By Alex P. Vidal
“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.”
–JOHN F. KENNEDY
NEW YORK CITY –– Alfred Adler’s “What Life Should Mean to You” will have to take a back seat to pave the way for the more realistic epic poem from Mesopotamia considered as among the earliest surviving works of literature.
If we want to know the real meaning of life, we must read The Epic of Gilgamesh, written about 1,500 years before Homer wrote Iliad and Odyssey.
Preserved on clay tablets and deciphered in the last century, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the adventure of the great King of Uruk in his fruitless search for immortality and of his friendship with Enkidu, the wild man from the hills.
We can always raid all bookstores in the world and stumble into the latest research made by the best psychologists and even modern transcendentalists and existentialists, but none can compare The Epic of Gilgamesh, where it also narrates the legend of the Flood which agrees in many details with the Biblical story of Noah.
The story centers on a friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh’s equal to distract him from oppressing the people of Uruk. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain to defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.
This story comes from an age which had been wholly forgotten, until in the last century archaeologists began uncovering the burned cities of the Middle East. Until then the entire history of the long period which separated Abraham from Noah was contained in two of the most forbiddingly genealogical chapters of the Book of Genesis.
The later half of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh’s distress at Enkidu’s death, and his quest for immortality. In order to learn the secret of eternal life, Gilgamesh undertakes a long and perilous journey. He learns that “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”
If not the best literature ever written, the cycle of poems collected that rounded the character of Gilgamesh that carried back into the middle of that age, deserve a place in the world literature.
In an essay, Arthur Brown wrote, “We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written, in part because we are scholars, or pseudo-scholars, and wish to learn something about human history. We read it as well because we want to know the meaning of life. The meaning of life, however, is not something we can wrap up and walk away with.”
To see for ourselves the meaning of a story, Brown said “we need, first of all, to look carefully at what happens in the story; that is, we need to look at it as if the actions and people it describes actually took place or existed.”
“We can articulate the questions raised by a character’s actions and discuss the implications of their consequences,” Brown added. “But we need to consider, too, how a story is put together — how it uses the conventions of language, of events with beginnings and endings, of description, of character, and of storytelling itself to reawaken our sensitivity to the real world. The real world is the world without conventions, the unnameable, unrepresentable world — in its continuity of action, its shadings and blurring of character, its indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean most to us bring us back to our own unintelligible and yet immeasurably meaningful lives.”