In Popular Culture: Theodore Ziolkowski

For our third issue of the recurring theme ‘In Popular Culture’, we turn to Assyriology’s ‘greatest hit’ outside the scholarly community: the Epic of Gilgamesh. Like no other text from Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh has caught the attention of a modern audience. But why Gilgamesh? What do the modern artists, poets, authors, and composers, who have retold his story again and again over the last century, see in this ancient hero?

Professor Theodore Ziolkowski kindly agreed to share his expertise on the matter. His book Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic tracks the countless ways in which Gilgamesh’ story has been retold, ‘postfigured’, and adapted to the transformations of Western culture. I ask him to reflect on some characteristics of the epic’s modern reception, and on what Assyriologists can learn from it.

Please tell us a bit about yourself!

I spent most of my academic career at Princeton University as Professor of German and Comparative Literature and, for thirteen years, as Dean of the Graduate School. Since my retirement in 2001 I have been free to devote myself wholly to my scholarship, which has revolved around two principal interests: German Romantic Literature; and the modern reception of themes and figures from antiquity, both classical and biblical. That latter passion produced many books and articles, including Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus (1973), Uses and Abuses of Moses (2016), Virgil and the Moderns (1993), Ovid and the Moderns (2005), and Minos and the Moderns (2008). Other interests have generated interdisciplinary books on law and literature, music and literature, as well as such esoteric topics as alchemy and cults-and-conspiracies.

I regard my field not so much as literary history but, rather, cultural history as reflected in literary works.

In 2011, you published a book entitled Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic​, where you explore the epic’s legacy in modern art and literature. What led you to undertaking this project?

I first encountered Gilgamesh in the 1950s as a graduate student at Yale University. So many of the thinkers and writers who interested me—Freud, Jung, Hesse, Rilke, and others—had become interested in the epic around the time of World War I—an interest triggered by the lively Babel/Bible debate in the early years of the century revolving around the flood myth; and by the availability in German of reliable scholarly editions and translations.

For decades, therefore, I was aware of Gilgamesh and casually noted modern examples as I came across them; I was also fascinated by examples of ancient Mesopotamian culture as I encountered it, for instance, in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago or in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  But it was only fifty years later, while in pursuit of yet another thematic topic—“The Road to Hell from Antiquity to the Present”—that I turned seriously to the epic as the earliest ancient case. My search rapidly produced so many examples from literature, art, and music—including children’s books, TV series, comic books, and murder mysteries–that I soon realized that Gilgamesh would require more than a chapter: it demanded a full-length treatment of the sort that I had already given to Virgil, Ovid, Jesus, and others—and that I would subsequently give to Moses.

Methodologically, therefore, the project fit smoothly into the category of thematic history that had long intrigued me even though the work itself fell outside my normal range of classical and biblical sources.

I consoled myself for my lack of linguistic competence with the realization that virtually all of the writers with whom I was dealing also knew Gilgamesh only through translations.

In the book, you describe a staggering amount of works that deal with Gilgamesh, most of them completely unknown to Assyriologists. What is, to you, the most important conclusion we can draw from these modern takes on the ancient epic?

Modern writers turn to ancient myths because they detect there an analogy to their own modern experience. For instance, the sense of crisis produced by World War I and intensified by the chaotic social and political upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s sent many writers and their readers back to the past in search of patterns of order and stability—precisely the qualities they thought to find in Virgil’s life and works. Later many German writers after World War II found in Ovid’s Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto an analogy to their own experience of emigration and loss while, in contrast, young Americans toward the end of the century looked to his Amores and Metamorphoses for stories expressing their own desire for transformation and erotic love.

Or, to take another example: while Moses exemplified for Schiller the late eighteenth-century obsession with secret societies and the occult, Goethe saw in him a violent man motivated by a powerful sense of right and wrong; and successive generations—from Hungarian Imre Madách and Ukrainian Ivan Franco down to Austrian Vinzenz Zapletal and American Zora Neale Hurston–presented him as a model for the leader of their respective peoples to freedom.

Writers especially since World War II have identified a similar variety of appeals in the tale of Gilgamesh: the sense of loss through death, the grim reality of homecoming, spiritual prototypes of the journey in search of meaning. Then, more gradually, other contemporary concerns were identified: feminists scrutinized the work as evidence for the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy and Sumerian attitudes toward women; the Gay Rights movement seized on the epic in many novels and plays as an example of homosexual love; the Green Movement saw in Enkidu’s loss of touch with nature a symbol of modern alienation from nature.

The ease with which the epic could be adapted to accommodate these various contemporary issues constitutes a striking testimony to the eternal values embedded in the ancient literary monument.

If you had to choose one of these works as the most striking one, which would it be? Which one has stuck in your memory since you wrote the book?

As I look over the list of some eighty works that I treated, I find it impossible to single out a single one as the most striking because they vary so greatly in theme (as above) and treatment: from historical novels and poetic retellings in various languages to modern postfigurative fictions and musical settings.

