Sunday, January 26, 2014

Notes on Storytelling and Epic of Gilgamesh

  • The mind's sensitivity to the meaning of life is impaired by fixed notions or perspectives on what it means to be human.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with the convention of a frame -- a prologue that sets off the story of Gilgamesh's life. By referring to Gilgamesh's own act of writing, the narrator attempts to convince us that Gilgamesh was real and by calling the reader’s attention to the act of telling, the narrator reminds us that the truth of a story might lie in the very fact of it being a story. The frame blurs the distinction between Gilgamesh's world, or the world of the tale, and the reader’s world.
  •  Praising Gilgamesh's accomplishments, the narrator invites us to survey the city of Uruk: "Look at it still today.... Touch the threshold, it is ancient.... Climb upon the wall of Uruk.” The narrator asks the reader to imagine what they are about to hear.
  • Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man. Gilgamesh is a hero. He is beautiful, courageous, and terrifying. His desires, attributes, and accomplishments make him a representation of the ideals of the people of ancient Mesopotamia.
  •  Gilgamesh is also mortal: he must experience the death of others and die himself. This tells the reader that if someone who is more than human—someone who is an ideal—can reconcile with death then the reader, a human, can.   
  • The gods create Enkidu as a match for Gilgamesh, a second self: "`Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet." The plan works in several ways. First, Enkidu prevents Gilgamesh from entering the house of a bride and bridegroom; they fight and then they embrace as friends. Second, Enkidu and Gilgamesh undertake a journey into the forest to confront the terrible Humbaba.
  • While everlasting life is not his destiny, he tells Enkidu. "I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written." Thus Gilgamesh turns his attention away from small personal desires to desires that benefit rather than harm Uruk.
  •  Enkidu teaches Gilgamesh what it means to be human; he teaches him the meaning of love and compassion, the meaning of loss and of growing older, the meaning of mortality.
  •  From its beginnings, Enkidu's story raises many questions on the nature of man. Created of clay and water and dropped into the wilderness, Enkidu is "innocent of mankind," knowing "nothing of cultivated land."
  • He lives in joy with the beasts until a trapper sees that Enkidu is destroying the traps and helping the beasts escape. The trapper needs to tame Enkidu just as the people of Uruk need to tame Gilgamesh, or to redirect his desires.
  • Civilization is less a thing than a process, the transformation of the primitive. Without the primitive, civilization would cease to exist. The Epic of Gilgamesh helps us see past the conventional classifications of "civilized" and "primitive" so that we might recall what each of us gains and loses in developing from one state of being to another.
  • Enkidu is seduced by the harlot and then rejected by the beasts. Recognizing the corruption in himself, civilized man corrupts primitive man to weaken him and make him one of his own. Yet for Enkidu as for human beings in general, sexual desire leads to domesticity, or love.
  • Ultimately, Enkidu's journey out of the wilderness and his adventure with Gilgamesh lead to his death, and, looking back in his sickness, Enkidu curses the walls of the city. Yet Shamash, the Sun God, reminds Enkidu that he would have never met Gilgamesh if he stayed in the wilderness and that Enkidu will be mourned by the people of Uruk and Gilgamesh.
  • Gilgamesh goes on a search for everlasting life. Two-thirds god, he is able to go farther than any ordinary human being.
  • Beside the sea, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, "the woman of the vine, the maker of wine," who reminds him of the meaningfulness of being human, "As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
  • Utnapishtim reveals the mystery of his own possession of everlasting life. He tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood, of the time when the gods, unable to sleep for the uproar raised by mankind, agreed to destroy mankind, and would have succeeded had not Ea, one of man's creators, instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat and "take up into [it] the seed of all living creatures." The story is familiar not only because it anticipates Noah's story in the book of Genesis, but because it is the story of life, the story of destruction and renewal.
  • A serpent rises up and snatches away the plant that gives immortal life; immediately it sloughs its skin and returns to the well. This story is familiar, not only because we recognize this snake as a precursor of the more sinister one that appears in the Garden of Eden, but because we comprehend it as a symbol. The snake’s sloughing of its skin represents nature's pattern of regeneration.

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