Camus vs. Gilgamesh

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – Albert Camus

Thus begins the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ exploration into the question of whether or not life is worth living.

Those of you who have studied mid-20th century existentialism are no doubt familiar with Camus. His works deal mainly with the internal state of man, and explore feelings of alienation from the world. In particular, the Myth analyzes the disconnect between the human desire for objective clarity and purpose, and the lack of response from the universe. Camus terms this disconnect ‘the Absurd’. The goal of The Myth of Sisyphus is to argue that we ought to live and flourish regardless of whether or not we exist in a meaningless and indifferent universe. Camus proposes a state of perpetual revolt against our absurd relationship with the universe by enjoying life for its own sake, appreciated in and of itself without the need to ascribe any purpose or meaning to it.

To illustrate his concept of revolt against the absurd, Camus provides the example of Don Juan, the legendary Spanish serial seducer. Don Juan is able to live happily and without melancholy, despite taking pleasure only in the present moment and having no hope for transcendent significance. He does not live in ignorance of his ultimate fate, but he does not bemoan it either – he continues living happily in defiance of it. It means appreciating what life has to offer, while also accepting the fleeting and meaningless nature of it all.

In his short story Summer in Algiers, Camus talks poetically about dancing, loving, and living under the Algerian desert sun. He paints a vivid portrait of enjoying life for its own sake, appreciated in and of itself without the need to ascribe any further meaning to it. It is the rejection of the notion that universal clarity of purpose is necessary to enjoy life.

The idea that life should be appreciated for its own sake is ancient. Many traditions have espoused this idea over the years – it stems back, quite literally, to the dawn of literature itself. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian epic considered one of the earliest works of literature in existence, the value of life despite absurdity and impermanence is shown by the character of Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim was a man granted immortality by the god Enlil, destined to live for all eternity. When Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim encounter one another, Gilgamesh is in a deep state of mourning from the death of his closest companion. After suffering this loss, Gilgamesh begins to fear his own death, and seeks to obtain the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim. As he says in the epic:

“Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth forever…  how shall I find the life for which I am searching?” [1]

Here, Gilgamesh has encountered the absurd. He is subject to the will of a chaotic and uncaring universe, and despite his impassioned cries for life, he knows it will eventually all end in dust. Utnapishtim, however, replies that impermanence is one of the most essential facts of life. We do not create anything with the expectation that it will last forever, but we create nonetheless. We recognize that all things are subject to eventual nullification, and yet we protest when this essential fact is applied to us. Every day we pursue motives and pleasures and ends that we view as valuable and important, even though we recognize them as inevitably impermanent. We betray the fact that we view impermanent things as valuable every time we pursue anything at all – for all things are impermanent, and pursuit of something implies that it is valuable to you. Though Gilgamesh will not live forever, he comes to realize value in being a great king and a hero to the Uruk people, and his legacy shines through his pursuit of valor in life. As Enlil, the god of fate, decrees at the end of the Epic,

“Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; I have given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. I have given unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back.” [2]

This heroic portrait stands in stark contrast to the immortal Utnapishtim, whose character is that of a lazy man with little to no motivation. As Gilgamesh says, “I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but here you are taking your ease on your back.” [3] Gilgamesh believed that immortality would imbue Utnapishtim with tremendous power, but in reality Utnapishtim has no desire to be a warrior and would much rather lounge on the beach. This is because he has no sense of urgency. Urgency is the motivator behind all valuable activity. It is clear that Gilgamesh has motivation in spades – enough to topple demigods, venture across the seas, endure starvation and do battle with numerous wild animals. This is because to him it was urgent that he attain immortality, and so he steeled himself to brave the trials and tribulations associated with this pursuit. This urgency is what compels us to make a difference and accomplish our goals before we die, and the opportunity at life is over. When you have all the time in the world, the motivation to act is severely dulled. For many people, having just a little extra time to accomplish a task can result in complacency and procrastination. Imagine if this ‘extra time’ was extended across all eternity. The character Siduri, potentially recognizing this problem, advises Gilgamesh to focus on fostering a good life rather than seeking immortality.

“As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” [4]

While death is inherent in mortality, so too is life.

[1] NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 18.

[2] NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 24.

[3]  NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 18.

[4]   NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 17.

 

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