Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Welcome to Hell; Whoa, This Place Looks Familiar

I'm teaching Gilgamesh this week.  It's a really old ass poem (it's basically like the first thing ever written down on a clay tablet).  I've never taught it before.  If I'm being perfectly honest, I've never even read it before.  At least, not carefully.  I was assigned it in undergrad, but that was in a class I took with this guy I had major crush on (alas, it didn't work out, as he didn't notice me at all except to ask if he could copy my homework) so the reading assignments were not much of a priority.  (Note to Brooke in college:  You can do better.  And you will!)

Anyway.  I'm prepping for class, I'm reading through the poem again, and I come to a moment that takes my breath away.  It's this weird point toward the end of the poem where Gilgamesh's dead friend Enkidu has sort of been resurrected.  Also, Gilgamesh has accidentally let his really special, magical, super awesome drum fall down into Hell.  Oopsies!  It was a gift from a goddess, and it's kind of a big deal.  So he calls on his dead friend Enkidu to go down and get it.  Enkidu is apparently an agreeable sort of fellow, so he ventures down into Hell to fetch the drum.  And then there's this:

Around him, the lament for the dead arose;
for she alone, in that sad place, is at home who,
having given birth to beauty,
has watched that beauty die.

That's the definition of Hell.

It was written almost 5,000 years ago.  On a clay tablet.  With a freaking stick.

"Who," the ancient, toga-wearing, sandal-sporting writer wonders, "Who could possibly feel at home in Hell?  Oh, I know.  Somebody who feels like they're living in it every day.  Someone who has lost a child."

She alone, in that sad place, is at home.

And THAT is why I teach literature.  Because everything that matters, everything that makes us human and connected to one another, every joyful and anguished moment of our suffering gets worked out and puzzled over and articulated again and again.  And sometimes you discover that someone who lived centuries before you, on the other side of the world, in a place you can't really even imagine, went through Hell.  And lived to tell about it.


  1. Yes to all of this.

    Good luck with the class!

  2. That gave me chills, B.

    I don't get them very often, but that fully resonated with me. Hell is home. Where I belong and want to be if it means being closer to the memory of my Andrew. But totally not a place I thought I'd ever have to go. To hell I go... or is it... in hell I am... yeah, probably that ever since December 5.

  3. Wow, that is so powerful. I hope you are able to get through the lesson without crying.

  4. Wow. Truth is the same no matter the age.

  5. wow.

    You know, if you had been my English teacher, I would love reading even more.

    What a beautiful way to write of such a horrible thing.


  6. Wow BT. Have thought about this as living hell but to have it validated ia nice.

  7. Hell indeed! How is it that so many have gone through this hell and yet society as a whole still can't talk about it or understand it...I don't get it.

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  9. That is crazy! What is crazy too, is that thousands of years ago people were writing poetry on tablets that I still have to read over and over in order to understand! Poetry has never been my forte, and I struggled in English throughout high school and university because I really struggled with understanding and dissecting and comparing different parts of poems or stories. But YOU get it. I'll bet you are an amazing teacher, and I'll bet that if I was in your class I would be better at it!!
    Thanks for sharing this version of Hell. Sounds about right to me.

  10. I've often wondered how other people in other cultures and times have viewed baby death. I think I find some comfort in knowing that even so far back in history it has been as painful as it is now.

  11. It is wonderful to find some validation in someone other person's words. Thank you for sharing with us!

  12. that is definitely the definition of hell. thx for sharing. i'm not a literature person at all (engineer here), so i love learning to appreciate it through you. love to you my friend.

  13. That's the power of literature, especially great literature. Your students are lucky to have you. : ) They might not appreciate it now, but someday, they might remember Gilgamesh & find comfort in it, as you have.

    I remember finding your blog & seeing the quote from Arnold's Dover Beach & just going, "Wow." I loved it in university, hadn't thought about it in years, but seeing it on your blog cast it in a whole new light for me. : )

  14. Wow, chills here too.

    Was so excited to find another literature nred, btw (I was an English Lit major :)


  15. This is amazing. I have never taught Gilgamesh before, but from here on out whenever I hear another teacher mention it, I will think of this. ~Lindsay

  16. No words.. now words at all. Wow...