'Asia suffers from thanatomania; Europe knows la joie de vivre.'
That parallel cultures should not, through divergent historical experience, converge in their political institutions; and that such diversity of background should seek artistic expression appears to be an axiomatic abstraction. The devil, however, conceals himself in the details. In that universal particular of the East-West schism, divergence has ever been stigmatized as deviance. Increasingly, instead of a stereoscopic view of civilisations, there is recourse to stereotypes. The sun, it is claimed, for instance, rises over a people life-denying, other-worldly, to set over one life-affirming, this-worldly.
Two heroes, representative of their respective civilisations, are often nominated to battle on behalf of the thesis. Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian, ranks senior to Achilles, the Greek, by some 2,000 years!1 Thus, the struggle dons a generational dimension as well — the youth of the world renouncing the lessons of age, or age catechising youth on the ways of the world.
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the odyssey of a king in quest of immortality. To humanise his tyrannical reign, the gods respond to the subjects' adjurations by creating Enkidu, a wild man, initially living among the desert animals,
With the gazelles he feeds on grass,
With the wild beasts he jostles at the watering places,
With the teeming creatures, his heart delights in water.2
later civilised into urban life, and finally befriended by the king. This epilogue introduces us to their swashbuckling and derring-do, such as the killing of Huwawa and the 'bull of heaven'. The latter had been sent by Ishtar, the goddess of Uruk and 'a woman scorned', to kill Gilgamesh for repudiating her fickle love with a set of unflattering similes:
"Thou art but a brazier which goes out in the cold,
A backdoor which does not keep out blast and windstorms,
A waterskin which soaks through its bearer,
A shoe which pinches the foot of its owner!'
From this pinnacle of brotherhood, juxtaposed against the habitual infidelity of the goddess, the twain are dashed by the gods to the depths of division. Their united actions recoil on their unity, as Enkidu dreams of the 'house of dust', falls ill and dies. The fact of death transmitted so intimately to Gilgamesh for the first time, the invincible hero doubles up under grief and terror, and begins his quest for eternal life.
"Fearing death I roam over the steppe;
The matter of my friend rests heavy upon me. How can I be silent? How can I be still?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.
Must I, too, like him, lay me down
Not to rise again for ever and ever?"
En route to meet Utnapishtim, the only mortal to attain immortality, he meets Siduri, 'the barmaid who dwells on the edge of the sea', who, notwithstanding her calling, gives him sober advice.
"Gilgamesh, fill your belly -
day and night make merry,
let days be full of joy,
dance and make music day and night
And wear fresh clothes,
And wash your head and bathe.
Look at the child that is holding your hand,
and let your wife delight in your embrace
These things alone are the concern of men."
Unsurprisingly, the content of a barmaid constitutes the despair of a king and a hero. Gilgamesh sails over the waters of death to confer with the Sumerian Noah, Utnapishtim, who once played a role similar to his biblical counterpart, for which service to gods and creatures he received his boon, both event and gift not permitting replication. Yet Utnapishtim holds out one last, forlorn hope - a rejuvenating, underwater plant. Like a pearl-diver, Gilgamesh plunges for the priceless treasure of the deep; only to lose it to a serpent when he stops at a pool on the warm journey back to Uruk, having left it on the bank. Henceforth, snakes, rather than Gilgamesh, were to endure forever, sloughing off their bodies when old to renew youth. To Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman who had piloted him over the Persian Gulf to find the plant of youth, he communicates his 'incommunicable woe'.
For whose sake, Urshanabi, have I strained my muscles?
For whose sake has my heart's blood been spent?
I brought no blessing on myself -
I did the serpent underground good service."
1 Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), p. 104
2 E.A.Speiser, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B.Pritchard, (Princeton, N.J., 1950), passim