Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Modern Epic

Gilgamesh, A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell, Read by George Guidall and John McDonough, Recorded Books, LLC, 2004

Stephen Mitchell has a nice little racket going on. To read a list of his English versions of classics of literature, you’d think the man knew every language out there. He’s got his name attached to the Tao Te Ching (Chinese), the poetry and prose of Rilke (German), The Gospel According to Jesus (Koine Greek), The Book of Job (ancient Hebrew), The Bhagavad Gita (Sanskrit), and now The Epic of Gilgamesh (Akkadian Cuneiform).

Of course, that’s not true. Mitchell doesn’t pretend otherwise, and his versions of these classics often bear a semi-disclaimer in the title. They are “New English Versions” not translations. He even provides explanations for his methods. Here is his explanation from my paperback copy of his Tao Te Ching (his version being the best selling English edition, by the way): “I worked from Paul Carus’ literal version…. I also consulted dozens of translations into English, German, and French.” In the essay to Gilgamesh, Mitchell explains that he followed a similar method, wrote out a prose version, which he then set about making into modern English poetry.

Often scholarly critics of the language or text in question complain that Mitchell’s methods are inaccurate, unsound, that he omits portions of the text or suggests intuitive leaps that simply aren’t tenable. Literary critics, on the other hand, not specialists in the philology of texts, find Mitchell’s versions beautiful renderings. The man is not without a poetic facility for language. I myself prefer his Rilke to anyone else’s (though I suspect those might be real honest to god translations).

At any event, his Gilgamesh is everything the critics say it is. Nuanced, elegant, muscular, sensitive, and most of all readable. The language is so smooth you are unable to tell, listening to reader George Guidall’s rich growl, that you’re hearing poetic lines and not straight paragraphs. Unless we’re talking rhymes, poetry read aloud should not place overemphasis on line breaks.

If you’re unfamiliar with only the oldest written story known to man, the nutshell version goes like so. Gilgamesh is the tyrant king of Uruk and he rules rather cruelly. The gods create the powerful human Enkidu to bring him to heel, and the two become great friends. They kill the monster Humbaba, insult the goddess Ishtar (odd that, being that she was Uruk’s patron deity) who inflicts Enkidu with a wasting disease. Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh mourns, setting out on a quest to find the only immortal human on earth in order to find out how to escape death. The oldest human, Utanapishtim, is a precursor to Noah and tells how he survived the Deluge and became immortal. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk without immortality, but kinder, gentler.

What’s refreshing about this old story is how sexually free and open it is, how it predates the blushing shamefulness of Western tradition. There are temple priestesses whose job is sex (though not in the degraded sense of prostitution as we now know it). One, Shamat, is tasked with humanizing Enkidu after his savage origins. She does this through sex, seducing him by lying naked on a path, waiting for him. What follows is seven days' worth of Olympic quality sex. That’s quite a beginning to the story and happens within the first few minutes. This epic lovemaking tames Enkidu and he begins to understand the language of humans after this, Shamat telling him he should go and fight Gilgamesh.

The two powerful figures of Enkidu and Gilgamesh echo down through subsequent literature in such male bonding couplings as Achilles and Patroclus, Hamlet and Horatio, and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. There is also an echo of Krishna speaking to Arjuna when Gilgamesh assuages Enkidu’s fears of death by philosophizing on the nature of death and the eternal cycle. On their trip to kill Humbaba, Enkidu generally watches over Gilgamesh as he sleeps, dreaming not very subtly metaphoric dreams of Enkidu as a mountain, falling down and covering him. Their journey itself is filled with symbolic language, the speed of their travel, the almost sacred repetitions of form that make it up, the dream interpretation and prayers to the gods.

The presage to the Noah story, Utanapishtim’s tale, predates the Biblical text by at least one thousand years. If that weren’t enough, it’s much better in the Gilgamesh version, more detailed, more human, more, oddly enough, believable. When Utanapishtim details the quantities of wood that went into his ark, when he tells of the workmen drinking beer and wine by the barrel, when he saves those same workmen by taking them with him, this version at least addresses some of the less savory aspects of the Genesis account. Bringing the workmen along, for example, saves the tale from the obvious necessity of incest if only one family is saved.

Mitchell rightly notes an aspect of the story featuring Utanapishim that had always struck me curiously though I could never put my finger on it. When Gilgamesh fails a test Utanapishim presents him with, the old man gives him a consolation prize chance at immortality. Gilgamesh passes this test, swimming to the bottom of the ocean and bringing back a small plant that, if eaten, will render him immortal. Gilgamesh doesn’t eat it right away, planning to test it first on an old man back in Uruk. Before he can return, a snake, drawn by the plant’s fragrance snatches it up and disappears with it. This feels as it is precisely what must happen, and Mitchell points out how the structure of the story makes it not only inevitable that such a thing should happen, but necessary and expected to. Exactly, I thought, exactly.

What’s rather interesting is that at the beginning Gilgamesh is described as never needing sleep and being 2/3rds god. In what Rilke described as the “epic of the fear of death,” and as death predominates as a theme especially in the second half, the story of Gilgamesh is about how a man comes to be able to die. In seeking immortality, in coming to love another person, Gilgamesh stops being a terror to the people of his town, filled with cruelty as gods often are, and as he weakens, he becomes, as Mitchell notes, 3/3rds human. In becoming more human, Gilgamesh makes himself more mortal. In his striving to overcome death, he makes himself capable of dying. His return to Uruk is as a human, fully realized, benevolent, compassionate.

Mitchell’s essay afterwards perhaps tries to hard to tie the epic’s tale to current events in Iraq. The decision by Gilgamesh to ride out to defeat the monster Humbaba he portrays as an arrogant nation preemptively attacking another country. Enkidu is painted as the “original animal activist” because he protects his herds. Whatever. This is followed by a lengthy recounting of the story, replete with sizable excerpts from his own translation. This is one of the reasons I almost never read introductions; they are filled with such worthless observations and authorial vanities, and they often give away the story. That Recorded Books were clever enough to put this essay at the end of the recording, filling the last two of four discs, is a testament to their savvy. Both sections are read by different people, another good move, as it gives the book the perfect delineation. After Guidall’s familiar baritone, McDonough comes in with a higher, cleaner tenor, the academic’s voice. Both readers perform excellently and fit their respective texts.

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