Category Archives: Gilgamesh

The Unsucky English Lectures

How Modern People Read

Nothing like seeing a friend from three decades ago, when you were a new and very green adult in the world, to stir up the mind.

John and I also talked a bit about Gilgamesh today. Me talking about Gilgamesh is nothing new. I do that with anybody and everybody who’ll listen. But talking about it to the guy who knew you way back when when you so naively embarked on a conscious search for “Truth” — especially when that same guy joined you, and with exactly the same naivete — that is something new.

It’s like our 20-year old selves were sitting on that beach with us two 47-year-olds all day.

False Starts in the Search for Truth

That 20-year-old me was such a lousy seeker for Truth. He read all the Old Books devotedly — the Greek, the Hebrew, the Vedic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Gnostic, the Transcendental, “Yak yak yak.” He read them all, underlined passages, filled margins with scribbles, exclamation points, interrobangs. He started (and rarely finished) journals devoted to only copying the choicest of those words of Wisdom — quotes only. The Things to Remember. These were the words of Wisdom and Truth, and they were going to teach him Truth and Wisdom, by god. If he read them real closely to be sure he understood, then he’d find Truth and Wisdom. And life would be better because he’d have those things.

All I could do today while thinking about him was laugh at him.

Because I think I know now that that’s exactly the wrong way to read the Old Books.

If I had read Gilgamesh back then, when I was him, I would have been expecting it to teach me too. Another Old Book that was supposed to be Wise. That’s not how I read it now, thank goodness.

How Moderns Read

Anyway, I sat there on that beach wishing I had my iPod so I could record  what I was trying to aphoristically sum up about what I know about reading now — and wish I’d known well before 20, at your age, my students. I didn’t want this little stab at something essential to slip away. It went something like this:

It’s not what we learn from the Old Books. It’s what we see in them.

That mental shift in relation to reading, I want to say, comes close to a definition of the modern reader. A traditional reader gives up his authority to the author. A modern reader takes that authority back. Copernicus did it to Aristotle and Ptolemy, for example — he doubted their scientific authority based on his own observations. Voltaire and Nietzsche did it to the religious authority of popes, preachers, and the Bible.

A modern reader, in a nutshell, doesn’t read on his knees.

The scary thing? It seems that a large number of Americans are not modern readers at all.

And the sad thing? They all went to American schools — which doesn’t speak well about American education.

Ancient “WTF?” Discovered on Cuneiform Tablets


Members of the earth’s earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

“I do not understand,” reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. “A booming voice is saying, ‘Let there be light,’ but there is already light. It is saying, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass,’ but I am already standing on grass.”

“Everything is here already,” the pictograph continues. “We do not need more stars.”

I always thought the Sumerians, like dinosaurs and fossils and Galileo, were tricks of Satan.

(h/t to One Good Move)

“The Rumors of My Death…”

wrote Mark Twain, “have been greatly exaggerated.”

True here as well, but only slightly.

piano toothAutopsy

The lines from Nick Cave’s song, “Hallelujah,” sum it up:

My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb
And my piano crouched in the corner of my room
With all its teeth bared

Change “piano” to “Gilgamesh” and there’s not much more to add.

Since moving here to Singapore from Seoul in July I haven’t written a word on this space. This is due to many factors: enervating humidity (we’re about 1 degree from the equator here), an hour-long (and offline) subway commute to and from my new teaching job each day, the time demands of familiarizing myself with a new curriculum and school (the “two days ahead of the students” syndrome), on and on.

And then there’s the burn-out from the writing job last year, when two posts a day on US education policy taught me that mandatory writing on a prescribed topic grows toxic — a lesson that has informed my classroom blogging policy this year, which is so minimal as to be almost non-existent.

