In Part 2 of the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh says this:
Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.
In other words, human life is impermanent and what we work to build is impermanent.
So what should we do with ourselves?
Gilgamesh takes a stab at an answer: In spite of impermanence, live life with a large, ambitious goal, such as fighting the forest monster Humbaba. Take risks, and if you fail, at least for awhile your name will endure on the lips of others:
[I]f I fail I leave behind me a name that endures; men will say of me, ‘Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba.’
Gilgamesh’s answer recalls the philosopher Hanna Arendt’s observation, in her book The Human Condition (1958), that the pre-socratic Greeks too saw immortality in these terms:
The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words—which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves. (19)
In short, one solution to the problem of mortality is to plug oneself into the divine, or the eternal circle of nature, by building a pyramid or writing lasting sonnets, as Shakespeare has done, or conquering an archetypal monster, such as Humbaba, as Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to do.
The distinction between man and animal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves to be the best (aristeuein, a verb for which there is no equivelent in any other language) and who ‘prefer immortal fame to mortal things,’ are really human; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals. (19)
I hear in this position, apparently shared by Gilgamesh and the pre-socratic Greeks, Nietzsche’s Apollonian Ubermensch (“Superman”), who embraces eternal recurrence because he has actually done something with his time on earth—he has been a creator, taken risks, and has no regrets, and would live life the same way over again. Here’s Nietzsche (quoted in Pessimism, 2006, pg. 188 by Joshua Dienstag):
My new way to ‘yes.’ My new version of pessimism as a voluntary quest for fearful and questionable aspects of beings. . . . A pessimist such as that could in that way lead to a Dionysian yes-saying to the world as it is; as a wish for its absolute return and eternity . . .
I also hear in Gilgamesh’s call for quest in the face of human impermanence the restlessness of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, who is not content to sit around his palace, even in old age, but is determined to launch forth into new adventures:
It little profits an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees . . .
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Like Gilgamesh, who is not content to hang around the city of Uruk with Enkidu, but must seek out a risky new adventure that will test the extremities of his being, so Tennyson’s Ulysses must move.
I also think of Charles Darwin, whose father discouraged his world travel. But Darwin did not heed his father’s safe and sensible advice, but took great risks with his life out on the edge of discovery, and brought something new, and apparently permanent, into the world: his great book, The Origin of Species.
In this sense, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are also Nietzschean heroes initiating, as it were, the beginnings of World Literature with a quest after Humbaba, and having a kind of immortality by the preservation of their names and story.
But they still died.