In honor of the beginning of the new online Great Books program that I am starting on September 9, I am hereby beginning a daily blog, each day expounding upon a different classic. At 25 years old I have read a heavy majority of the primary Great Books, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as hundreds of secondary and tertiary classics and secondary and tertiary works by authors of the primary Great Books. I am, at this juncture, more educated than any man of letters has been at my age in history, including such figures as Milton and Joyce, not only through reading (in which I have an advantage because the information is easier to access, plus neither of these figures had the opportunity by 25 to read Hemingway) but through experience, study of foreign languages, and mathematical acumen. But it is the books that matter. These books (many of which, but not nearly all of which, are on the sample list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_books) have had a profound impact on my outlook, demeanor, conduct, and decision-making, an impact which, by not teaching these fine works, our schools (at all levels and of all kinds) are failing to have on the millions of youth who attend them. It is my goal to change the lives of young men and women by exposing them to great literature and great ideas, both by classes and by social media.
I will approach these chronologically and, as such, must start with the epic poem Gilgamesh, a short work of about 130 pages. Gilgamesh is a Babylonian work dating from the middle of the 2nd Millennium BC and it tells of a king (the eponymous hero) who is brought from insolence to heroism by his introduction to a close companion (Enkidu). Enkidu has been created as a wild man by the gods, and he must be tamed, for which purpose Gilgamesh (who has heard of him from a trapper whose livelihood is being threatened by Enkidu’s wildness) sets him up with a temple prostitute, Shamhat. The taming takes seven days, after which Enkidu is brought to the kingdom of Uruk, where Gilgamesh, its king, has made lots of enemies and very few friends, especially as he has been asserting the lord’s right to bonk newly married brides before their husbands can get to them. Enkidu, hearing of this, goes to intervene in one marriage, blocking Gilgamesh’s entrance to the wedding chamber, sparking a fight between the two giants; Enkidu loses and yields, but they have clear and mutual respect for one another.
Quickly they establish a friendship, and then Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on adventures, notably one to a cedar forest in Lebanon, where they encounter the forest guardian, an ogre called Humbaba. Humbaba spews threats and insults at the pair of heroes; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight him and, with the aid of the gods, capture him, whereupon Enkidu asks Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba. Then they cut down trees, build a raft, and return home with wood and the head of Humbaba.
But not all the gods are friendly to Gilgamesh; in particular Ishtar, the goddess of sex, love, and war, seeks revenge upon him for his rejection of her (which he does because of her mistreatment of previous lovers). She demands that her father Anu (the god of the heavens and king of the gods) let her have the Bull of Heaven to avenge her rejection, and sends it down to Gilgamesh’s kingdom, Uruk, where it wreaks havoc. Without the aid of the gods this time, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill it and sacrifice its vital organs to Shamash, the god of the sun and of justice. This, however, has is to have its repercussions, and Enkidu finds himself having ominous dreams, then finds himself sick for twelve days before meeting an untimely and unheroic death.
A depressed Gilgamesh mourns the loss of his friend with a costly funeral and calls on the gods and the beasts of the earth to mourn. He offers gifts to the gods of the underworld in hopes that Enkidu will find a safe and happy place there. When this is complete he takes off and roams, searching for the secret of eternal life and hoping to find the great Utnapishtim, one of the survivors of the Great Flood who had been granted immortality by the gods. After a long journey he crosses a river which contains the Waters of Death, reaching Utnapishtim. Telling him his story and asking for his help, Utnapishtim rebukes Gilgamesh for the folly of seeking immortality, explaining that in so doing he is less able to enjoy life. Gilgamesh asks him how he obtained his immortality, and Utnapishtim tells the story of the Great Flood (for which I will refer readers to both the poem itself and the story of Noah in Genesis, as they are nearly identical). As Gilgamesh turns to depart, Utnapishtim’s wife asks him to bestow a favor on Gilgamesh, and he in turn tells him of a plant to be found at the bottom of the sea that will restore his youth. GIlgamesh grabs the plant and takes it back to Uruk–with the intent to test it on an old man–but the plant is stolen by a serpent when Gilgamesh bathes. Realizing the futility of his quest for immortality, Gilgamesh cries out, then returns to Uruk, realizing the magnificence of the city he possesses and (it is presumed) recognizing what a wonderful life he has been granted.
The epic of Gilgamesh is a complete story, containing comments on nearly every aspect of human life, including but not limited to politics, friendship, religion, gender, love, wisdom, virtue/vice, war/peace, age and death. This is one common feature of the truly great books. Moreover it is short–at 130 pages of half-lines in verse (as mentioned previously), it takes at most two days to read. It also appears to be based on real historical figures, though the events described are so divine as to be clearly mythical. If there really was such a figure as Gilgamesh, he lived around 2600 BC, a clearly modern man.
The poem is relevant to all ages and all facets of existence; I doubt if there is one man alive who does not wonder whether it were better to be immortal and ask questions about whether that would be a happier state. And I doubt if there is one man alive who does not wonder why God made women to reproduce (I kid, I kid!!). I doubt if there is one man who does not wish to have free rein for his temper, but the poem brings home that there are consequences for inappropriate use of our capabilities. It is for these reasons that the poem is complete, relevant, and worth the limited amount of time that it would take to read it.
More than this, it holds parallels with dozens of other pieces of classical literature, notably The Odyssey, the great epics with tales of journeys to the underworld, and Genesis in the Old Testament. This poem came before the others, so they had to have been influenced either by the poem itself or by the same stories that went into the poem. Since these are the most fundamental works of literature, it is worth reading this epic, Gilgamesh, to see how they relate and to see where much of the wisdom comes from. I will touch upon this as I go forward with my comments on those books in their proper places. For today, sayonara!
For more information on this epic, feel free to check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_epic!