Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summaries: Masterpieces of the Ancient World: The Epic of Gilgamesh & More

[by Matthew Kulisch]

SEPTEMBER 23: Recently, the Atlantic posted a September article to their website entitled, ‘I Don’t Want My Children to Go to College’, where Buzzfeed President, Jon Steinberg, who is himself Princeton and Columbia Business educated, vowed against a degree-based education for his three and four year-old because college, he characterized, represents “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set.” Google Exec, Eric Schmidt (he went to Princeton and UC Berkeley, I might add), agrees with him; said Schmidt: “The purpose of college…has a lot to do with not learning about education but learning how to live on your own.” While disagreeing over its secondary merits, these tech giants seem to agree that college represents no useful investment to them; “recent college grads,” they say,” “come in with no skills that are usable.”With these thoughts bouncing around the little washing machine that is my mind—soiled further by my very own pile of college debt—it was a fellow seminarian in Bruce Suttmeier’s Delve, Masterpieces of the Ancient World, that promptly pressed the STOP button and saved me. As we went around the room, introducing ourselves, explaining what had brought us to Literary Arts on a Monday night, my classmate—an engineer, now in his early sixties—said he’d never had the opportunity to really read; he was here in our Delve, he said, because, in effect, “I wanted to learn how to read.”Our discussion that night, focused on the first half of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, ranged all over: temple prostitution, the establishment of the city, sex, femininity, homoeroticism in male friendships, monstrosity, heroism, worship as it relates to gender in deity, why we read. I feel like I discovered a reason to have children! (Seriously, the alternative, in Gilgamesh anyway, appears to be having your name on everyone’s lips—which doesn’t do Gilgamesh much good, his friend, Enkidu, dies anyway.) But mostly, what I noticed was that every single person was participating: driving the discussion, causing breakthroughs, creating the shared space of organized mess wherein imagination can sprout. One might say, learning how to read, the very best of college.I’m looking forward to next week. But in the meantime, I think I’ll do something useful—like fold socks. Perhaps Jon Steinberg and Eric Schmidt, who apparently never learned to read themselves, can come join me. (I have a lot of socks.)

SEPTEMBER 30: This week in Bruce Suttmeier’s Delve, Masterpieces of the Ancient World, as we finished and discussed the final half of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, our group’s many-layered questions might have been conveniently distilled down to: Death. Discuss.It was, unsurprisingly, a massively daunting subject. Particularly with the “Gilgamesh” tale, which—there is some irony here, “Gilgamesh” being the oldest poem in existence—mocks any attempt to answer its incumbent questions precisely because of its own rather extensive ambiguities: the narrative itself moves unapologetically from one event to the next; the poem’s narrator (who, the text both implies and practically declares, is Gilgamesh himself) keeps his silence; the language is compressed, unadorned, declarative, leaving the reader free in too-large a room; and the text, anywhere from a quarter of which is still missing, is full of foreboding holes.The mood in the Delve was almost listless, a paradoxical mix of subdue and grasping at straws, not unlike the wallflower at a party who attempts—and fails—at a couple doomed conversations with strangers. I felt like running—and by “running,” I mean I could hear Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” floating in the air above our heads. Silence often seems the best response to despair: it was near evidential, even, with the worthlessness of Gilgamesh’s own bereft attempts to answer the existential “Why?!” before us.All this reminded me of something stuck in my craw since July, an article from Slate Magazine one of my best friends had posted to his Facebook Newsfeed with an unapologetic “I completely agree with this!” shoved alongside. The article’s headline and subtitle basically say it all: “Don’t Say Goodbye. Just Ghost: Why make leaving harder than it has to be?” Goodbyes, so says the writer of the article, are by their “very nature…a mild bummer,” awkward, uncomfortable, and worth avoiding; he says, in fact, they should be avoided, as if our wallflower above had simply decided beforehand that conversation was doomed to fail and so should not be tried. I was mildly angry. I wasn’t miffed that the article had been written—people write dumb things all the time—but I was miffed that my friend had so thoroughly parroted its would-be recommendation.

Back in the Delve, nobody was satisfied with silence. We seemed to tacitly agree on another question: did Gilgamesh change? And then I was content. I wasn’t satisfied because the mood in the room suddenly righted itself—it was still a little awkward, we (politely) disagreed…a lot—but I was satisfied that we had chosen to collectively embrace the questions. Why live with silence? Why strive to engage a void? Why agree to the awkward and uncomfortable? Why make anything harder than it has to be? There are a lot of people telling us to simply ghost, or to avoid the party altogether… Because there is value in confronting what life brackets: [?].


