Friday, April 17, 2015

Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood. All that’s left is to ask what enduring truths, if any, we find in this poem. Is this poem simply an archaeological curiosity, or does it still have something to offer modern readers?

Disney's dream of having
himself cryonically preserved
was overruled by his survivors --
his remains were cremated.
At first glance, it might seem not. The world that gave rise to this poem is very remote from us, not only in time but in culture. Its human figures seem barbaric and its callous and capricious gods are inscrutable — even Utnapishtim does not  try to explain their actions. But when we consider enduring truths, we have to move past cultural differences, which can be distracting. As a whole, it seems to me, the poem is about learning to accept our human limitations, something that can be especially difficult for a man like Gilgamesh, who excels ordinary mortals in so many ways. He has power, wealth, wisdom, beauty, strength in abundance, making him believe that he can (and should be able to) grasp at immortality as well.

Our modern world may not have the kind of super-powerful kings that dominated the ancient Near East, but that is not to say that we don’t have plenty of rich, powerful people who try to exercise godlike power over us “mere mortals.” Are those who use their wealth to limit population in parts of the world that they deem over-populated (Africa, Asia, Latin America) so very different from the Mesopotamian gods who decided that humankind had become too populous and needed to be destroyed by a flood? The daily news seems to be full of stories of the rich and famous who feel free to seduce innocents and crush the weak, much as Gilgamesh before Enkidu humanized him. So it would seem that the problems posed in the Epic of Gilgamesh are still with us.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Movie makers need to read great literature, too

I've  talked quite a bit on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out of our petty interests and connect us to the larger human condition. Part of the problem, I believe, is that, by and large, people don't read any more, and when they do read they read the literary equivalent of Twinkies and Red Bull.

Of course, reading is not the only way to be exposed to great stories. Film can also tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. The problem is that most American filmmakers are more interested in spectacle than story, as Barbara Nicolosi and her collaborator Vicki Peterson discuss in this video interview:

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Saturday, the still center of all Creation

I think in many ways Holy Saturday is my favorite day of the Sacred Triduum, chiefly because of this ancient homily, which is traditionally read on the morning of this day. Try reading this aloud in a church that has been stripped of its sacred appointments, and devoid of the Sacred Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament — it will send ripples of awe down your spine.

Homily on The Lord's descent into hell, by St John Chrysostom

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
13th century illumination: Christ harrowing Hell
The first to fall from God's Grace, Adam and Eve
are the first to be redeemed.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.
At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Words worth pondering: the Passion of Christ

This week, in deference to Holy Week, I’m taking a break from ancient epic to consider the Passion of Christ. I'll start by asking two leading questions, the first of which is a kind of riddle: How is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? That one's rather obscure, so I'll answer it last. Let's begin with a somewhat easier question: Has it ever occurred to you that when we speak of the “passion of Christ,” we are using the word passion in a way that we rarely (if ever) do in any other context?

When we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, usually we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve had many students tell me that they wanted to choose a major that they were “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.

Two kinds of “passion”?

Captain Kirk, raging
Captain Kirk, in an alternate universe,
was ruled by his passions.
This idea of “passion” as an interest is a kind of watered-down version of an older meaning of the term — passion as an overwhelming emotion, such as anger or lust or jealousy, something that happens to us, that can take control of us and make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. We used to hear references to “crimes of passion,” meaning crimes committed in the heat of the moment, when a person acts under the impulse of overwhelming emotion that temporarily shorts out rational control — a kind of “temporary insanity” that diminishes moral culpability. That idea seems to have lost its force in the legal sphere, and it probably never held much sway in the moral sphere.

If you look for the term “passion” in the Bible, you’ll find that only once is this word used to refer to Christ (perhaps not even once, depending on which translation you use).
To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, RSV-CE) 
Every other reference to passion uses the term in the sense of overriding impulses or desires (almost always to be resisted), as in Proverbs 14:30, which counsels against rash anger (“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”) or Romans 6:12, which refers to the passions as ruling our fleshly nature (“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”).

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh: What does it all mean?

In the past couple of posts in this series, we’ve been looking at the Great Flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, trying to put the flood story into context, both within the larger story of Gilgamesh’s quest for godlike immortality and within the overall rhetorical context of the poem. Having done so, we’ve now reached the point where we can sort out what it all means. Here again, though, the question is more complex than it might seem at first glance. There’s the “meaning” of the poem from the poet’s point of view (what meaning did he apparently intend his readers to derive from the story), and the enduring significance of the story over time.

Answer the dramatic questions to find the meaning

The simplest way to get at the meaning of any story is to see what dramatic question the story poses and how that question gets answered. This refers to a question, raised at the beginning of the story, which holds the reader’s attention and drives the action of the story. Since Utnapishtim’s account of the Great Flood is a story-within-a-story, we’ll need to consider two dramatic questions — the one that governs the epic as a whole, and the one that governs the Flood narrative specifically — and to think about how the two bear upon one another.

The Larger Question: Can Gilgamesh be reined in?

His friendship with Enkidu restrained Gilgamesh
... for a time.
The story of Gilgamesh begins with the people of Uruk crying out to the gods for relief from the despotism of their king. In response to this plea, the gods create a wild man, Enkidu, “equal to Gilgamesh’s stormy heart … so that Uruk may find peace.” This raises the question in the reader’s mind, “Will this do the trick? Will Enkidu somehow secure peace for the people of Uruk?”

In the first part of the poem, it would seem that the coming of Enkidu does indeed solve the Gilgamesh problem (but perhaps not in the way that the gods intended). Enkidu learns that Gilgamesh is about to ravish a bride before her wedding night, and becomes enraged at this inhuman behavior. Even someone like himself, as much a beast as a man, recognizes the barbarity of such an act. So Enkidu defends the endangered bride against the king and the two men battle fiercely throughout the city. Eventually Gilgamesh manages to overpower Enkidu, but rather than killing his opponent, whom he has come to admire for his fierce strength, Gilgamesh  instead makes a friend of him. In this way, although Gilgamesh has vanquished Enkidu, it is the king who is tamed through the friendship born of their strife.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Something for you Trekkies: Saints, heroes, and Klingons

Okay, I know I got all the Trekkies hooked when I put up that post about Captain Picard and the Tamarian (you all subscribed to this blog, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?)

Well, read this to find out why my pal Dennis McGeehan, says Saint Joseph would make the perfect patron saint of the Klingons.

Death of Enkidu, if he and Gilgamesh had been Klingons

Now, what do you think Worf would think about Gilgamesh. Would he dig him, or would he bury him? More importantly, what would he think of Gilgamesh's quest for immortality?
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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