Also — and students, skip this part — I’ve been suffering a health issue that reminds me, to compare a worm to a dragon, of Keats being told by his physician not to write any more poetry because his health was too fragile to withstand the excitement. For Keats, tuberculosis was the issue. For me, it’s merely smoking. Since college, coffee and tobacco have been my study-and-writing enablers, and successfully kicking the habit months ago coincided with an inability to sit still, focus, and write. I can’t help but suspect Keats was tempted to decide, “Screw it, life without writing is no life at all,” and I’ve fallen to that temptation myself. To push the Keats trope further, my own

fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain

have prompted me to choose an early death with a higher word-count, if that’s the choice. I’m hoping I’ll be as lucky as my Scots-Irish grandmother, who puffed her corncob pipe well into her eighties, thus having her vices and beating them too. Sure, those last few emphysemic years were no fun, but a life should be judged by more than its feeble final years. So yes, I’m enjoying this writing because I’m enjoying a smoldering clove-stick and cup of coffee as I write. Let the bodies fall where they may. (And though I know the logic is flawed, I’m still compelled to add that yes, I smoke, but I’m constitutionally and philosophically disinclined to those just-as-deadly but socially-sanctioned killers known as alcohol and junk food, so before you condemn my lungs, dear moralists, check your livers and your waist sizes.)

Then there’s this blog itself.

First, my RSS feed was, and may still be, broken because of a WordPress plugin I was using. I couldn’t fix it, and the plugin developer’s offer to fix it for me may or may not have been carried through on, I’m not sure. (If any kind soul out there can reply and tell me if they got this post in their feed-reader, I’d appreciate it.)

Second, I’ve been conflicted over the evolution of this blog from teacher-geek stuff to personal narrative writings to “unsucky” literary lectures. It’s become such a hodgepodge I’m probably going to make a couple of new sites: one for the unsucky lectures, one for the personal narrative, and keep this one as the ramblings of a teacher-geek. I don’t know.

So that’s the dreary side.

life of brian“The Bright Side of Life”

(Yes, that’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian on the right. My WordPress captions aren’t working, blast it.)

1. Rediscovering the Book

On the upside, my hiatus from the web has turned me on to the beauties of something I’d almost forgotten: books. My reading habits before my web-hiatus were almost totally dominated by my Google Reader. And while the subscriptions to blogs and newspapers and magazines and journals and whatnot were certainly enjoyable, I can’t say I’ve missed them as I’ve enjoyed the flow through hundreds of physically-bound pages of this writer or that: Gwendolyn Leick’s fascinating study of the first Sumerian and Babylonian cities in Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (yes, dear Unsucky readers, I’m burrowing into the scholarship of the worlds of Gilgamesh), Richard E. Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, a magnificent story of the rebirth of Aristotelian philosophy and natural science in the theology and liberal arts departments of late Medieval universities, and, currently, John Gribbin’s gripping Science: A History: 1534-2001, which picks up admirably where Aristotle’s Children leaves off.

2. The Mental Party of Teaching Chinese and European History

I’ve also had the intellectual joy-ride of my life this semester in my teaching duties, where I teach a survey of Western Civilization on one day, and a survey of Chinese Civilization on the alternating day. Since I began both courses where all histories of civilization should start — with Adam and Eve dropping from the sky (–oops, wrong century) Ardi and Lucy evolving from earlier forms, and their descendants migrating out of Africa and into Eurasia — each course stayed pretty much in sync, chronologically, with the other. This means that Monday would pull my head into the Roman Empire, and Tuesday into the roughly contemporaneous Han Dynasty. I can’t tell you how hilariously this mental tour pricked European pretensions to “high civilization” compared to China — particularly in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, when Europe was a disgrace fully deserving the “barbarian” label the Chinese affixed to it. (In fairness, though, while China wins the “long view” award, Europe wins the Palm for the brief miracle from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. That China couldn’t discover over its 3,000 years of fairly stable and unbroken civilization what Europe did discover in a mere couple of centuries says something precious, its Mephistophelian implications aside, about Western culture.)

