Stuart Kendall’s New Translation of Gilgamesh Restores Poetic Strangeness to an Ancient Epic

Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.

Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:

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The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.

I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:

As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.

Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,

The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.

Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.

Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.

Gilgamesh is new from Contra Mundum Press. Read my interview with Stuart Kendall.

David Markson on Harold Bloom

From David Markson’s The Last Novel:

Where the synecdoche of tessera made a totality, however illusive, the metonymy of kenosis breaks this up into discontinuous fragments.

Somewhere declareth Harold Bloom.

It may be essential to Harold Bloom that his audience not know quite what he is talking about.

Commenteth Alfred Kazin — pointing out other immortal phrasings altogether.

On Overrated Books

There’s a silly little article at Slate today about “overrated” books. The article collects a decent survey of critics and writers discussing the “great books” that they find boring, difficult to read, or otherwise overrated. There are a few tomes I agree with on the list—I am proud that I read all of Tess of the D’Ubervilles in the 10th grade, unlike most of my peers who, undoubtedly wiser than I, resorted to Cliffs Notes, but Hardy’s book was the biggest chore of my young reading life. There are plenty of books targeted in the article that may be overrated, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad or terrible books. But Slate is always quick to post a catchy, “provocative” headline, no doubt intended to generate hits; indeed, they’re almost as bad as Huffington Post, which has published similar articles in the past, including this recent execrable example of “literary criticism,” “Bad Classics: Books We Think Are Overrated.” Huffington Post’s list is ridiculous, taking weak stabs at Waiting for Godot, Moby-Dick, and that most sacred of cows, Ulysses.

Joyce’s big book shows up on the Slate list too. I’ll be the first to admit that the book is likely overrated, held in perhaps too high esteem by those who haven’t read it, and the academic industry it has produced does its reputation no favors among a general reading public. But it’s not a “bad classic.” It’s a beautiful, moving, and, yes, important book, and because of its status, both in the academy and in popular culture, it has become yet another easy target for contrarians. From the Slate piece, here’s Daniel Mendelsohn of the NYRB, explaining why Ulysses is inauthentic and has never “persuaded” him —-

. . . it’s as if Joyce were both the author of his book and the future comp lit grad student who’s trying to decipher it. Indeed, it’s small wonder that Ulysses has become the bible of academic lit departments; it seems to have been practically written for literary theorists. (Dubliners, by contrast, is a book for “ordinary readers”—a term I use admiringly.)

I understand that Ulysses’ place in the academy can be terribly frustrating, but Mendelsohn’s critique strikes me as populist rubbish; it’s more an attack on the reputation of the book than the book itself. But I don’t really care; I mean, Mendelsohn is entitled to his opinion, which I’m sure is well-informed.

What I’m ultimately concerned about here is the potential effect that pieces like these at Slate and Huffington Post (and similar sites) can have on a reading public. How freeing to be told by the experts that Ulysses or Moby-Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow is not worth my time! I can get back to those Swedish crime novels now, or those vampire books written at a 4th grade reading level, or, better yet, fuck books. I’m sure there are spoiled rotten housewives throwing chardonnay at each other on TV.

Author Elif Batuman also didn’t care for Ulysses, but she offers the most sensible response in the entire article—-

Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don’t think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (“I’m so lazy/uneducated”) or the canonical books (“Ulysses is so overrated”). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don’t either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.

Canonical books I did not enjoy include The Iliad and The Sound and the Fury, and, although I did read Ulysses with some degree of technical interest, it wasn’t fun for me. I maintain that this doesn’t reflect badly on Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, or me.

I think Batuman’s tone and approach is perfect here; I also admire her complete avoidance of playing those favorite games of internet writers: swiping at sacred cows and trying to point out that the emperor is naked. Instead, Batuman acknowledges the inherent fun in articles like the one she’s participating in and then quickly points out that reading is not a contest. She saliently points out that “the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book.” To my shame, a younger version of myself wrote some nasty things about William Faulkner on this blog, suggesting that he was the most overrated American writer of all time. I took it all back, of course, and now would rate Light in August and Go Down, Moses as two of my favorite books. I am happy that I read Go Down, Moses at the right time—like Batuman says, timing is a huge factor in how a reader receives a book.

It seems to me that articles like the ones at Slate and HuffPo are symptomatic of an empty populism sweeping through much of America today. I am in no way suggesting that the writers and critics in the surveys are practitioners or purveyors of empty populism; rather, their estimable talents have been circumscribed by engines of culture-production (and culture-absorption) to absolve an increasingly distracted populace from even making a pretense of reading some really great and important books. Articles like these engender slapdash and shallow thinking, licensing poseurs to make claims about books they’ve failed to read. Even worse, these kinds of surveys provide ammunition to the those who hold the word “elite” as an insult. I am not suggesting that articles like these will undo the Western canon, or that they signal the death of the novel, or an end to complex reading — but they certainly don’t help.