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Post-Election Depression Digression

November 13th, 2004

Sorry for the delay; it took me this long to get over the shock.

As the longest election the nation of my residence has ever known drew into its last days, I was reading the final pages of the Epic of Gilgamesh: one of the world’s oldest surviving works of literature. Like all works of such age and cultural remoteness, interpretation of the tale of Gilgamesh is largely open-ended. We can never completely understand the story’s context because so little else has survived from that ancient time (and if we keep up like this in the Middle East, pretty soon what little there is will be reduced like the rest a fine dust of shrapnel and human bone fragments). But that same age and ambiguity is a large part of what makes Gilgamesh so fascinating. I read it and wonder what the culture of storytelling was like in the city of Uruk in the year 3,000 B.C.E., and I wonder how such incredibly vivid and savage imagery could have come from a time so remote and retain all the impact it does. Uruk, by the way, is where the word Iraq comes from.

I ought to warn you if you haven’t read Gilgamesh you won’t get much out of this. Go read it, if you haven’t; it’s quick, and it really is a foundational text of human civilization. Matter of fact, go read Genesis too.

“So at length Gilgamesh came to Mashu, the great mountains about which he had heard many things, which guard the rising and the setting sun. Its twin peaks are as high as the wall of heaven and its paps reach down to the underworld. At its gate the Scorpions stand guard, half man and half dragon; their glory is terrifying; their stare strikes death into men, their shimmering halo sweeps the mountains that guard the rising sun. When Gilgamesh saw them he shielded his eyes for the length of a moment only; then he took courage and approached.”
Gilgamesh IV: The approach to the Gate of Heaven.

Gilgamesh is Man before the Fall; he is the antediluvian giant, the methuselah. In three days he can walk as far as it would take another man a month to travel. His sword and ax and bow together weigh six hundred pounds. He can interpret dreams and fell monsters like David; he is two thirds god and one third mortal. Yet he fears; he is petty; he hates and desires.

He watches his blood-brother die, and vows, “This shall not happen to me.” He sets out to seek eternal life, and fails.

Awed and intrigued by the Epic’s conclusion, by the quiet, anticlimactic succumbing of the mighty Gilgamesh to old age after the land of the immortals showed him no sympathy, I made my usual recourse to the commentary of the human torrent. Yes, the internet, that great equalizer of esoteric and ubiquitous, intellect and idiot. What had my contemporaries to say about this least contemporary of wonders?

As it turned out, almost nothing–except for a torrent of paranoid and superficial arguments attempting to dismiss utterly any meaning or value that the primitive flood myth contained in the Epic‘s fifth part might have possessed.

In the flood tale told by Utnapishtim to teach Gilgamesh of the folly of desiring eternal life, we are presented with the near-perfect inversion of the biblical flood’s moral message, yet with near-identical story structure. The legion literary moguls of the internet, shrewd as they are, appear to have long since picked up on this subject and babbled it into meaninglessness, so I won’t bother to go into the Classics 101 compare/contrast rant. Suffice it to say that Utnapishtim’s gods see no particular merit in their chosen savior, and rather than punishing the rest of mankind for their lack of faith, bid Utnapishtim lie to his fellow men outright in order to avoid their wrath. Later, instead of the dove of peace that leads Noah to safety, Utnapishtim finds his salvation following a raven in search of washed-up human carrion. And finally, when the powers that be arrive to congratulate Utnapishtim on his fortitude, he receives no promise of prosperity and safety to come, but a rather weak apology for their hasty decision to destroy most of the world.

No wonder the Satanic cults of inverse Christianity chose to shape their pantheon out of Sumerian myth. No wonder the early Jews jumped on Babylonian religion the way modern Christians jump on Islam. And no wonder the vast array of modern Christians now in control of our government seem so desperate to ensure no possible dependence can be established of the Noah myth upon that of Utnapishtim. Boy are they chipping at rocks with a feather! After all, the Babylonian myth predates the Biblical one by a thousand years. And yet somehow they all seem perfectly capable of concluding with utter certainty that the Epic of Gilgamesh had no influence whatsoever on the Biblical flood, and that all these incredible structural similarities, in the face of the tales’ obvious moral divergence, can be nothing more than an astounding-yet-easily-dismissed coincidence. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be they’re only trying to reach the conclusion their seminary school professors all expect, or just that they’re too lazy or don’t care enough to consider the problem any longer than the minimum required five pages double-spaced requires?

Yet what is astounding coincidence but the unfaithful man’s tedious recourse for explaining away a miracle?

“The uproar of mankind is intolerable. Sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.”
Gilgamesh V: Enlil to the gods, entreating them to slaughter man.

Babel. Now there’s a clear and glaring anachronism. The word “babel”, as used here to mean nonsense, the chaotic, meaningless din of a thousand human languages all spoken at once, made its way into the English language via the Biblical tale of the Tower–God’s punishment of man for aspiration to heaven. “‘[B]abel’ sounds like the Hebrew word for confused”, according to BibleGateway.com’s footnote to Genesis 11:9 (my emphasis, with derisive snort). Yet the Gilgamesh story predates even the earliest versions of the Bible, and indeed the great tragedy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the title character’s failure to attain his own apotheosis.