I can honestly report that I almost never got bored or had a sense of déjà vu while reading these multiple modern treatments of the ancient myth.

Literary quality apart, each of them provides a unique perspective that assures its interest in the continuing saga of Gilgamesh’s appeal. But to cite two examples: probably the most splendid postwar German thematization of the epic is evident in Hans Jenny Jahnn’s masterpiece, Fluss ohne Ufer (1949-50), one of the great novels of the twentieth century. The long middle section of the vast trilogy depicts the life of a composer who, in analogy to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, is involved in a twenty-year homoerotic relationship with a friend and whose major composition turns out to be none other than a Gilgamesh symphony, which enjoys an international success.

Meanwhile in England Douglas Geoffrey Bridson’s radio play The Quest of Gilgamesh (1954) brought the epic to thousands of BBC listeners in a striking poetic revision that transformed it into a positive statement consistent with the postwar optimism of a generation confident of its ability to tame the gods and nature to its own useful purposes.

In your book, you describe the reception of Gilgamesh​ as a seismograph for cultural changes in the West. What makes the ancient epic particularly adept at registering such changes?

The Bible and the works from Graeco-Roman antiquity are familiar to most educated people and already constrained by traditional readings established by one’s religion and schooling. Gilgamesh is wholly different. Virtually no modern readers or writers have any familiarity with the text in the original; and the epic itself, having been rediscovered only in the late nineteenth century, does not belong to the body of “traditional” literature with any given “correct” reading.

So the reader comes to it without any of the constraints or preconceptions that color our reading of biblical and classical myths.

Moreover, its very fragmentary form with many unanswered questions invites modern adapters to apply their imagination freely in their retellings or postfigurations and to introduce their own contemporary issues into the ancient text.

Assyriologists sometimes feel that the outsized fame of Gilgamesh​ overshadows the rest of Mesopotamian literature, since it has become the only work of Babylonian literature widely known today. What do you think makes Gilgamesh ​special in this regard? Is it a quality of the work itself, or rather the historical circumstances of its discovery?

As a non-specialist unfamiliar with the body of Mesopotamian literature, I am not qualified to make any judgment here. Certainly the spectacular circumstances surrounding its rediscovery contributed to its initial appeal; and the fact that its flood narrative led to the lively Babel/Bible controversy that caught the attention of the Western world. Moreover, the epic itself was similar enough in form to Greek and Roman epics so that it could be easily assimilated.

But mainly, I believe, it overshadows other Mesopotamian literature simply because that other literature has not been presented to modern readers in an accessible form.

Your book was published six years ago – what has changed since? Have you noticed new takes on Gilgamesh​, or new attitudes in the public perception of ancient Iraq?

I cannot presume to be aware of new attitudes in the public perception of ancient Iraq. I hope that I am not overly cynical for believing that, for most people in the Western world, the history of Iraq goes back no further than Sadaam Hussein and the Iraq War of the early 2000s. Indeed, the sense and knowledge of history generally have suffered conspicuously in modern education and culture.

Most gratifying for me personally have been the contacts generated by my book with writers who continue to produce their own new versions of the ancient epic. I have enjoyed, for instance, a correspondence with the British writer and scholar Jenny Lewis, whose “poetic dramatization” After Gilgamesh I mentioned in my book. She has now completed a work—Gilgamesh Retold: A Response to the Ancient Epic—which should be out next year and which I am looking forward to reading. And the Italian writer and film producer Americo Sbardella recently sent me a copy of his theatrical version of the epic: Gilgamesh: Colui che tutto conobbe (2014), which presents the legend in twelve lively scenes introduced in each case by a narrator’s comments. And I am aware of several other recent treatments. Clearly, Gilgamesh has taken hold of the public imagination and will not soon let go again.

The fame of Gilgamesh can be a mixed blessing for scholars working on the ancient text, as highlighted by Andrew George in his review of your book. What would be your advice to Assyriologists? How can they best make use of and respond to the ongoing reimaginings of Gilgamesh’ story?

Again, I would not presume to advise the Assyriologists, who have been extraordinarily generous in their reviews of my book—a book by a total non-specialist intruding onto their turf with no knowledge of the languages or the field.

What I as a non-specialist would appreciate from the Assyriologists would be: 1) an accessible, general introduction to your field locating Gilgamesh among the other major documents; 2) an anthology containing the most important other texts from the period as context for the epic; and 3) something like a twenty-first century version of Peter Jensen’s Gilgamesch in der Weltliteratur.

In any case, the enormous popularity of Gilgamesh offers a wonderful opportunity for Assyriologists to acquaint readers with their field. “If you enjoyed Gilgamesh, then perhaps you will be enchanted by […].”

The continuing vitality of the epic as inspiration for modernizations in multiple forms suggests the attraction of a scholarly discipline that can claim that epic as its centerpiece—and especially at a time when the news reports bring daily accounts of events taking place precisely on the terrain where Gilgamesh and Enkidu carried out their adventures.

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