3. Notes on the New School (and a Teacher-Geek Heresy)

Teaching itself has been somewhat interesting. The students at my new school are generally the most literate of any school in which I’ve taught. The ninth-graders (14 and 15 years old) write uncommonly well, and the boys are especially delightful for being, in general, more mature and mentally turned-on than the girls (it’s usually the other way around at this age, in my experience). The school is going mandatory laptop for each student next year, but this year it’s only optional, requiring laptop cart check-out and other aversions. So I’ve avoided any ambitious digital projects, for the most part. (I’ll be sharing a couple of exceptions soon enough, and launching a new website I’m very excited about that bubbled up with the help of my best students.) Some of you will cringe to hear that I’m leaning toward traditional teaching anyway, simply because I don’t have the energy to try to de-program students who want school to remain traditional, and can’t be bothered to notice their future won’t be the paper-based world of their school — in other words, I’m tired of casting digital pearls before the lovable young piglets who just want worksheets, and to heck with all this Diigo nonsense. Maybe that will change next year, when they all bring laptops to school. Right now, the web is too beautiful to waste on the young. (Go ahead, teacher-geeks, set up your stakes, gather your faggots, and send your Inquisitors for this heretic. Ecce homo! But I’m using Ning for both classes, if that will soften your ire at all.)

Shocking Crisis of Classroom Faith: “Google is Dead!”

(or, “No, Virginia, There is no Santa Claus”)

Speaking of Ning and my “minimal classroom blogging,” I may as well add this tidbit. To ameliorate the misery of having to grade millions of heartlessly perfunctory blogposts by students only doing it for the grade, another teacher and I worked out a rotating “four bloggers per week” routine. All the other students not blogging that week only have to reply a couple of times to the posts of the week that caught their fancy. Long story short, one very bright student decided he would investigate the glowing characterization of Mao Zedong during the Long March in a PBS documentary we’re watching in class. He wrote a post with all sorts of questionable claims and characterizations that made Mao out to be far less impressive than even Western historians and academics admit him to have been in this period. And he didn’t cite or link to his source.

I found the source easily enough, and was aghast at its quality: riddled with weasel-words, blazing with bias belying its “” title, a train-wrecked “Works Cited”, red-stained with cherry-picking the bads and omitting the goods. It would take a page to count the ways this site failed as a credible source. Turns out it was written by a guy with no authority, either academic or algorithmic (have you seen Shirky’s latest on this?). So I assigned all the students to read and reply to two student posts: one, a good exemplar that would play Trojan Horse for the second one, the uncited Mao smear piece. I wanted to see how many students would read the smear and reply skeptically.

Almost none did. Even the best students, with very few exceptions, swallowed it whole: “Wow! Your post shows how biased the PBS documentary we’re watching in class, and the textbook, are! Now I realize what a monster Mao was.” Et cetera and ad infinitum. A perfect “teachable moment” about media literacy.

Or so I thought.

Long story short, when I showed this class everything dubious about this site, they pushed back something fierce: the “A” students fiercest of all. I opened it up for debate on a Ning forum, saying “persuade me this source is valid for academic research,” and the push-back continued.

Discussing that second debate in class, I was gob-smacked to hear, again, the “A” students draw conclusions that if this site was not credible, it logically followed that no site was. “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” One student pushed back against my example of peer reviewed academic journals with an alleged case of the tobacco industry publishing “smoking is healthy” research in peer-reviewed journals, and seemed to glower at my request that she substantiate that claim — I had no doubt that the tobacco industry funded and published “scientific” studies of this sort, but did doubt whether she was correct about them being published in peer-reviewed journals — and also at my response that she was only confirming, if correct, my position that several evaluative criteria must be satisfied in order to judge a website credible.

I can only hope the quick demo of the “link:url” Google search, which showed that no site linked to this page but other pages on the same site, by the same author, brought home to some students that there’s something to be learned. But they’re at that dangerous age, and due to the imperative to cover the content, I can’t spend time taking this lesson any further. I can only hope the seed was planted and they’ll remember it differently in the future — hopefully not after a professor reams them for using a website written by a dog in its underwear.

Anyway, the take-away: students shouldn’t reach age 16 or 17 and still be shocked that Google can be wrong. It seems to have hit them worse than the news that there is no Santa Claus.

