Unsucky English, Lecture 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job

[The Unsucky English Gilgamesh series so far: 1: Dangerous Questions ~ 2: this post ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good and Evil, Nature and the Hero – Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Birth of the New Man ~ 7. A Goddess Prays ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets]

[Note: This and the next post take a detour from “lecture” to “story-telling.” Gilgamesh is still the focus, but I want to show with these two posts the ridiculous pressures teachers are under to not offend anyone when trying to teach classic literature. I’ll return to lecture mode in post #4.]

~     ~     ~

So you’re in Week Three of your two World Literature classes for those wonderful, squeaky-clean ninth-graders.1

You spent Week One warming them up with a couple of fun David Sedaris shorts.  “Big Boy” – the story of Sedaris’ epic Easter Sunday struggle to flush someone else’s stuck turd down the toilet, so the person waiting outside the door won’t think it was his – is only a page and a half long, and is suitably light and hilarious for a first read. It’s also the perfect story to trot out for the lesson on plot.

And schooliness aside, it serves to start the conversation about how real literature finds grist for its alchemical mill everywhere, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and is not the trite moralistic stuff they’ve probably been taught to believe it is in k-8 English classes.2

“From the bathroom to the bedroom to the throne of God,” you intone, “literature knows no limits. Get used to it. You’re in high school now.”

Sedaris’ “Us and Them”3 is equally fun but infinitely more subtle, with its narrator making his bad self seem good and his good enemy seem bad, and is another perfect vehicle for trotting out the “unreliable narrator” lesson:4

“Beware of the authority of the author, kids,” you warn them, “in every book you read and speech you hear – including mine.

Suspect the narrator.

This story’s narrator made a fool of you. Worse yet, he made you a hateful fool.

Sedaris showed you that narrator was a hateful ass, but had his narrator tell you that he was the good guy.  Sedaris also showed you a good, kind character,  but had his narrator tell you this kind person was the bad guy.  And every one of you believed the narrator instead of your own eyes.

You followed the bad guy, and joined him in hating the good guy. All because you are suckers who trust the authority of the written word.

Look how dangerous books are, how books can blind you if you don’t think. Sedaris just showed you that books can turn you into hateful followers of hateful writers – while all the while thinking you’re the “good people.”

Can you think of any other books that do that?  They surround us. Maybe you’ll notice them after experiencing this story. But you probably won’t.

Learn from it. It’s probably the most important lesson anybody could ever teach you in life, but you won’t get that. Learn to see with your eyes, instead of continuing to try – as all of you did in this story – to see with your ears.”

The Face of Wickedness: David Sedaris

Wickedness Incarnate: David Sedaris

You don’t tell them that Sedaris, being gay, knows from experience how many bad “good people” find it good to hate good “bad people.” One thing at a time. Almost all of these kids have been conditioned once a week since infancy to hate gays and other types different from them. Let them read more Sedaris on their own for now – they’re all begging to borrow your personal copies – and come to love him as a person first.

Then tell them.

~     ~     ~

That was all good fun. You like them and they seem to like you. And they’re annotating the margins of what they read, as you require, more than they text message their friends in a year – thinking back at the text, inscribing it with their own interpretations. Life’s good.

In Week Two, you’re ready to lay the foundations for the chronological survey of (mostly Western) literature you’ve been lucky enough to design from scratch. You’re not yet ready to plunge into mythologies of Gilgamesh, Genesis, Hesiod and Homer, because you want them to write their own myths first – from the imagined perspective of the pre-historic, pre-literate, pre-scientific, and pre-iPod tribes that originated all those myths in the Stone Age.

The best way you can figure to bring fire to the imaginations of these 14-year-olds is not with an ancient book. Instead, you dim the lights, draw the blinds, fire up the LCD projector, and show them “The Dawn of Man,” that great paleolithic prelude to that great space-age myth in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(The Youtube clip below leaves out about half of it, but it’s a good taste:)

As they watch, you’re driving them crazy by pausing the film, pointing to details and asking questions, probing and pushing.

“What is that? … Exactly! Paleolithic war!”

“And what is that?Brilliant! The discovery of tools, of technology!

“And that? Yes, yes, yes – the first murder. ‘Cain and Abel,’ the evolutionary version.”

When it’s done, the lights go up, and you ask them if they understand now why Kubrick is a name to remember. Then, you give them their first major writing assignment of the year: decide on some aspect of the natural or subjective world that you, like the homos in Kubrick, don’t understand, that fills you with maybe wonder, maybe fear, maybe both – but above all, with the need to “explain” it. “Points taken off if any of your explanations are drawn from what was claimed or known in later stages of human history.”5

When they turn in the final drafts of their myths, my god are you impressed with their imaginations. Daniel, particularly, blows you away with that scene in which his god reaches into his own mouth, drives his hand down his throat into his chest, withdraws it with a fireball he then flings into the sky – and which has stayed there to this day, giving light to us all. You want to throw a parade for his brilliance, and really don’t care that the grammar is non-standard. He’s Korean, after all. You’ll take broken grammar with perfect imagination over a broken imagination with perfect grammar any day. Broken grammar you can fix.

