In a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt, Christopher Hitchens contrasts dying in a heroic cause with dying from a terminal disease (which, via Hitchens’s esophageal cancer, he may be doing):
But it [dying in a good cause] avoids the boring thought that one is suffering, in effect, for no reason. I mean, I’m not suffering in a good cause, or witnessing for any, you know, great idea or anything or principle. It’s just boring.
Hitchens’s response recalls for me the conclusion that Gilgamesh’s companion, Enkidu, drew about his own death. Here’s the relevant passage from Part 3 of the Gilgamesh Epic (N.K. Sandars translation):
This day on which Enkidu dreamed came to an end and he lay stricken with sickness. One whole day he lay on his bed and his suffering increased. He said to Gilgamesh, the friend on whose account he had left the wilderness, ‘Once I ran for you, for the water of life, and I now have nothing.’ A second day he lay on his bed and Gilgamesh watched over him but the sickness increased. A third day he lay on his bed, he called out to Gilgamesh, rousing him up. Now he was weak and his eyes were blind with weeping on his bed of pain. Then he called to Gilgamesh, ‘My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.’ And Gilgamesh wept for Enkidu.
Did you catch that? On his death-bed, Enkidu realized that courage and risk-taking are all; to live one’s life cautiously, with an eye on comfort, is the great error of human existence:
I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.
And Enkidu had a death-bed dream. Here’s part of it:
As Enkidu slept alone in his sickness, in bitterness of spirit he poured out his heart to his friend. . . . ‘The heavens roared, and earth rumbled back an answer; between them stood I before an awful being, . . .’
And who was this “awful being” before whom Enkidu stood?:
[T]he somber-faced man-bird; . . .
Think about that. If you do not live boldly, like an eagle—like a predator—choosing your own purpose for your life, you must, necessarily, be haunted with the terrors of becoming prey to another’s purpose; prey to the “somber faced man-bird.” Here’s that terror of seizure as described in the Gilgamesh Epic:
As Enkidu slept alone in his sickness, in bitterness of spirit he poured out his heart to his friend. . . . ‘The heavens roared, and earth rumbled back an answer; between them stood I before an awful being, the sombre-faced man-bird; he had directed on me his purpose. His was a vampire face, his foot was a lion’s foot, his hand was an eagle’s talon. He fell on me and his claws were in my hair, he held me fast and I smothered; . . .’
Enkidu, in his dream, is then taken to the realm of death, which is a realm of caged birds. It is a dark “house” where people, transformed into birds, are crammed together without good food:
There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering; they see no light; they sit in darkness.
Enkidu’s dream would seem to be suggesting that the human spirit needs a purpose; it is a predatory eagle, not a wandering crow (a scavenger of sensual pleasures and comforts). Death is where all these awesome birds of prey (that is, you and I) must, eventually, land, and so be rendered useless. Thus, while it is light, we better move in the light; if we are going to fly, we better do it now.
The end of Enkidu’s dream, and the way he wakes up, is especially startling. The author of the Gilgamesh Epic writes these two moments perfectly, and in a way that Franz Kafka would have appreciated:
Belit-Sheri . . . she who is recorder of the gods and keeps the books of death . . . held a tablet from which she read. She raised her head, she saw me and spoke: ‘Who has brought this one here?’ Then I awoke like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror.
Isn’t that perfect? “Who has brought this one here?” Isn’t that the great question of existence?:
- Are you an eagle, or has someone else brought you to the place where you are at right now?
- Are you Franz Kafka in a maze not of your own choosing—like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes—or have you discovered a purpose for yourself?
“Who has brought this one here?” might also reverberate in the psyche, not just as a personal call to heroic purpose, but as a gnawing question of metaphysics: the role of the opaque gods in bringing us into existence in the first place. Do we really have free will? Is there any purpose and point to our lives? Or are we in the realm, once again, of Kafka, “like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror”?
Gilgamesh is sometimes called the first great text of existentialism, and it’s not hard to see why. Christopher Hitchens is sometimes called the George Orwell of our time, and, again, it’s not hard to see why. Both Enkidu and Hitchens have alerted us to the danger of not discovering for ourselves a purposeful, vital, and daring existence.
Are we listening?