OCTOBER 7: To not know is interesting. In talking about metaphor, for example, in her poem, Essay on What I Think About Most, Anne Carson says that “mistakenness is valuable.” She asserts that we should “Hold onto [the feeling of mistakenness]  / there is much to be seen and felt here.” Keep this in mind. It will come up later. (It did for me.)

Yet after reading Books 1 through 9 of the Bhagavad Gita, and settling into Week 3 of Bruce Suttmeier’s “Masterpieces of the Ancient World” Delve, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had nothing of value to contribute to the evening’s discussion. For starters, I’d never read even a line from the Gita—I cannot even pronounce the full title, I’m only able to refer to it in shorthand—and, second, I felt deeply the weight of my own baggage: a history of white privilege, a small town childhood with very little exposure to diversity or culture, a childhood of Sunday school classes which had conditioned me not to separate godliness from Scripture. I have tried to check my privilege, and process and grow through my upbringing; but still I felt that a lifetime of study of the Gita—with such a personal reality behind me—would nevertheless leave me both underprepared and…morally bereft.

I did not feel like Arjuna, the doubting warrior, who, having asked Krishna to drive his chariot into the middle of a battlefield, then doubts the virtues of participating in a civil war; but it was actually rather nice to share some shadow of Arjuna’s doubt. Moreover, the fact that the conversation contained in the Gita begins at such a moment of existential doubt is in itself inviting: doubt can invite knowledge.

Yet the text, generous as it is, still didn’t totally assuage my doubts.  I am fully aware of the fact that only two of our number—a dozen or so—are non-white; and only one of us, Manu, comes from a Hindu background and is of South-Asian descent herself. There is danger in cultural appropriation, particular danger in speaking intelligently and humanly of a literary touchstone that some here in the West have appropriated and fetishized for hundreds of years. (I could offend my fellow Delvers—or, worse, every bourgeois yogi in the Trimet area!)

It was troubling to me that, perhaps aware as I was, many of my fellow Delvers brought other texts to the discussion, just as I had done: Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a number of Plato’s dialogues, scripture from the Hebrew Bible, scripture from the New Testament, Cormac McCarthy novels, and even a recent 2011 film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” from director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Troubling, yet who can really help it? How can we not be expected to engage a text within our own contexts?

I still don’t feel easy about the discussion this week—which was nevertheless wildly interesting, invigorating, enjoyable, and as thorough and well-led as ever. Yet perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps there is something to be gained in all that unease and not knowing. Perhaps even mistakenness—and I’m sure we were mistaken, a lot, this week—can be valuable or worth keeping in mind.


OCTOBER 14: “[The Chinese man] is to define red,” Ezra Pound states in his 1931 ABC of Reading, elucidating his odd but illuminating conclusions about the differences between English and Chinese. “How can he do it in a picture that isn’t painted in red paint?” It is a fair question, useful to thinkers as well as artists; one might say you could put it differently: how do you describe what is?

According to Pound anyway, the difference depends as much on how you write as where you live—or, really, that the two are inextricably linked. Pound claims that “[the Chinese man] puts (or his ancestor put) together the abbreviated pictures of ROSE, CHERRY, IRON RUST, FLAMINGO.” English works differently, as a sort-of multiplying abstraction—perhaps going from the concept of color to light spectrums onto refraction, etc. Obvious orientalism and reductionism aside, Pound’s point is clear: defining red in Chinese is both economical and pure. Chinese red, meaning the actual brush strokes, use elements of rose and cherry and iron rust and flamingo, too. I’m not saying Pound was right about Chinese—I don’t know the language any more than Pound did—but he was right to use Chinese as a way to illustrate how language might shape thought.

Lest this turn into a Pound retrospective—too late?—this had odd bearing on my impressions of our Delve this week, week four of Bruce Suttmeier’s “Masterpieces of the Ancient World.” We were finishing the Bhagavad Gita, Books 10 through 18, largely with a discussion about the nature of deity (visa vie Krishna) and about the nature of attachment. Could Arjuna, at this point in the narrative getting a full-blown revelation, be said to have need of faith—now that Krishna had shown him everything? If Krishna is everything, and in everything, is Krishna in the turning away from god? Are you attached, as a mother, to your kid as he bolts in front of oncoming traffic? How about if it’s the neighbor kid down the block?

These were questions about the very nature of existence, no less. And perspectives, not just unfamiliar, but plainly foreign. It is fair to say that the explainers in our Delve, those of our cohort already familiar with the Gita, spent an awful lot of their time fielding questions—even concerns—from the detractors. (We all did so quite respectfully, too. I’m constantly impressed by that respect in our Delve—both for each other and for the material.) It became clear that we brought ourselves to the same text, different contexts, different lives, which all had to be filtered through to frame the discussion. Ostensibly, this was about a book. Yet for each of us, in our own way, it was so much more than a book: we had different languages for what we read! For some of us, the text spun us out of it: into logical arguments, theological queries, sociological or cultural questions or comparisons. For others of us, everything in the Gita could be seen everywhere else at once—almost like a revelation, or a language where each thing had its element in something else.