Now You’re Ready for Gilgamesh

You’re so excited you can’t stand it. The Kubrick and the creative mythologizing maybe, just maybe, prepared these young imaginations for the world’s oldest story.

You’d read Gilgamesh yourself in college, maybe a time or two since then, in uninspired translations, but you haven’t read the Mitchell translation from 2004 that your students are reading. You’d ordered it the year before after skimming a copy in the school library. You know Mitchell from other works he translated, and this one looks fine indeed.

You’ll read it for homework just like your students do. It’s a stimulating thing to do anyway.

The first chapter was fun: a “Prelude” that was both an introduction of the hero (with nice rhetorical use of the “delayed subject” to create suspense, using the pronoun “he” for several pages before ever telling us “he” was Gilgamesh), and an ode to that other star of the story, Uruk: the primal city itself.

Good enough, fun, interesting.  We’re just warming up.

“Tonight I want you to read Book One,” you tell them. “And be sure to annotate it. I’ll check next class.”

You go home that night and read Book One yourself, just like your students.  And just like them, no doubt, you have one of the most unforgettable experiences of your years in school – as a student or teacher.

Because you read about the stuff covered in the last post – Gilgamesh outraging his subjects by helping himself to their brides, the chief god Anu telling the goddess Aruru to solve the problem by creating a double for Gilgamesh “to create balance and bring peace,” and Aruru doing just that by creating the one-third human, two-thirds animal named Enkidu – but you read more, too, that you hadn’t counted on.

It’s all good stuff at first. Finally, this 2004 translation dresses this regal story in the stylish regalia it merits. You’re annotating like a madman:

“Enkidu wild, an animal drinking among gazelles at a watering hole. Shades of Darwin – and Kubrick!”

“Hm. Enkidu as ‘animal rights activist?!’ – he frees animals from traps, saves them from hunter.”

“Hunter goes to Gilgamesh to complain.”

On you scribble. You notice an interesting parallel between Anu and Gilgamesh, and it makes you really admire the Sumerian story-tellers who crafted this story, and wonder at this second piece of evidence of a radically non-punitive and jarringly humanistic response to law-breakers or disturbers of civic order in this old culture.6  Because just like Anu dealt with Gilgamesh’s excesses by setting him up for an experience that will presumably give him the wisdom to outgrow those excesses,7 Gilgamesh reacts to the news about Enkidu with a similarly unexpected twist.

He doesn’t send out a posse to capture or kill the wild man, and he doesn’t gird himself for battle with the wild man himself.  Instead, you read, he tells the farmer:

Go to the temple of Ishtar,
ask them for a woman named Shamhat,
one of the priestesses who give their bodies
to any man, in honor of the goddess.

“WTF?!” you annotate in huge letters.

What you read next is intriguing too – but gosh, you can’t help but get a bit uncomfortable imagining your 14-year-olds reading it that night too:

“Take her into the wilderness. [-Gilgamesh continues]
When the animals are drinking at the waterhole,
tell her to strip off her robe and lie there
naked, ready, with her legs apart.”

Another huge interrobang – ?! – in the margin. A bit more graphic than that Victorian version you read years ago.  You’re nervous now, and read on:

“The wild man will approach. Let her use her love-arts.
Nature will take its course, and then
the animals who knew him in the wilderness
will be bewildered, and will leave him forever.”

End of section, you note with relief. Thank goodness.

~     ~     ~

A few pages later, though, when Shamhat does accompany the farmer to the watering hole, the jitters come again.

Shamhat and the farmer wait for three days, and Enkidu finally comes. “The man was huge and beautiful,” you read. “Deep in Shamhat’s loins / desire stirred….”

Then the bomb drops:

Shamhat stripped off her robe and lay there naked,
with her legs apart, touching herself.
Enkidu saw her and warily approached.
He sniffed at the air. He gazed at her body.
He drew close. Shamhat touched him on the thigh,
touched his penis, and put him inside her.
She used her love-arts, she took his breath
with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
what a woman is. For seven days
he stayed erect and made love with her,
until he had had enough.

