I assumed that anyone reading, writing or translating texts from the distant past is probably?Inevitably? going to encounter incidents, speeches, attitudes, actions, the list is long, that they would think are unacceptable as the thoughts, actions, behaviours etc. etc. of modern people.
The question then is, what to do with those incidents.
Looming on the horizon for me is the story of Uther and the conception of Arthur. It’s the third and final story in the sequence I started with A Presentment of Englishry. But the closer I get to finishing the second story, the story of Vortigern, the less I know if I should do the third, or if I do it, how I should approach it.
While thinking about this, I’ve been reading ‘Gilgamesh Retold’ by Jenny Lewis. It’s an impressive performance.
I don’t want to detract from Lewis’s ‘Gilgamesh’, her scholarship or her poetry but there’s an Afterword where Lewis discusses the text and her translation and it is a succinct example of my problem.
In the Afterword she describes her discomfort with the incident between Shamhat and Enkidu. To domesticate Enkidu the wild man, Shamhat the temple prostitute is sent into the wilderness to introduce him to sexual intercourse and thus humanise him.
Lewis describes the incident as fraught with ‘cultural anachronisms’.
For a start the idea of a holy or sacred prostitute would seem to be a contradiction in terms to a twenty-first century reader but in ancient Sumer there doesn’t seem to have been any stigma attached to sex and certainly not to temple prostitutes in service to Inanna.[…] Even so, being told to trek three days into the wilderness and lie naked as lure for a gigantic hairy wild man (probably with bad personal hygiene) seems monstrously abusive and pornographic in any century. My way of dealing with this was to interpret it as a ritual, similar to the annual symbolic couplings between Inanna’s High Priestess and the king to ensure abundance in the land […] In my version Enkidu approaches Shambat gently and sings to her to reassure her; Inanna looks down on the couple , turning their lovemaking into something holy or supernatural (rather than bestial).
We should acknowledge the possible pun in ‘pornographic’ given the word’s etymology. But it seems to me that this doesn’t solve the problem. Whether Enkidu approaches her singing or snuffling doesn’t change the fact she’s been told to go teach him about sex.
So a response in two parts.
What isn’t ‘culturally anachronistic’ in Gilgamesh? He fights gods, kills the bull of heaven, defeats a monster to steal his trees and travels to encounter the immortal survivors of the great flood.
What wasn’t ‘monstrously abusive’ in Sumerian society by modern standards. The builders of Uruk’s walls weren’t working for the fun of it. They had no more control over their bodies than the temple prostitutes.
Why have ideologies of sex and gender become such a focal point in the world of poetry and academia? The walls of Uruk are Gilgamesh’s glory, but he didn’t build them himself. Forget the poor who were conscripted to build them, but worry about the temple prostitute told to have sex with a man ‘with bad personal hygiene’?
If we were to baulk at the incident in the name of ‘twenty first century readers’ doesn’t it also require us to assume that all ‘twenty-first century readers’ share the same values?
‘Twenty first century readers’ made Fifty Shades of Grey an international best seller. Recently I’ve been looking at generic fiction, both on screen and in print. There’s violence, sadism and sex, sometimes all three at the same time in the guise of entertainment. I’m not sure why, but you can, if you want to, watch people being tortured on your screen in the comfort of your own home. Your average ‘made for’ streaming service series has regular explicit sex which adds nothing to the narrative and goes on long enough to blur the distinction with pornography. Where I live the licenced brothels advertise themselves in the classified section of the local paper. Presumably the people who run them and use them, and that includes the paper who takes their advertising money and the government who taxes their profits, don’t find them ‘unacceptable’.
The idea that ‘we all’ find x y z unacceptable is obviously untenable. If I were writing Uther’s story for HBO would anyone blink?
But since I do not want to contribute to the pervasive sludge, the observation doesn’t solve my Uther problem.
In part two, he considers the idea of rewriting the text to make it acceptable for ‘modern readers’.
As of now I have no answer to any of this.
Except to say how much I admire Jenny Lewis’ ‘Gilgamesh Retold’.