I am not quite sure where all of yesterday went, but I know that I spent a goodly portion of it immersed once more in Gilgamesh and its antecedents, trying to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to have heard it back in its own era. To paraphrase the great Murray Walker, I imagine that the conditions four thousand years ago are unimaginable, but we nevertheless do those societies a grave injustice by assuming that they had only recently emerged from the primaeval ooze.
They may not have been able to detect neutrinos or to make images of black holes, but the evidence suggests that at least on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates these were cities of huge achievement, even if many of the achievements were measured in terms of land conquered, enemies slain or hostages taken. The last great king of that empire, Ashurbanipal, while a typical warrior king of the age, was also somebody who prided himself on his intellectual abilities, collecting a huge personal library of texts that was buried for over two thousand years before being rediscovered, yielding a fragmentary Gilgamesh as one of its tales.
A long time ago I wrote a piece for Kingston Choral Society called The Clocks Of Cassiodorus, which was based on a text by Boethius but which took as its vague subject matter the delicate machines constructed by Cassiodorus. These water clocks became impossible to operate only shortly after his death as the knowledge required to operate them faded away.
It is definitely both an oversimplification and a cliché to say that time ebbs and flows, but I place a couple of grains of belief in that particular idea, also the notion that education and intellectual pursuits are something to strive for, that self-improvement is a noble aim. From the burial of Ashurbanipal’s library to the destruction of the similar edifice at Alexandria and its texts that contained some ideas that would not reemerge for hundreds of years, such as a heliocentric solar system, this back and forth has continued through innumerable years.
I write this today because almost every time I look at the news there seems to be further evidence of a slide into one of those morasses of history, an era when noise is valued more than signal, and where a message needs to be pervasive rather than persuasive. We see figures who flaunt their supposed intelligence yet seem to be empty vessels, and that drive for self-improvement is rarely to be seen, nothing above and beyond the quest for brief power and bold statements of the like that the kings of Assyria adopted as their titles. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that for all his temporal achievements Ashurbanipal’s name is now immediately associated with his library, the collection that secured the immortality he craved, the search for which he once heard read aloud in Gilgamesh.