Do you, on the whole, get yourself hot and bothered about the Gigantic Pillars of Modern Culture which you know nothing about? Do you regret those wasted?years at university, those afternoons spent drinking average beer rather than consuming stupendous literature? Are you, on the whole, far less well-read than you ought to be?
Well I am. I know I am. There are a great many classics of literature, philosophy and science which I have never ever read. I’ve still got Penguin Classics on my bookshelves with suspiciously smooth spines.
And it’s impossible to catch up. There’s so many new things to read: just this week, hardbacks of?The Luminaries and?The Goldfinch are going to be making an alarming TBR sandwich with Morrissey’s autobiography.
Time to make a bit of time for the classical, the vintage, the ancient, the time-tested and the road-worn. I discovered Well Read 40 via Tyler Cowen, and it’s a remarkable guide to the essentials of a classically humanist education. Across 40 courses, it takes you through the key elements of what we now call our?culture. So I’m starting there, on Course 1. With The Epic of?Gilgamesh.
This book is a prime example of what I’m talking about when I say my reading is, shall we say, gappy.?The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. Very very old. Most of it was collected in the Akkadian language, discovered on 12 tablets in the Nineveh library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, whose reign began in 668 BCE. So the stories are even older than that. They’ve been added to by scholars from other tablets written in Sumerian in ‘the first half of the second millennium BCE’ (these are the words of Britannica, and I suppose that odd construction means ‘more than 1,500 years BCE’). Taken together, the tablets form a collection of stories about the ancient king Gilgamesh, the king of the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Uruk. In the story, Gilgamesh (who is, quite specifically, two-thirds divine) meets his match in the shape of the wild man Enkidu, who has been specifically created by the gods to bring Gilgamesh down a peg or two. They fight, they become friends, they fight some great beasts with success, but then Enkidu dies and, wracked with grief, Gilgamesh travels to the edges of the world and down into the underworld to find Utnapishtim, the survivor of the great Flood, to discover the secret of avoiding Death.
I read the English version of the story written by Stephen Mitchell, who has ‘recast’ the text in ways which a non-scholar cannot possibly unpick. Whatever the liberties taken, if indeed there are any, the text is fresh, clear and amazingly pacey. Gilgamesh?is more Tarantino than Tolstoy. It drives through its story with energy and some of its imagery is startlingly modern and filmic; at one point, Gilgamesh must run down a tunnel into the underworld in less than 12 hours before the sun rises and burns him away. It’s very Hollywood, in the very best way.
That pacey modernity extends to the rhetorical devices and the poetry. I could pick any number of examples, from the sexy to the savage, but I’ll just give you the beginning, which reads to me like a Creative Writing masterclass in point of view, rhetoric, narrative voice and dramatic exposition:
He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed
to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted
but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets,
had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massive
wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.
You’re?there aren’t you? Right in the middle of the story. It’s like good Neil Gaiman (and if you read?Gilgamesh, you’ll see where a lot of good Neil Gaiman comes from). I read the whole thing in an evening. You should, too.
Next up: the Torah. Gulp.