Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Ancients Whisper: Heroes, and Clay and Silicon

So I promise to end up at some point with the Internet. In my professional web 2.0 cruising ... or social media work as the Tweeters would have it ... I learn that mblog will be more popular if I use buzz words like Twitter and Internet and Flip camera. But I keep thinking about the men who for three thousand years made wedge marks in clay in what we call the Near East.

I've finished the rather quirky History Begins at Sumer by the quirky scholar Samuel Noah Kramer ... I say quirky because his fastidious self-credentialing becomes almost comic after a while. Kramer is the paragon of dedication to his arcane but essential specialty, and he is the sort of scholar that I admire without reservation. But he must have been quite a crazy guy.

All that said, I cannot agree with his take on heroes and heroic ages. Kramer delineates three accepted heroic ages ... the Homeric, the Indian, and the Teutonic ... and then argues that Gilgamesh and Enmerkar and Lugalbanda are a fourth and the earliest heroic age. Kramer posits a number of common elements in heroic ages ... a concern for individual heroes, and the tendency of the poets who celebrate the heroes to embellish the historical with the mythical. It is here that Kramer brushes against the truth of the heroic, but marches on. For the heroic ages are not in the eye of history but in the eye of the writer.

What is so amazing about re-reading ancient history at this point in my life is the degree to which all my thinking focuses on the scribes. Since I last read The Epic of Gilgamesh as a 30-something freshman at Cal in the mid-80s, I have written a doctoral dissertation that attempted to extract the consciousness of the writer from 15th-century Malay manuscripts which obscured as a matter of course the hands that created them.

So too with the clay tablets, the thousands upon thousands of them, which inform us of the life and times of some portion of life in the millennia before the Greeks transformed writing once again. We have to remember a few things about these writers. To begin with, we remember them, while we do not remember the story-tellers and neighborhood wags who have been the purveyors of traditions and knowledge in societies around the globe since before Sumer and into our own times. We also have to remember that the scribes were not a flat class of equals, but that they must have embodied hierarchy and structure in parallel with the society that they both served and created. In a chirographic society (that is, a society in which the most people both high and low were not literate, but in which literacy was the craft of a caste of trained specialists), writing was a precious object, indeed a fetish object, the possession of which marked power and charisma. So the scribes, both high and low, were in contact with power even if they did not hold it. And they no doubt sought to influence power, both secular and religious, sometimes at risk to their own safety.

Kramer makes the mistake of failing to understand that the "minstrels" and the scribes co-existed, and that they had a reflexive relationship, albeit one which we can only infer given that the sources we have are almost exclusively in the form of cuneiform. So when we think of the first great epic, that of Gilgamesh, we have to assume that there were popular versions, recited by bards in fire-lit villages far from the hubbub and glamor of urban Uruk. But those bards were influenced by the existence of writing. And I would aver that the chief influence is to focus the mind on the question of supervening authority.

Everyone enjoys a good yarn. And good yarns come with a moral, more often than not. The moral tells you something not just about how you should act but more so about the structure and meaning of the society in which you live. When I read Gilgamesh ... and remember that the main source for the popular version that most of us read is a Babylonian interpretation that largely but not exactly mirrors the Sumerian version that predated it by a millennium of more ... when I read Gilgamesh, I see the construction of a worldview that is deeply pessimistic, but that still posits the necessity of a king who is in contact with the divine. The Gilgamesh epic is thrilling, certainly. It is dramatic, and it seemingly contravenes expectation. But this is what modern people miss when we read the highly redacted version that most of us experience: no one who heard this text 3,000 years ago would doubt its authenticity. What they would feel from it is a re-affirmation of the real, not only the visible, but the ethereal which envelopes and contains and determines everyday life.

So I come back to this dialectic that bothers me all the time ... authority versus authenticity. We moderns are bedeviled by our legitimate concern with authenticity. We want to know if the story is real, if the scribes got it right, if the tablets are whole, if the translation is valid. But we forget at our peril that the concern for the authentic was not primary in the minds of the ancients. They wanted to understand the basis for being, for society. That something was authentic was guaranteed by its being there ... that is what I mean by arguing the primacy of immediacy in the pre-modern mind. But did the thing that was there reveal something about the structure of reality? Was it authoritative?

That was the job of the scribe: he was charged to produce authoritative texts, and these primarily went into the collections of monarchs and temples where the act of possessing them conferred the authority of the text to the owner.

Writing is so different now. It is no longer the province of a caste of the highly trained. The Internet, paradoxically for a time in which television had been threatening to create the first post-literate society, has created the greatest explosion in widespread writing in the history of humanity. You do not need wet clay, or a lifetime of training, or a kiln. Anyone can write. When we think of the impact on social relations of a society of active writers, we should also think of the impact on ancient social relations of a society in which writing was the most specialized activity.

People loved then, and they love now. People ate and drank then and now. People lived and died just as we do. But it is not the commonalities that reveal. It is in difference that we find out who they were and who we were, even if it is arguable that we are more similar than different. And the differences in the meaning and role of writing are an excellent place to start.

Photo by Arod from the Louvre, generally believed to be a representation of Gilgamesh, but also called "The Hero Overpowering a Lion", Neo-Assyrian period, reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC)

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