Piano image by poportis
Life of Brian image by tnarik

Gilgamesh and the Original “Original Sin”: Unsucky English Lecture 9 (part one)

[The Unsucky English Gilgamesh series so far: 1: Dangerous Questions ~ 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good, Evil, Nature, and the Hero, Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Dawn of Man ~ 7. A Goddess Prays ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets]

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. <br>Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

A good thousand years before the Israelites were putting the final touches, in their scriptures, on the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the Mesopotamian gods of Gilgamesh were already ancient. And a good thousand years before Adam and Eve committed their first sin and brought death into the world by disobeying that God, the “Adam” of the Sumerians – Gilgamesh’s sidekick, Enkidu – had committed his earlier “original sin.”

In this lecture, I’m going to argue that Enkidu’s “sin” — which had nothing to do with disobeying any god, nor with his epic and far-from-shameful sex with Shamhat — cost our race far more than Adam and Eve’s. And we’re only now, in this generation, really able to appreciate that truth. Call it a 4,000-year-old prophecy that we’re now seeing unfold all around us.

It happens in Book V of Gilgamesh, and for the life of this modern, scientifically-minded skeptic, this “prophecy” is far more true and far more disturbing than anything we see in Eden, or perhaps in the whole Bible. If it doesn’t haunt you a bit by the end of this lecture, then one of us has problems.

The funny thing is, it happens in such a subtle form that it’s easy to miss. And it’s that subtlety that makes me want to state, for the millionth time in this series, that the poets who wrote Gilgamesh were among humanity’s finest ever.

Funnier still, it happens in the very suckiest episode in all of Gilgamesh: the slaying of the monster Humbaba.

Predictably, the well-meaning sadists who produce our suckiest literature textbook anthologies seem to always inflict this episode on our high school students. These out of touch souls seem to think teens will find monster-slaying scenes really cool. Between movies like Harry Potter that let us see and hear monsters like the Dementors almost sucking our souls out, and video games that let us chop the bastards’ heads off ourselves and be covered in their blood and gore, this Humbaba scene in Gilgamesh doesn’t stand a chance. It ranks about as high on today’s adventure scale as an exposed Victorian ankle ranks on the scale of modern sexiness.

So fear not: this English teacher isn’t going to insult your intelligence by arguing that this this chapter is good for its scary monster. There’s terror enough in this chapter – reality-based terror, at least in my reading of it – for us to need no supernatural special effects.

Background: Before the Divine Divorce

Adam and Eve’s original sin reflects a recent, radical stage in the evolution of Israelite religion: the separation of the divine from the realm of Nature. It’s the first religion we know of that saw God outside of Nature, transcending it. Unlike all the other religions in the Near East up to that time, the Jewish religion saw God not as created within Nature, but as creator of it. So it makes sense that the “original sin” in the book of Genesis is disobeying that God. He’s the King, the Lord, the Master of the Universe. He ordered Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, and they disobeyed. That’s the sin.

We can play with some of the depths of this myth some other time, because there’s much more beneath the surface of this seemingly silly “I told you not to eat that fruit” story. But the point I want to make here is that this myth only makes sense within the revolutionary worldview of a certain set of Hebrews around 1,000 BCE. It doesn’t make sense inside the older Mesopotamian view of the Gilgamesh poets.

Their gods are not divorced from Nature. They live in it, they have natural bodies and functions, they even have divine animals like the Bull of Heaven (which, as we see later when it takes what the British might call an “epic shite” on Enkidu, has divine-but-natural bodily functions).

As importantly, there’s no “Master of the Universe” god in the Mesopotamian worldview, so there’s nobody to give absolute “commandments” like “Thou shalt not eat that fruit.” One god might be stronger than another, but that doesn’t make him or her all-powerful over all the others. Remember from Lecture 1 that these gods, additionally, don’t seem to think the Biblical god’s authoritarian commandments are the best way to deal with humans anyway: they didn’t punish Gilgamesh for deflowering all his subjects’ brides, and they didn’t command him to stop – or, as so often in the Bible, declare he be stoned to death. Instead, they pulled that totally mysterious and totally cool trick of creating Enkidu to somehow, wtf?, give Gilgamesh an experience that will wise him up and make him stop being such a royal ass. In short, they weren’t punishing “sin” – they were curing stupidity.