This artificial reference to the Tower, inserted at the very formative moment of a tale so utterly alien to Christian morality, only makes blindingly clear that morality’s own historied dependence on anachronism, misinterpretation and misdirection. My copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the paperback Penguin Classics 1972 edition, cast out with a damaged cover at a library booksale and picked up by me for a whopping fifty cents. This text, the introduction informs me (which introduction incidentally is half again as long as the Epic itself) has been reassembled piecemeal from twelve other secondary sources, each of which in turn depends on dubious translations from fragmented, oft heavily damaged originals. The compiler, N.K. Sandaris, admits readily to her complete unfamiliarity with the original languages of the text, and to the tenuous nature of any Gilgamesh translation. Yet she lets the aforementioned anachronism slide, though she could easily have replaced it with any of a heap of less-weighted synonyms, from “nonsense” to “gibberish” to “jabber” to (my personal favorite) “idiolalia”. Hmmm. Negative publicity works handily for some, but I’m sure Penguin is quite aware that getting your newest publication thrown on the banned books list as an advocate of Satan isn’t the best way to make money.

Does all this shameless doctoring of spin remind you of anything? It should. The Bible was written in a language no living human can comprehend. It was translated into Ancient Hebrew at a date no one knows by a scholar no one can identify. A thousand years later the Hebrew was translated into High Latin. For another fifteen hundred years, nobody was allowed to read it but priests. Five hundred years after that there are literally hundreds of different translations, each of which was made at the behest of a sect with its own agenda, trying to force-fit the square lessons it teaches into prefabricated moral round holes. In the Beginning was the Word. Then we played telephone with it for four thousand years. Now, at the End, it’s just words. Babel, if you like. The Bible is Babble. Matter of fact, from that perspective, the Qu’ran is actually a hell of a lot more accurate.

It seems ridiculous to try to force such a weighty interpretation on what is so likely a mistranslation, but isn’t that what religion’s been doing all this time?

So what does it mean that the gods are angry at man for Babeling, even though in this case Man, in the representative shape of Gilgamesh, will not begin to Babel until who knows how many generations later, when this story is actually being told? Are we to interpret Utnapishtim, the only man to have achieved that apotheosis that Gilgamesh so ardently seeks (albeit only by way of the gods’ apology for their own catastrophic blunder), as stand-in for Christ, passing on the parable of the flood tale as a warning to a wayward sinner that the gods have short memories and aren’t to be trusted? Are we to wonder if there isn’t another ancient tablet, buried somewhere under the rubble of a shattered mosque, that bears the Sumerian version of the Babel story, wherein the gods simply got bored of having everyone comprehend each other’s views? Or are we meant to connect the walls of Uruk, which we are told “shine with the brilliance of copper” and “have no equal”, and which were erected by Gilgamesh himself, with the ambiguously blasphemous bricks of Babel–and thus equate Gilgamesh with Nimrod, its unholy architect, the Bible’s “mighty hunter before the Lord“?

In fact, I think we may conclude all of the above. Utnapishtim is a man outside of time, a walking anachronism, and a ready vehicle for the moral subversion of his culture. Dragged forward in time by those Christian conquerors, the pseudoscientific perpetrators of Sandaris’ “heroic age of excavation”, he is become for us like Dante’s Virgil, accepting with relief and gratitude God’s relegation of his fellow pagan philosophers to the first level of hell as punishment for his own God-given ignorance. And doesn’t every one of those old Bible tales of crime and punishment share this same structure of inevitable sin and inevitable retribution–the expulsion from Paradise, the branding of Cain, the obliteration of Gomorrah, the murder of Christ, the massing of mustard gas by Saddam and John the Baptist’s head on Herod’s platter?

Stop for just a second and think of our contemporary Towers, and their subsequent Fall. Wouldn’t you say the world is a far, far more divided place now than it was? Interesting that in our modern vernacular a “nimrod” signifies both that fat white man in the duck blind with the shotgun/mortar/tactical nuke, and the fool so intent on having a soothing smoke he doesn’t notice the cracked oil pipeline at his feet.

Let’s try to drag this back into some semblance of relevance, shall we? Before I bring the fundamentalists down on my head like the Sabaoth of Almighty Bush?

The pundits have declared the horrible results of this election to be the fault of something they call “moral values”. They mean it, I think, as a conciliatory statement–pointing out that despite our newfound fathomless, gaping divisions, ours is still fundamentally a “united” nation–a nation driven by values. Ignore, for the moment, the materialist and capitalist implications of that term, and look at the whole thing, as Utnapishtim and Christ might, from a distance. These values that so divide us, it seems to me, are entirely dependent on one’s religious experience and upbringing for their substance. The individual’s interpretation of the fate of Sodom has in past weeks been raised to a central and deciding aspect of this country’s future course. The whole reason the internet moguls are so intent on distancing themselves from Gilgamesh is so they can point at the Bible and say, “This is us,” and then at Uruk, or rather Iraq, and say, “That is them.” But remember: the story of Babel, of mankind’s disharmony-as-punishment, is itself entirely predicated on a pun, on an ambiguity of language. Ha ha, their word for the “Gate to God” sounds the same as our word for incoherent, babbling idiocy! Aren’t they deserving of help and pity! But oughtn’t we let them decide their own fate nonetheless? Certainly not!

Bah. Read it closely enough, and the Bible, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, is only warning us that gods and religions aren’t to be trusted, that man–every man, and every woman–is doomed to his flawed, mortal lot. They’re just like us. We’re just like them. Why can’t everybody just let everybody else do their thing?

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