Monday, August 3, 2009

Four Millennia of Human Nature: I Think Qoheleth is Right

Cuneiform writing is one of the oldest information storage and retrieval technologies we know of - apart from artwork left of cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. Cuneiform made it possible to record data without relying on the memory of human beings: a breakthrough in information technology.

That was about 5,000 years ago.

Roughly 4,100 years back, someone wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's almost certain that the story dates from an earlier period. We don't know about earlier versions, because they most likely were part of an oral tradition: and left no permanent record.

There was a real Gilgamesh, who lived about six centuries before the story was written. I'm not so much concerned with the historical king of Uruk as I am of the character in the story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Human Condition

The title character in the Epic of Gilgamesh is rather larger-than-life: one of the sort of King Arthur/Robin Hood/Luke Skywalker types that 'serious' writers are supposed to disdain. Which is another topic.

I am not doing justice to the story, but a short-short-condensed version is this: Gilgamesh starts out as a young and powerful ruler, and an oppressive one; Anu, one of the gods, creates a sort of counterweight for Gilgamesh - Enkidu; Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends, and Enkidu dies.

This is where it gets interesting, I think. Gilgamesh is grief-stricken at the death of his friend, and lets his life collapse. He's realized that, like Enkidu, he will die, too.

By overcoming enormous obstacles, Gilgamesh gains access to immortality: and loses it. He gains the power to become young again: and loses it.

Gilgamesh returns to his city, perhaps wiser.

Perfected Human Nature? Don't Hold Your Breath

There's a sort of science fiction story where all of humanity's ills are solved - generally by a combination of psychology, eugenics, and big machines. They've given way to the sort of post-apocalyptic dystopian story I mentioned in yesterday's post. I'm willing to recognize the potential for literary worth in either sort of story: but I'd rather do something I can regard as a bit more plausible.

Judging from the glimpse of the human experience we get in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient writings, I think it's safe to say that, when it comes to people:
"What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun."
"Ecclesiastes," 1:9
That's not as hopeless as it sounds.

It's getting late, and I need (desperately) sleep. I'll have to pick this topic up on another day.

More-or-less-related posts: Background:

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