Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gilgamesh travesty

Boing Boing, the website that identifies itself as "a directory of wonderful things," has a link today to something to wonder at -- something so misconceived that it bewilders, and then it bewilders some more. It's a short animated movie from 2004, made by the Department of Veterans Affairs, entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh: Clinical Practice Guidelines for Post-Deployment Health Evaluation and Management (hereafter, GVA). This three-part movie recasts the story of Gilgamesh and his comrade Enkidu (the oldest written story, from ancient Mesopotamia) as a story of war and its sorrowful aftermath. I suspect that Jonathan Shay's work linking Homer's epics and the suffering of Vietnam veterans -- Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America -- prompted this rethinking of the Gilgamesh story. It's indeed plausible to find in Gilgamesh an allegory of the experience of a combat veteran. But this adaptation fails in several ways.

In the original story, Gilgamesh (king of the city of Uruk) and Enkidu journey to the mysterious forest to kill the giant Humbaba and bring back cedar. They behead Humbaba (who, like Homer's much-later Cyclops, turns out to be a rather plaintive character) and cut down every tree in sight. The story seems to combine admiration for human daring with the recognition that it's possible for human beings to go too far (the god Enlil, like the God of Genesis 3, a later story, is outraged by what these creatures have done). Gilgamesh's overarching purpose in going to the forest is to make a claim to fame, to do something magnificent, or die trying, and thereby leave a name that will endure, a name stamped on brick. The hero and his sidekick undertake this journey alone.

In GVA, the journey to the cedar forest becomes a "a great military deployment," the work of an army, a war, an adventure in slaying a demon and acquiring loot in the form of cedar trees (we see one such tree turn into a dollar sign). In the original story Gilgamesh is indeed intent on destroying "evil" and bringing back loot. But in a story about treatment options for American veterans of the present war, these motives look unmistakably like an allegory of the American presence in Iraq. And there's more: early on, we see Gilgamesh reading a to-do list that includes the item "Conquer world." What does such a scene say to American veterans, or to American allies and enemies? What were the makers of this film thinking?

A severe irony-deficiency might explain these problems. Other problems in this movie can be explained in terms of an unwillingness to acknowledge the full truth of the Gilgamesh story, a story that is ultimately about death and the human awareness of death. For slaying Humbaba and for another transgression back in Uruk, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are punished by the gods. Enkidu must die, and Gilgamesh's punishment is to live without his friend, with the knowledge that he too will die. Unable to reconcile himself to the loss of his comrade and to his own mortality, Gilgamesh undertakes a second journey in search of a way out of time. He travels to wise old Utnapishtim, the only survivor (along with an unnamed wife) of a catastrophic, divinely-sent flood (again, the story pre-dates Genesis). Utnapishtim, the great witness to universal destruction, tells Gilgamesh that there is no permanence, that he will never find what he is seeking. After some further complications, Gilgamesh returns to his city and dies.

GVA gives us a war story that shies away from acknowledging loss and grief. In this recasting, Enkidu is inexplicably paralyzed (a vague metaphor for paraplegia? quadriplegia? Gulf War syndrome?) and suffers another unexplained illness before dying. Gilgamesh, wandering, depressed, sleepless, experiencing intrusive thoughts of Humbaba's beheading and his friend's death, suffers from what unmistakably seems to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The profound loss without consolation that we see in the original story (and which, of course, marks the human condition that we share with ancient Sumerians and Babylonians) here becomes the occasion for a grotesquely comic encounter between Gilgamesh and "Dr. Utnapishtim," aka "Dr. U.," a vaguely Einstein-like figure whose name generates lame jokes about me and you. Dr. U. offers no explanation of Gilgamesh's problems, saying only that the diagnosis remains "in doubt," "unexplained," and "unresolved." The acronym PTSD appears on Dr. U's computer screen but is never spoken in the movie. The following image suggests some of the ways in which Gilgamesh can help himself recover:



Or as Dr. U. says while snatching a donut from Gilgamesh's hand, "A few less lattes in the morning." This is the suggestion of a doctor whose patient is tormented by memories of a beheading?

In the final scene, Gilgamesh, now dressed in a track suit and sneakers, goes for a run. The narrator then states that in the original story, Gilgamesh never recovered from his "war-related illnesses," adding that "Perhaps the outcome would have been better if his health-care providers had had access to the new VA/DoD Post-Deployment Health Clinical Practice Guidelines." Perhaps the outcome would be even better if those whose work is to help heal were willing to acknowledge loss and grief as directly as the Sumerians and Babylonians whose story has been turned (with our tax dollars) into a travesty.

Department of Defense remakes Gilgamesh online (Boing Boing)

The Epic of Gilgamesh: Clinical Practice Guidelines for Post-Deployment Health Evaluation and Management (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
Update, January 19, 2007: The three-part animation and an accompanying transcript have been taken offline. They are still available (at least for now) from the Internet Archive:
The Epic of Gilgamesh: 1, 2, 3
The Epic of Gilgamesh: Transcript

comments: 4

Chaser said...

Please, Micheal, don't you understand anything? Any grief, any problem, any loss--anything--can be cured through physical palliatives, especially ones that don't ask the VA to shoulder any cost or responsibility.

A soldier's job is to pick himself up and dust himself off and throw himself back into capitalist production, lest he depress/inconvenience the rest of us with his mooning around. And that goes for everybody else, too. Ophelia and Cordelia...why, they just needed a refreshing walk every day and more salads to help them get back on their feet! That kooky Hazel Motes should have gone on Dr. Phil, changed his blue suit more often, talked out his problems, and taken more echinacea! (You have to have lots of exclaimation points in your writing to do this, because if you don't, you won't pull off the ex-cheerleader-turned-officious know-all well enough to approximate mandatory cult-happy-clappy public "health" mythos of the US.)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I too have to wonder about the extent to which the lack of a diagnosis cuts costs.

I'm going to show this cartoon when I teach Gilgamesh in January. I'm very curious as to what my students will make of it.

Anonymous said...

Does Gilgamesh have a swastika on his stomach? Examine the page graphic.

Michael Leddy said...

I think it's just primitive art.