Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gilgamesh Translated by Stephen Mitchell

The dawn of narrative fiction and epic poetry gets a suitably spectacular treatment in Stephen Mitchell's wonderful English translation of the epic of Gilgamesh. What Mitchell calls "the oldest story in the world" tells the tale of a king who befriends his nemesis, watches him die, and then travels to the ends of the earth to demand of an immortal the secrets of final victory of death itself.
Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king, two-thirds divine, whom the gods frustrate with the creation of a twin - Enkidu. They do this in answer to prayers from Gilgamesh's people that he has crossed over the bounds. Enkidu's coming is in order to "let them balance each other perfectly," so that the Kingdom of Uruk can have some peace. Enkidu is a wild man, living like an animal in the wilderness. He is eventually tamed by the sexual enticements of Shamhat, Ishtar's priestess, who tells him of Gilgamesh's existence. Enkidu sets out to confront the king, but the two soon forge a friendship. They best the fierce guardian of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba, and then vanquish the Bull of Heaven before the gods demand Enkidu's life.
The death of his friend drives Gilgamesh to contemplate the mystery of death, and the possibility of the passing of his own life and the end of his kingdom. This fear drives him to travel to the edge of the earth, to confront the only survivor of the Great Deluge, Utnaphistim. Though the old man is immortal, he whispers a secret- Gilgamesh need only retrieve a plant from the deep that will give him victory over the fear of death. But carelessly, he loses the plant to a passing snake, and then returns home to record his story in verse.
The biggest change in Gilgamesh's life occurs, obviously, with the death of Enkidu. Consider that when the two heroes decide to confront Humbaba, it is Enkidu who is fearful. Gilgamesh reminds him that they are not gods, and that only gods live forever. "Why be afraid then, since sooner or later death must come?" These are brave, even reckless words, but we somehow feel that Gilgamesh, though he is mindful of death, does not expect to die. It is later when he sees his friend dead, not in battle, but by the hand of the gods, that darkness falls over his life. He wanders in mourning, asking, "How can I bear this sorrow that gnaws at my belly, this fear of death that restlessly drives me onward? If only I could find the one man whom the gods made immortal, I would ask him how to overcome death." It is only after Utnaphistim is convinced that Gilgamesh has suffered that he offers the stricken king the secret of life.
Here, in stark terms, is the world of the Babylonians. The gods are vengeful, spiteful, lustful, and arbitrary in the prayers they listen to and answer. They oppose the proud only fitfully, and reward the meek hardly at all. Life is mean and cruel and that is its way. What is a man to do who is not a Babylonian superman? The ancient Utnaphistim, who remembers the world before the flood, had to endure the death of all life before he could see his way to conquering its end.
But this is a world where man must suffer, and whatever knowledge or grace he gains is earned at extreme cost, if anything is gained. The gods take - they do not give freely. Gifts come with incalculable price.
My biggest gripe with this book is not the translation, which is exquisite, but the stupendously silly essay that accompanies it by translator Stephen Mitchell. In a ham handed attempt to make the text "relevant," he ties it to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and finds in Gilgamesh and Enkidu's slaying of Humbaba a dark parable on the dangers of "preemptive attack." These are but two aspects of the work, which strain mightily with the text to draw conclusions and make inferences that simply are not there.
One of the problems of Mitchell's interpretation is that he is projecting backward rules of drama and narrative fiction that Gilgamesh predates. He praises the economy of the poet for passages that simply were important to the narrative demands of the time. He constructs an internal narrative logic for Gilgamesh that does not exist, and looks for Greek notions of drama and storytelling which the Babylonians didn't realize they were supposed to provide for our modern eyes. For example, the attack on Humbaba, Mitchell says rightly, is the sort of daring-do heroes are supposed to risk.

But one can make a case that our heroes pay not for the slaying of Humbaba, but because they killed the Bull of Heaven. The gods, which assisted in the death of Humbaba, must be appeased after the insult of killing the bull.
Another problem is that Mitchell also projects backwards in time a flimsy humanistic philosophy with traces of suitably secular spirituality. He finds much that is commendable in Gilgamesh's refreshingly sexual frankness, which predates Judeo-Christian morality, but ignores the obviously exploitative nature of temple prostitution worship rites. He is simultaneously celebratory over Gilgamesh and Enkidu's pretensions of male superiority, but squeamish when they behave as Babylonian alpha males and not as humanistic milquetoasts. He appends at the end of the text the idea that Gilgamesh is somehow wiser for his travels, with "a wisdom that is impartial, humorous, civilized, sexual, irreverent, skeptical of moral absolutes, delighted with the things of this world..."
Where to begin with this? What about Gilgamesh's own words, upon losing the plant of renewed youth, the antidote to the fear of death, when he tells Urshanabi that "I have gained no benefit for myself?" Of course Gilgamesh is sexual, but it is not a self-satisfied modern enlightened sexuality of equality but one involving the will of the king, who at the poem's beginning was a tyrant. Skeptical of moral absolutes? One wonders if Mitchell means those inconvenient Judeo-Christian morals, through which we tend to see everything in modern life, or the moral absolutes of the poem's era, which largely deal once again with the will of the king and the capricious will of the gods. I don't know Mitchell, but I might take a guess that his conclusion says more about how he views himself than the wisdom Gilgamesh has gathered as a result of his travels.
Herbert Mason's translation of Gilgamesh, for example, ends with the monarch's return to Uruk and his realization that the people will not share in his sorrow. When he asks a blind man if he had ever heard the name Enkidu, the man shrugs and turns away. This is the bleak wisdom of Gilgamesh and the world he documented, a world without Christ, where life is fleeting, as is glory, as is hope.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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