Category Archives: The Unsucky English Lectures

Lectures from the real world, beyond school.

In Which the Teacher is Sacrificial Poet at His First Poetry Slam

In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)

You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.

Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.

“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 “FactsandDetails.com” 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)

Unsucky English Lecture 8: The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets

[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. This Lecture ~ 9. The Original Original Sin ]

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.

I have a love-snore relationship with Book IV of Gilgamesh. On first read, in fact, it was snore-only, and no love. That changed on the second read, so stay with me.

First, the Snores

On the surface, it’s a tedious chapter that recounts the journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu from the gates of Uruk to the edge of the Cedar Forest, home of the “evil” monster/”sacred” forest guardian Humbaba, whom Gilgamesh has decided to kill for glory. They travel a thousand miles every three days, only stopping for a lunch break at the 400th mile, and on the eve of the third day they pitch camp – where else – on the heights of a mountain-top where, closest to the gods in heaven, Gilgamesh apparently has better reception for dreams from the divinities. Enkidu encloses Gilgamesh in a magical circle of flour, a gust of wind portends a divinatory dream will indeed visit him. He goes to sleep, has by all appearances a very bad dream, wakes up terrified, and tells it to Enkidu. Enkidu then interprets the dream favorably, against all common sense, and Gilgamesh swallows it.

This happens five very repetitive times. The only thing that changes in each repetition is the content of the dream, and the outrageousness of Enkidu’s wishful interpreting.

In the first dream, Gilgamesh dreams a mountain falls on him and Enkidu. Enkidu tells him the mountain is Humbaba, who will fall like that mountain. (Never mind that the dream suggests they’ll both be crushed under him.)

In the second dream, the mountain falls only on Gilgamesh and pins him down, and a “shining man” frees him. Enkidu says the mountain is again Humbaba, and the shining man the sun-god Shamash (remember, Gilgamesh’s goddess-mother Ninsun prayed to Shamash to aid her son against Humbaba).

In the third dream, the heavens roar, the earth heaves, all goes dark and silent. Lightning incinerates the trees and all is ash. Enkidu really reaches on this one, saying the heavens are Humbaba, who is powerless to harm Gilgamesh.

In the fourth dream, an eagle with a lion’s head and flames shooting from its mouth attacks Gilgamesh, and a “young man” kills the eagle. Enkidu, *snore*, says the eagle is Humbaba, and the man is Shamash.

In the fifth dream, things get a bit “wtf”: a giant bull, whose bellow shatters the earth and clouds the sky with dust, pins Gilgamesh to the ground, but a man pulls him up, puts his arm around him, and gives him water. More “wtf” still, Enkidu out-does himself by interpreting the bull – get this – as Shamash, and the man as Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh’s father.

It’s not quite as bad as the “begats” in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers (and if God wrote the Bible, this snorer proves He needed a merciless editor), or the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of The Iliad, but it’s close.

Next, the Love

I’m an English teacher. One of the more obnoxious parts of my job is getting all preachy to students who whine that this or that book is “boring,” and telling them that a bored person suffers from a boring mind. There’s always a way, I preach, to turn lead into gold. You just have to stop snoring and wake up, and do that little “reader-response” trick of bringing your own experience and mental connections to the text.

And when I do that with this chapter, it gets a little fun. Let me count the ways.

On Dreams, Magic, Gods – and Poets

That whole “dreams comes from heaven” bit, for example. On the face of it, this motif in Gilgamesh is one of thousands of examples in ancient literature of early humanity’s mental childishness. Faced with questions for which they had no certain answers – Where do we come from? What happens to us after we die? What are these visions we experience in our sleep, and what causes them? On and on – our earliest ancestors settled on answers that today’s toddlers might swallow, but not today’s adults.

The whole thing brings to mind an analogy that, while I know it’s facile, I’m still fond of, and find compelling on many levels: the metaphor of (Western? Intellectual?) human history as the development of an individual human. Antiquity represents our early childhood, gullible enough to swallow Santa Claus; the Middle Ages is our later childhood, accepting whatever we’re told by our authoritarian father-figures in the Church; the Renaissance is our adolescence, rebelling against those fathers and creating new identities, seeking new truths; the Enlightenment is the prime of our adulthood, the cooling of that rebellious passion as we turn more earnestly to our work; we could throw Romanticism in there as a mid-life crisis, though I won’t push it; and our own Modernity – say, 1850 to today – that’s us past our prime, muddled and venal, physically and mentally flabby, caring more about comfort than work, sliding into mediocrity and, soon, senility. (The divine Oscar Wilde points to the same thing in reverse order with his maxim, “The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.”)