Undeniably beautiful, wonderfully erotic, but again, nothing like those Victorian versions you read back in the day. And my god, you wonder how you’re going to deal with the lecture tomorrow. Most of the kids go to Sunday school (we’re talking today’s Korea here, where you’ll see more crosses in a city block than you’ll see in all of Alabama) – and yeah, they’re all “in high school now,” but only three weeks in. And they’re all only freaking fourteen.

“Touched his penis, and put him inside her”? – wtf indeed. Interrobang.


Next: Shamhat’s Lessons: On Civilizing Sex (Or, “Adam and Eve, Backwards”)

The “Unsucky English Lectures” Series So Far:

1. Gilgamesh: Dangerous Questions
2. (This Post)
3. Adam and Eve, Backwards
4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards
5. Good and Evil, Nature and the Hero – Backwards
6. Gilgamesh and the Birth of the New Man

David Sedaris photo by Sporky

  1. for you non-Americans, those are 14-year-olds in their first year of high school []
  2. “Big Boy” is from the laugh-until-you-bleed Me Talk Pretty One Day. []
  3. full story here, great student webcam-review here []
  4. “Us and Them” is from the also-brilliant Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. []
  5. You put them through their paces by familiarizing them with the writing process, using the Six Traits of Effective Writing model that they will follow all year. []
  6. But “beware the author,” you remind yourself. The story might not reflect the reality of Sumerian life. Yet it still reflects, if nothing else, an intended motif on the part of the poet. These unexpected reactions of Anu and Gilgamesh to troublemakers do clearly share, at root, a belief that experience, not authoritarian “Thou shalt nots” and punishments for disobedience, is the key to self-improvement and social order. And you’re deeply intrigued by this. []
  7. that “wtf plot twist” we discussed this in the first Gilgamesh essay []

35 thoughts on “Unsucky English, Lecture 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job”

  1. I’m still chuckling—yikes! I just wanted to mention that I have listened to all of Sedaris’s books on Mp3 player and listening to him makes the stories even funnier, you might try it. For you not kids–I’ve also listened to all Augusten Burroughs books, read by him–darker but fun to listen to. N.

    1. Nancy, it’s nice to see you here after such a long silence :)

      Seeing Sedaris read his works on several Youtube videos, I’m sure you’re right about the audio books. I’ll have to look for them – a frustrating thing in Korean bookstores :(

  2. I would have liked Gilgamesh so much more had we read this version. Instead we had a much abridged version from the textbook.

    Out of curiosity Clay: would the administration of the school have been willing to come down on and possibly fire on a teacher because of a few parent complaints? My school was/is like this and I hate that it is.

    Can’t wait to see the third installment!

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Yeah, those textbook bowdlerizations could make your first teen kiss a snore.

      I think even the best principals would cave after a few complaints. They may cover you once or twice, but continued opposition would wear them down, and bring them to suggest you blunt your questions to mollify the reactionaries.

      Do you teach, or are you a student?

      1. Student – I’m the one who contacted you on StumbleUpon the other day about the Gilgamesh article 😉 (lostandconfused)

        1. How funny. I thought you were a guy.

          I’m hearing from Canadians that this is not a problem there. Only the USA, it seems (and schools run with the most reactionary American clientele). Where are you?

  3. These posts are absolutely wonderful sir. As the product of a mediocre (at best) English program here in the states whom somehow managed to get past it and move on into an English degree and actually enjoy it, I have to say that if I had you as a teacher so many years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated at all when people asked me what I was planning on going to college for.

    You’ll be sure to see me sticking around for the next posts, and I’m making a note for myself right now about picking up the book after I get a handle on this upcoming semester.

    1. Jeff, that’s so nice of you to say. Sounds like our histories wrt literature are similar too.

      English doesn’t suck at all, and I have to admit it’s a blast getting into it this way.

      I’ll also admit the positive feedback is really helpful. Thanks again for that, and make yourself at home in the comments. Would love to hear your take on it all.

      1. Well, I’m looking forward to the next posts, I think I’ll have to hit the Uni library to see if they have this version of the Gilgamesh story, being broke and all.

        Up til now my only experience with the Gilgamesh story was that one old episode of Star Trek: TNG where Picard is stranded on some planet with an alien he can barely communicate with and he relates part of the story largely through pantomime to the alien while he tells it. Kinda lame, isn’t it? =D

        Jeffs last blog post..Hey, bloggers!

  4. Oh many, many times I’ve stood in my classroom and thought for sure — this is the very moment I’ll be fired for. Those times were usually at the exact moments that something truly interesting and educational was happening or about to occur. Isn’t that sad? That true teaching moments are usually frightening times for teachers, because we live in fear of what the students will say, what the parents will think, and how the administrators will respond to appease the parents. But learning occurs despite us, despite the parents, and despite the admin.

