The Pulse (B.C): In the Dark Water 6
Sailing Dangerously Toward a Thesis
I must now prove to Old Rex that the epic journey doesn’t just lead to Rome and London, but also to Lindisfarne and Reykyvik. And that it doesn’t just come from Greece, but also from Sumer and Akkad. It’s far more global, and far more frightening, than he imagines.
I’m pretty sure my suggestions will be better received if I work in Victorian England somehow. I could mention how David Hume blew everybody’s socks off and how John Stuart Mill put them back on. How the geologists of the 18th century unsettled the ground beneath us, and how Darwin taught us how we learned to stand up straight. If I can work in his favourite metaphor — the Victorian train — he may even come with me all the way to my destination.
Journeys of Plunder
The journey of Odysseus doesn’t just lead to grand gestures and beautiful ladies — such as Virgil’s Dido, Dante’s Francesca, or Milton’s Eve. It also leads to a train platform in England in 1825. The spirit of exploration, of conquering and control, takes us from the dinosaurs and raptors — those scary birds that haunted our earliest days — to the British and the Americans with their F-22 Raptors.
The train signals many things: the first time humans could move across land at astonishing speeds, carrying hundreds of tons of cargo; the Industrial Revolution, the most wonderful and the most destructive of human revolutions. It also allowed the navy Empire to stretch from port to port, across vast stretches of land. With such a transportation system in place, they could bring the riches and the raw materials of the world back to what Conrad called the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.
Behind the Victorians lies The British Empire, and behind that Empire lies Sir Francis Drake, Columbus, Snorri, Leif Erikson, and Aeneas. And behind Aeneas lies the archetypal explorer, the clever Odysseus.
Yet here's the tricky part, at least in writing to a fan of the Greeks:
And behind Odysseus lies Gilgamesh, the first hero ever to live in a world of numbers and writing, of business and religion, of city states and war.
I know that Old Rex won’t like this, because he believes that everything started with the Greeks. But I can’t help it: I'm on a train platform, and this platform was invented by science, not myth. It was invented by numbers and things. And those numbers were invented in Mesopotamia.
It's 1825 and the first train that ever pulled out of a station is pulling out of the station of Darlington. The destination is Stockton-on-Tees. I grab my briefcase tightly in my hand, and jump on the last car.
Whether on a train platform or the prow of a Viking ship, we still exercise power through adventure. Viking or British, we’re still venture capitalists on the dragon ship of state.
But I worry: will Old Rex accept this journey backward in time? Will he go, he and I, through the crowded streets of history, while the morning is stretched out like florescent tubes across the ceiling of the Osborne Gymnasium? Will he consent to travel with me (and give me a decent grade) if I go backward from the Victorians — the Holy Victorians with their top hats and their pink stretches of Empire — back to the mercantile raids of the English, and from there back to the Norse raids and to the plunder of the Vandals and the Visigoths? And if I don’t stop there, but connect these Vikings to the Roman Empire and the Greek city states with their poems and their thin layer of democracy and their colonial satellite cities and their wars against the Carthaginians and Persians? Will he shred up my paper and toss it in the fire if I then suggest that this Greek slaughter and Greek poetry and Greek talk of you and me voting goes much further back to the Mesopotamians?
Will he erase my name from the official student record if I argue that the epic goes all the way back to the old men of Uruk, who at the start of Gilgamesh call upon the gods to keep their dictator in line? At the end of the story, when Gilgamesh is preparing to travel back to the city of Uruk, he’s given the plant of rejuvenation. Before this plant is stolen by the serpent — the same old serpent, sliding from one old story to the next! — he decides that he won't keep the plant for himself, but will instead give it to the old men of Uruk.
Will I be destroying my own letter of reference if I show that Gilgamesh ends his journey with the same existential realization as Byron and Sartre — to wit, 1. There’s no afterlife, and 2. We must try to be kind and just while we're on this earth.
The train left the station hours ago and I’m in the caboose. As it pulls into the port of Stockton I take a deep breath, and start scrawling my theory all over my knees, the blue ink flowing into the bathwater's blue depths, as I walk down from the station to the quay to catch a boat to the far-flung corners of the Empire. My knees are trembling at the thought of what he'll do to my grade. They’re also trembling because I see ahead of me the Open Sea, the archetypal Open Sea of Leif Erikson and Columbus and Odysseus, and eons before that Urshanabi with his boat crossing the Sumerian marshes.
I tremble because I’m also on board the same boat that took Gilgamesh to discover that there’s no afterlife, no matter how hard we wish there was. Some day I’ll take the same boat that steered Gilgamesh back to Uruk, dispirited, having lost the magic plant and having lost all hope of finding his friend Enkidu in the afterlife.
My trembling isn’t just a personal trembling, but also a general trembling. For we’ll all, like Gilgamesh, meet the end of our days. We’ll all board that other boat, driven by who knows what mythic figure this time — Urshanabi, Charon, or perhaps the cloaked figure with the hood and glistening scythe. In Gilgamesh this other boat isn’t a ferry boat. It doesn’t take you from one side to the next. It’s called the boat of Magilum. The dead board it and it drifts out into the Euphrates and sinks.
Now, the great city of Uruk lies in a dry riverbed where the Euphrates used to be. It was once the greatest city on earth.
I look at the time on my Mac Air. It’s 6:04 AM. All of the above may be true, but I must be careful how I make the point.
Snorri's stories of the Norse gods might seem like isolated chapters in the history of the epic. Yet Snorri's Vikings are no exception to the English rule. The story of English conquest is linked to the epic stories of Snorri, Homer and Gilgamesh. The power of the British and the Americans has just as much in common with the Vandals and Goths as it does with any fantasies we might have about Arthur’s final barge or the pilgrims on the Mayflower.
And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”