So our “young” Gilgamesh and Enkidu “know” that dreams come from the divine, are portents, omens, Things To Be Taken Seriously. Before you join me in a condescending smile, stop with me and ask yourself how many people you’ve known who are still so childish in their beliefs. Can you think of anybody like the man I met years ago who heard God speak to him from his television set – not once, but many times – and never once thought to ask himself, “Should I seek psychiatric help?” Or the good but hyper-religious friend who called me during my waiter shift at my Los Angeles restaurant to breathlessly tell me he had encountered God – and who over the next several months dressed – in Los Angeles – like Rasputin, cassock and Eastern cross necklace and all, and gathered a troupe of disciples around himself renamed after Jesus’ original twelve? Or any number of the no-less-extreme, though more socially accepted (and very well-fed) men on our radios, televisions, and megachurches who claim to talk to God on a regular basis? People who talk about auras, horoscopes, astrological charts, End Times, Nostradamus, on and on?

Ask yourself, better still, if you’re still childish in any similar way. I was once. In fact, I was just like Gilgamesh in this chapter: In my truth-seeking twenties, way back in the late 1980s, I went to an Oregon mountain-top, had a friend sit me inside a magic circle, and prepared to fast there for three days in hopes of receiving a vision from the gods – specifically, the Native American gods of the Pacific Northwestern Sundance religion. The punchline: we had to cancel the “vision-quest” because a) one of us had forgotten to bring a meat-offering for the bird-spirits, and you couldn’t have a vision-quest without a bird offering any more than Gilgamesh apparently could without that magic flour; and b) my helper-friend had a romantic crisis with his girl-friend, and had to run back to his distant town in order to patch things up.

(Gilgamesh was lucky Enkidu didn’t have a high-maintenance girlfriend.)

Don’t think for a minute that I regret those years. And don’t think, either, that I don’t enjoy being able to laugh at them from a completely different mental space 20 years later. Above all, to tie this tangent back to the “intellectual history as individual development” analogy, do think that the reason I was able to outgrow that childish stage was that I went on to study history from antiquity to the present in college, and to grow in that process to intellectual maturity – which, believe me, means much intellectual humility and skepticism, lest you think I’m prideful by saying this. (Nutshell: At the end of a semester of immersion in Greek and Roman studies, I wanted to be a Classicist; at the end of the next semester of Medieval Studies immersion, I wanted to be a monk – and actually called a monastery asking how I could; the following semester’s immersion in Renaissance and Modern Studies thankfully pulled me past that stage, and left me more of a Marxist than anything. Readings since then have pulled me beyond that stage too.)

So the childish magical thinking we chuckle at in Gilgamesh survives all around us, 5,000 years later, all over the world. I’ve traveled much of that world as an adult, and seen it. I saw it in my native United States, where spells said over water, bread, juice, and the like, are believed to magically transform them. I’ve seen it in Europe in the same manifestations. I’ve seen it in Kosovo, as a NATO peace-keeper trying to protect the people who drop to their knees five times a day on the streets to point in a magical direction and pray from being killed by their fellow country-men who believe in a different magic. I saw it in a Buddhist monastery in the Yunnan province of China near the Tibetan plateau, when an ancient monk put a magic string around my wrist. I saw it in Bali, Indonesia, at a Hindu temple full of incense and drumming with monkeys scrambling in trees overhead. I’ve seen it most recently at my Korean mother-in-law’s fresh grave-site, where her family visits and speaks no words of their own to her, but instead opens their magic book above her and reads from it, sings its songs, and then leaves. (I always talk to her at that point, fully doubting she hears at all, just because it seems so heartless to leave without saying a simple “We loved you.”) And I’ve wished for each of those countries that its people could have the opportunity to study history, or travel the world and observe it like I’ve been lucky enough to do, or both, so they could start questioning all the tribal, divisive magics separately claiming to speak their many One Truths on our inseparable, indivisible One Planet spinning through this One never-fully-explainable mystery called the cosmos.