And yet I still claim that Enkidu, in Book V, commits an “original sin.” So what gives?

A Question of Balance

Let’s recap Enkidu’s story, because Enkidu is more interesting than Gilgamesh in this episode. It ain’t about the hero here.

As we’ve seen, Enkidu starts as a sort of “wild-man Adam,” created out of dust and outside of civilization, to be the “balance” who will “bring peace” to Gilgamesh and his city. Unlike Adam, Enkidu lives in a nature that we recognize as realistically Darwinian: animals prey on other animals in Enkidu’s Nature, and Enkidu seems one animal among many in the way he drinks at the watering hole with them and runs as fast as the gazelles. The only difference we see between Enkidu and the other animals is his role in defending animals from predators. So Enkidu seems compassionate, and in a very specific and important sense: he’s compassionate toward natural creatures. His most outstanding trait, in this stage of innocence, is that he’s a defender of Nature.

Then along comes the prostitute Shamhat, you’ll remember, and her civilizing mission: she seduces him into civilization with that epic six-day roll in the hay (and boy, how Enkidu must have needed, like that later god in Genesis, to take a day of rest on the seventh). Similar to Samson, Enkidu loses much of his physical power after this epic sex scene, can’t sprint like he used to, and so forth – but he gains language, the ability to share ideas and conversation, the need for friendship, and the desire to follow Shamhat into the city and meet Gilgamesh. Still, though, Enkidu seems not to have lost his character as the compassionate defender: he wants to fight Gilgamesh after hearing of his bride-stealing ass-hattery.

Remember the “double that balances” motif? The “balance” seems to be thrown off when natural Enkidu leaves the wild, and crosses the gateway into civilized Gilgamesh’s city. It’s like both guys are now sitting on the same side of the see-saw – the city side. Nature’s left hanging in mid-air now.

Then they fight, Enkidu loses, and he and Gilgamesh become fast friends. Enkidu likes clothes and bread and beer, and life is good – until Gilgamesh gets that royally wild hair up his royally dumb ass to go kill Humbaba, who he calls a “monster.”

Enkidu, Defender of Animals, tells Gilgamesh it’s a really bad idea to kill Humbaba, and reminds him that he’s not just a monster: he’s the divinely-appointed Guardian of the Cedar Forest. Enlil put him there to keep the forest, which is sacred to the gods, untouched by man, and off-limits to him.

Gilgamesh cares no more for the virgin forest than he cares for the virginity of his brides. Whether he’s taking his metaphorical axe to the virgin brides, or his literal one to the virgin cedars, it’s all the same to this swaggering dumb jock of a king: if it redounds to his glory and gives him an heroic notch for his belt, his name won’t die and he’ll achieve everlasting fame.

After Enkidu loses the argument, he tries to get the city elders to talk sense into Gilgamesh with their religious “knowledge” and urgings to fear the gods. At their pious warning that no human could succeed at this task against the gods’ will, Gilgamesh laughs possibly the first heretic’s laugh in history – or literature, anyway – and off he and Enkidu go to slay the monster.

Off they go, straight through the gate from civilization, and back into Nature. Our “balance that doubles” motif has now seen both men jump onto the Nature side of the see-saw. Now it’s civilization that’s left hanging in mid-air – and hanging, the way I see it, fatefully.

The Original Sin – Literally

By the logic of the “double that balances” motif, everything hangs on Enkidu now. He originally balanced the civilization-symbol Gilgamesh by being the Nature-symbol “defender of animals” in the wild. He threw things out of balance by “crossing over” to civilization. Now we’ve got Gilgamesh crossing over into Enkidu’s original realm with him, balancing Enkidu’s earlier “crossing-over.” We know Gilgamesh has predatory motives for this trip: he’s going to kill the Forest Guardian, and chop down the “highest cedars.” So the question is, is Enkidu going to stay true to his original role, when he was “innocent” and Adam-like, of defending nature’s creatures against predators – even if the predator is now his friend and king?

(to be continued)