I never thought this paper was that great, but I just won an award for it, and $50 to boot, so it couldn't have been that bad. Anyway, here it is, as written for my Western Traditions class, CORE 151.
The Calm Before the Storm: On the Dualistic Nature of Suffering and Knowledge in the Bible and Gilgamesh
The human mind thinks in binary. Why this should be so—if it is due to the symmetrical nature of the human body, with two hands and two eyes, or to our dual-sexedness, or some other reason—is a question, if it can be answered at all, that is best left to the cognitive scientists. Our conception of the universe is framed in concepts of true and false, is and isn’t, yes and no; it is not surprising, then, that our most primal works, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible, reflect this, especially in matters of suffering and knowledge.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Gen 1.1)
So starts the Judeo-Christian Bible. What dualisms are implied by this short passage? Among them are before/now, heaven/earth, water/earth, void/being, darkness/light, and wind/calm. The dualistic nature of human thought is crucial to an understanding of the Bible, a view which is supported by journalist and scholar Elie Wiesel. Wiesel’s account of the creation story focuses on many aspects of Biblical deixis, concepts such as you/me and then/now which must rely on a context to be meaningful. “In the beginning,” Wiesel writes, “man oriented himself solely in relation to God—and all of creation defined itself in relation to man” (3).
The dualisms in Genesis are elegant, being absolutely crucial to the theme and moral of the story which is being told. Yet this type of dualistic thought holds its place in Gligamesh as well. Let us similarly take the opening lines of Gilgamesh:
Fame haunts the man who visits hell,
Who lives to tell my tale identically.
So like a sage, a trickster or saint,
Was a hero who knew secrets and saw forbidden places,
Who could even speak of the time before. . . . (Jackson 2)
Here we have a similar structuring of concepts. Dualisms evoked from this passage include hell/earth, forbidden/allowed, speech/writing, and before/after. (Of course, theoretically every noun or adjective in the passage presumes some dualism, such as fame/obscurity. However, the three cited are contrasts which are central to the themes, morals, and motifs of the epic.)
It could be argued that any passage written in English (or any other human language) would be subject to this type of analysis. Does this deconstruction of the Bible and Gilgamesh into dualisms reveal anything useful or significant about their respective meanings? I have already claimed that the dualisms cited are crucial to the theme and morals of the respective works. How this is so will be revealed as we consider the place of such concepts as knowledge, ignorance, happiness, pain, paradise, and the worlds of heaven, hell, and the Earth in the Bible and in Gilgamesh.
The placement of these concepts into their schemata problematic; it shall be the endeavor of this paper to achieve this in a coherent and plausible way that is capable of evoking meaning from and supplying meaning to the dualisms discussed above. Was Adam bored in paradise, as Elie Wiesel asserts (12)? Is ignorance bliss? What is the nature of human suffering? What does Gilgamesh have to do with anything? These questions have great relevance to our lives today, when we are increasingly bombarded by more and more information, when children grow bored much more easily. They bear much more relevance for people of faith, who are finding the need to question their faith in our pluralistic and often secular society.
The questions can only be answered meaningfully when we realize that the concepts we are talking about are themselves dualisms. They fall naturally into pairs: knowledge/ignorance, pain/happiness, paradise/Earth, heaven/hell. Through a process that will be referred to in this paper as dualistic deixis, each member of the pairs takes in part its meaning from its negation of its antithesis. That is, divorced from a context which includes the concept of knowledge, the concept of ignorance can only exist with its meaning somewhat altered.
The account of creation in Genesis lends itself to this way of understanding these concepts. The uncreated world represents a unity, where there are no dualisms. God creates by separating—that is, by creating dualisms. He separates the light from the day, and the waters from the Earth. Before this, there was simply undifferentiated being—which, in the ultimate unity, could not be distinguished from nothingness (Gen 1.1-5).
Other dualisms follow: human/God, and male/female. Regardless of whether God creates men and women at the same time (Gen. 1.27) or separately (Gen 2.20-25), the Genesis account puts forth a clear duality between the natures of men and women. The holistic human being cannot be inferred here; in some way, unity has already been lost. (An appropriate sentiment for a context which is in many ways misogynistic.)
It is through the male/female duality that the ultimate duality is introduced—good/evil. It is not an accident that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil contains in its very name a dualism; the tree’s fruit represents the ultimate separation from God and of self, the final loss of unity, which inevitably leads to the dualism of life/death. The holism of the primal paradise has been transformed into the dualism of the earthly realm, with both pain and happiness present as distinct elements (Gen 3.6-7, 3.14-20).
Seen in this way, the state of Adam and Eve before he Fall is not so much that of happiness or of ignorance as that of a unified holism of experience. Ignorance, in particular, presupposes that there is knowledge of which to be ignorant, but such knowledge has not yet passed into the mortal realm for Adam and Eve. Instead, it is a holistic unity which precedes the Fall. It is easy to see, then, how Wiesel could interpret Adam as being bored in paradise; there was not yet the multiplicity of elements which stems from dualistic separation, but a holism which could be seen as monotonous.
