — they have been buried for centuries. However, we could say that the writer of the clay tablets anticipates our distance from Uruk and asks only that we imagine the walls, the way all storytellers ask their audiences to imagine what they are about to hear. Our ability to imagine the walls — our inability not to as we read the sentence that describes them — once again makes the act of narration part of the story and forces us, as readers, into the world of the text. The story has been passed on from narrator to narrator to listener to reader — from writer to reader to reader. Thus even before we begin to read this story about the death of a friend and the hero’s failed attempt to find immortality, we are made aware of the passage of time that connects us even as it separates us.
In the prologue we learn that Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third man, and this knowledge is key to all that follows. Gilgamesh is a hero — more beautiful, more courageous, more terrifying than the rest of us; his desires, attributes, and accomplishments epitomize our own. Yet he is also mortal: he must experience the death of others and die himself. How much more must a god rage against death than we who are merely mortal!And if he can reconcile himself with death then surely we can. In fact, without death his life would be meaningless, and the adventures that make up the epic would disappear. In celebrating Gilgamesh — in reading The Epic of Gilgamesh — we celebrate that which makes us human.
“The epic Of Gilgamesh” Penguin Classics
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