Back to Gilgamesh, Who We Never Really Left – and His Poets

Reader-response. Connecting our experiences to what we read, riffing off the connections. All the above does connect, in this reader’s mind, anyway, to one thing about this snorer of a chapter in Gilgamesh that I love. It’s this: I can’t help but suspect the poets behind this work of being far less childish than their place at the infancy of civilization suggests they should be. Even more, I see signs in this chapter of a sensibility that is startlingly modern: I see these poets as laughing at the childishness of the religious beliefs of their culture.

The clues are in Enkidu’s interpretations of Gilgamesh’s five “dreams from the gods.” It’s not just that Enkidu gives different interpretations of the dreams – for example, Gilgamesh’s “helper” being Shamash in Dream Two and Four, but Lugalbanda in Dream Five. These are noticeably strange, and I always tell my students that if something is strange – is a “wtf?” – in literature,  the author(s) want us to notice them. The poets may indeed want us to notice how contradictory the interpretations are, and laugh at them a bit.

But the more laughable thing, the most interesting “wtf?”, lies in the increasing outlandishness of each interpretation. Dream One doesn’t raise a brow: the falling mountain represents the falling Humbaba – reasonable enough, so we’ll take it seriously. Dream Two doesn’t phase us either: the falling mountain is again Humbaba, and the god Gilgamesh’s mother prayed to for help, Shamash, is the helper in the dream. Enkidu’s interpretation of Dream Three gets more interesting, though, and upsets our expectations: Gilgamesh seems to die unaided in this one – it ends, remember, in “darkness, silence, and ash” – and Enkidu’s interpretation that the dream shows Humbaba is “powerless to harm” Gilgamesh doesn’t satisfactorily explain away that deathlike ending. Anybody awake in the audience, then or now, would presumably notice this slight “wtf,” and wake up a bit. It’s not reasonable enough to satisfy.

The interpretation of Dream Four, though, returns to reason, and lulls the alert reader’s misgivings: the eagle-monster is Humbaba, and its killer who comes to the King’s aid, Shamash – still delivering the help Ninsun begged him to give her son. This makes Dream Three’s interpretation seem a minor fluke. All is again as it should be in the land of story-telling logic. We should take this dream-interpretation stuff seriously. All that flour and favorable mountain-top wind works some serious magic to call down the attention of the divine.

Then comes Dream Five, which I swear strikes me as one of the grandest practical jokes ever played on priest by poet. No listener with the slightest hint of intelligence can take its interpretation seriously: Enkidu tells Gilgamesh the giant bull who almost kills him in this dream – who is his enemy – is not Humbaba this time, as we’d expect, but, wtf?!, Shamash, who in the previous dreams has been Gilgamesh’s divine helper. More wtf still, the helper in this dream is Gilgamesh’s father who comes out of nowhere and, though a former king himself, is still hard to see as a match for the sun-god from whom he saves Gilgamesh.

Remember, this poem was worked and re-worked over at least 1,500 years. That’s ample time for the court poets to find an interpretation for this dream less jarring on the audience’s imagination and less insulting to its intelligence. Yet there it stands, thumbing its outlandish nose at us all, with all its authorial authority. Why did the poets keep this detail as it is?

In my most mischievous imagination, they did it to confront their ancient audience with a choice: You either believe the authorities – us – and our sacred tale, no matter how absurd – or you learn the lesson we’re trying to point to here: sometimes you have to face facts, show some skeptical courage, and call nonsense by its name. This dream interpretation stuff is for the birds.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder how many priests’ feathers were ruffled by this scene over the thousands of years of its telling.

A closing question: the interpretation of dreams – oneiromancy, for any students out there wanting extra points on their Gilgamesh essays – was a widespread religious superstition in the ancient world. The Hebrews did it, the Greeks did it, even educated fleas did it – but did any of those other “childhood cultures” do it with the implicit skepticism and ambiguity I argue we see here?

If not, those Sumero-Babylonians were awfully mature for their Age.

[Next: Lecture 9: Gilgamesh and the Original “Original Sin”]