More than anything, I was touched by one member of the Delve. The Gita was special to him, that was obvious. In fact, I don’t recall anything specific he said—he only spoke for a minute or two—but I remember how I felt when he was talking. Calm, contained, alert, and noticing. There was something almost spiritual to what I can only name now as devotion.


OCTOBER 21: Our fifth week in Bruce Suttmeier’s “Masterpieces of the Ancient World” Delve brought us to early Chinese thought—Confucius and Mencius, neither of which I’d read before. All taken, much of what we covered was new to everyone involved. Yet perhaps these writers/thinkers occupied a curious place, given the mythology of Gilgamesh and mythological theology of the Gita in previous weeks: as different as apples from oranges, and as welcome for those differences. Our Delve was ready to, in many ways, “return to earth” with this smattering of philosophy.

I say smattering not to diminish but because Bruce had us reading excerpts of excerpts: our book, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, published by Hackett, contains only excerpts from the great philosophers. It struck me, as I sat there thinking about it on break, sipping my glass of wine, that in fact we’d forever been reading excerpts: Gilgamesh was a text riddled with holes, largely due to the accident of transmission; the Gita is just one part of a much longer epic, and one of its principle characters, Arjuna, apparently plays very little role in the larger story. Excerpts of excerpts.

Yet reading Confucius and Mencius, in part, felt more right somehow, less fraught, less like each of us was gazing through a high-powered telescope at only our portion of the moon. It felt decidedly more earth-bound: goodness for Confucius and Mencius more an earthly concern, for family, for social order, for the state; if there was a divine order, we decided, it was not so greatly removed from Confucius and Mencius’ direction for the now. The now seemed integral, and not for its bearing on the hereafter.

We dove in with questions about filial responsibility, grasping at the meaning of filial through a funny little hypothetical (that reappeared through the evening as a sort of running joke): let’s say, we said, you see your baby teetering on the edge of a well, about to totter in. We tossed into the equation motherhood, tattling (or not tattling) on a murderous father, the neighbor’s baby, the king’s baby. It was funny, that is certain, but it wasn’t ridiculous.

While it was quite obvious we were dealing with a different culture—I’m not sure it makes as much sense to a US citizen to, say, harbor a murdering father from the authorities—Confucius and Mencius were much more within our grasp. Philosophy affected Heaven, sure, but being concerned with goodness in life and rule and gentlemanly behavior, and with how the past might inform now, it seemed most concerned with living. In fact, next week, our last meeting, we’ll be reading Laozi—who, according to our facilitator, Bruce, in the language of comparative fruit, is apparently a peach.


OCTOBER 28: This was our final week in “Masterpieces of the Ancient World,” the Literary Arts Delve facilitated by Bruce Suttmeier.  For our final discussion, we had prepared by reading excepts from Laozi and Zhuangzi. This seemed, in retrospect, surprisingly fitting for a last meeting: unlike the straight-forward, even mundane, philosophy of Confucius and Mencius, these two ancient Chinese contemporaries were bafflingly metaphysical by contrast; even in parable, the way in which they shunned order and embraced paradox was startlingly baffling—admirably so.

At break, Bruce left to get us doughnuts, which we passed around and snacked on gratefully; one and five dollar bills were passed back to share the cost, which, apparently wasn’t so great—the doughnut seller had taken pity on our little group and given Bruce half his doughnuts for free—so dollars were subdivided still further and returned.

Our discussion returned to Laozi and Zhuangzi, but lightly. Thread spun off, bringing in aspects of the Gita here or Gilgamesh there; and for perhaps the tenth time, unsurprising by now, one of us mentioned a film he could tie in. More common were statements like, “We’re a really good group,” or “Do you all wanna get together next Monday?” And people kept asking Bruce what and when he would be teaching next, eager for another Delve from him. (Anybody up for post-modern Japanese novels? Or a Delve on Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and “Star Wars”?) We were utterly distracted by the fact that we would not be meeting next week: and there’s something beautiful in the loss that you feel, paradoxically, before you experience it. It’s sharp as pocket change. Baffling as an unexpected dollar.

Forgive me for gushing, but I’ve been heady enough in my summaries so far: it’s not all intellect. If it were, we’d all be content with an online tutorial. Yet it’s not only community, else we’d forfeit the facilitator for a free-for-all. Delve is neither and both—just the right mix of giving and taken (and, if you’re lucky, a great amount of alongside) to, as one of my fellow Delvers said six weeks ago now, learn how to read. If every Delve is like this one, I want to do this more.

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