    Tims last blog post..The Technology Grind and Discipline with a Smile

    1. And the silly thing is, we’re supposed to share what we put so much sweat into discovering in our years of preparation via books, experience, and reflection. But we can only do that to the extent that is agrees with those who didn’t do such time.

  5. Oh wow. I just read Gilgamesh, inspired by your first post. I read it from some ancient texts site, figuring a few thousand years old is well into public domain. I’m not sure if it was a literal translation or just terribly translated, but I had to kind of muscle through it.

    I’m definitely going to pickup that version you quoted now.

    1. Roger, I think you’ll agree the Mitchell version deserves the name “classic” – though I’ve read some controversy about alleged liberties with the originals. I’m sure you can find his responses online.

  6. Tim’s post says it all for me. My students and I have shared a number of Aristophanes’ plays ~ The Peace, The Poet and the Women, etc and there are moments, as you know, where horizontal folk-dancing is the source of much humour during the course of the plot. Inwardly I wonder if a student or parent will complain yet I soldier on.

    Sedaris’ account of the determined turd reminds me of a train journey from York to Scarborough in England back in November, 1979. It was a small train and I was the first to elect to use the toilet on the carriage. I entered the toilet and there was an incorrigible steamer clinging tenaciously to the bowl. It was a sizable monster. It refused to cooperate. After several attempts to dislodge the offending beast I gave up and returned to my seat, beaten. For the remainder of the train journey a number of the other passengers gave me disparaging looks as they returned to their seats from the toilet. I was the guilty party. What could I say? Should I sit there looking proud, like a new father, and offer each passing passenger a cigar?

    Lesson learnt? Never go first.

  7. Again, wonderful post (wonderful series of posts!).

    The fear of getting fired is real, and stated as “fear” by many teachers (including me), but you do not phrase it that way. You talk about the day you exposed students to words “that might cost me my job.”

    That’s how you get places the rest of us can only dream of. I can live in fear of being thrown out of my profession, or reframe it as acknowledging the possibility of losing a particular job.

    (Might even argue that once you let fear rule you, you’ve already lost the right to call yourself professional.)

    Here in New Jersey, the state curriculum guidelines are my friends–I spend a lot of time going over them. Of course, I teach science, not English, and while science teachers do describe naughty bits, we can, as one student complained, even make sex sound boring.

    Michael Doyles last blog post..Lightning bug

    1. That’s an interesting take, Michael. One advantage of being pretty convinced that a) death ends all, so this is your one chance of living an interesting life, and b) that we humans are as good at landing on our feet as cats are, and have as many lives (it’s held true for me for 46 years) is that it makes fear, as you say, a poor ruler.

      Buddha was right on when he identified fear and desire as the two causes of suffering, wasn’t he? He was right on about a lot of things.

      And hey, you’re right on about the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I’m going to pull it out and give it the first listen in a good decade because of you. I once danced through an air-conducting of that piece in a Walkman in a park in L.A., way back in the ’80s when I discovered classical. Yum.

  8. I had one of those “This is going to be all over the 4th floor” moments when, as we read “Equus” aloud in Psych Lit (famous to my students because Harry Potter was naked on stage in London), my student James says, “Wait. Did he just have sex with a horse?”

    Well, no. What happened was…

    Anxious to hear what the reactions were to this section of Gilgamesh. I can guess from the post title that they were aghast. A former colleague from my seventh grade years read the Ferry translation with our students and caught some heat for the fact that our students were 12 yrs old. It may (but I could not say for sure) be part of the reason he is a “former” colleague – questionable judgment in the eyes of administration.

    1. Stay tuned. I’m writing more words in comments to the first Gilgamesh “lecture” than I am anything right now.

      Re: your former colleague: another one gets bitten into the dust.

    1. Minh, I’m going to have to ask for a second pitch on that comment. It’s got me all “wtf”? 😉

      I must be slow today.

  9. Clay sorry – you no be slow :)

    I prolly over-egged that. just saying that myth is history after the poets have a go at it. The spirit of place, which includes the times, culture, social forms as well as landscape, country etc is expressed poetically within the myth rather than be being merely described. The fact that they reach us with meaning after millennia means that they have transcended time & place.

    Myths,of course, are the great repositories of knowledge. They encode the wisdom, morals, ethics of a people as well as teaching where to find waterholes in the dry times and how to optimise the nutritional value of food.

    I have read recently, (& can’t recollect the source), that rather than being homo sapiens we might do well to consider ourselves to be homo narrans – man the storyteller. I love this notion & have been doing some low level meme spreading.


  10. Last time I read this I was a sophomore and thought it was a bore. But with good teachers, like you, you learn to appreciate the classics. I haven’t been this interested in history since I was a freshman. Thanks. ^_^

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