The rest of Genesis and all of Exodus explore this dualistic, “fallen” sate. In the Cain and Abel story we are able for the first time to see the practical effects of these dualisms: the two brothers’ respective behaviors are contrasted with each other. Acceptable is contrasted with unacceptable, and martyr is contrasted with murderer. The dichotomy of saint and sinner is finally clearly dramatized with the first murder, a brother killing his brother (Gen. 4).
The tale of the Exodus is in many ways a retelling of the creation story, with the man/god dualism of Genesis now replaced with master/slave and Egyptian/Hebrew. Instead of humanity’s challenging of the barrier between the mortal and the divine in Genesis 2-3, there is the danger of the Israelite people becoming stronger than the Egyptian natives (Ex. 1.8-10). In the same way that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Moses rise to defy the Pharaoh, finally breaking the master/slave dualism as he triumphs over Egypt and leads the Israelites to their salvation (Ex. 14).
God is revealed in this exchange to not be limited by the dualisms which control in the earthly realm. God states that his name is “I AM WHO I AM,” a name which refuses to limit itself by suggesting a negation of an antithesis. God is holistic; it is men and women in their fallen state who must rely on dualisms (Ex. 3.13-15).
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells a completely different story (with some parallels, such as that of the Flood), yet many of the same concepts can apply. The crucial dichotomy between man and God literally appears in Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who are both semi-divine, embodying the dualism in a potentially holistic (yet ultimately not so) self. Yet Gilgamesh and Enkidu inhabit a world which in many ways is primal, which is not so much happy as absent from pain.
Enkidu begins in a holistic, natural environment, belonging to “neither clan nor race,” living with the animals (Jackson 4). Gilgamesh sends Shamhat, a temple priestess, to make love with him, knowing through his wisdom that this will civilize Enkidu. Embracing—literally—the dualism of man/woman, Enkidu is driven to confront the dualism of man/animal, and he finds himself unable to continue living among the animals, needing instead to return with Shamhat and join human society. The separation of the holistic whole, then, is an action of civilisation, allowing Enkidu to know happiness in his relationships with Shamhat, Gilgamesh, and the other citizens of Uruk (Jackson 7-10).
Gilgamesh’s experience, however, is a little different. Gilgamesh’s life seems to be a holistic whole until he forced by the gods to confront the dualism of life/death: Enkidu dies, while Gilgamesh lives on. Like the moment when dualism is introduced to Enkidu or to Adam and Eve, Gilgamesh must begin a process of maturation, a process which takes him to see the immortal—and thus holistic—Utnapishtim. Yet Gilgamesh learns he must accept his dualistic state, for a serpent—the same figure which presented Adam and Eve with the dualism of good and evil—steals the secret of immortality from him (Jackson 85-89).
In both the Gilgamesh epic and the Biblical accounts, the process of dualistic deixis, giving meaning to a concept through its negation, is seen as a creative process. God Himself uses it to create the world. To Enkidu, it represents his entrance into society. Yet at the same time, the process is also viewed with fear and distrust. The separation of the holistic whole into diametric parts represents an alienation from God and of self. Enkidu curses Shamhat for bringing him out of his holistic beginnings, “May all any who can hurt you now / often cross the paths you take. I / hope you live in fright, unsure of hope / and starved always for the touch of love” (Jackson). Gilgamesh tries to escape the life/death dualism by seeking the secret of immortality (Jackson 80-89). The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the supposedly paradisial Eden is seen as a “fall” from a better state of being, and the history of Judeo-Christianity records a yearning for that primordial state, which will be returned to the virtuous during the afterlife.
So does dualistic deixis represent a positive move towards civilisation, or the negative fracturing of a holistic paradise akin to the separation occurring at the Tower of Babel? The only possible answer can be yes. (Note how such an answer defuses the false dichotomy—the dualism—inherent in the question and replaces it with a more holistic appreciation.) Both perspectives are present in the Biblical narratives and in Gilgamesh. Any state of affairs we are approached with in our (post-Eden?) world can be viewed as holistically or dualistically. The primal accounts of the Bible and Gilgamesh are a warning not to prize either viewpoint over the other. To view the world as dualistic is to see it as fractured, alienated—it is such a view which promotes sexism, racism, and other societal ills. Yet to view the world solely as holistic is impossible. The human mind must classify, must categorize, must give meaning to concepts through dualistic deixis. That we are capable of this act is a statement of the great worth of the human mind. It is, as both the Biblical accounts and the Gilgamesh accounts indicate, a creative act, one worthy of the gods. It is not a process of which we should be ashamed.
We have moved beyond Eden.
Jackson, Danny P., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Waoucona, IL: Bolchazy, 1997.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Oxford U P: Oxford, 2001.
Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God. New York: Simon, 1976.