February 22, 2012
I’ve never given a talk at UCLA. Caltech, yes, in nearby Pasadena; also the Huntington Library. But never at the famed Royce Hall, 405 Hilgard Avenue.
So I’m a bit anxious about tomorrow: a graduate student conference in Comp Lit, not strictly speaking my field. It doesn’t help that I’m talking about a language I can’t read, written on clay tablets some 5000 years ago.
I take comfort in the fact that most people can’t read it, either. Cuneiform isn’t something that comes easily to us these days. I know Comp Lit departments are divided on this point, but Chad Gracia and Yusef Komunyakaa, who collaborated in 2005 to turn Gilgamesh into a play, were apparently doing so without any knowledge of the original language.
The idea was Gracia’s. He had first encountered the Sumerian epic as a teenager, while reading Will Durant’s great book series, Our Oriental Heritage. It was love at first sight. But it was not the beauty of the poem that stuck in his mind; rather, it was a gross detail: Gilgamesh mourning the death of his friend, Enkidu, not letting go, till “a maggot crawled from Enkidu’s nose.”
Some twenty years later, casting about for a collaborator, the poet who caught his eye right away was Komunyakaa, who happened to have written a poem called “Ode to the Maggot.”
None of this made for “expertise” on the Sumerian epic. In fact, what was driving Gracia and Komunyakaa seemed to be the opposite of expertise. It was a force every bit as powerful, documentable and measurable even by the most objective outcome. We don’t have a name for it yet.