Imagine yourself in an empty room, with nothing in it, except a window and a desk. You go to the window and see nothing apart from a small ray of sunshine and a brick wall of another building exactly like yours. You go to your desk and open a drawer. Inside you see a stash of papers, and you examine their contents. You see nothing but legal jargon and realize that five of those papers are identical in every word. The sense of emptiness overwhelms you and you decide to go outside. On your way down, you notice rooms that are like yours, with someone sitting at a desk, writing the contents of one paper on another. You finally make it outside and have difficulty distinguishing one building from another and as far as you can see, the rows of the same structure depart for several blocks. You listen to a conversation and it is similar to a conversation you heard yesterday and the day before.
Prefer Not To
The sense of emptiness in Herman Melville’s Bartleby is frighteningly apparent in every description of the office and work duty involved. The reaction and decline of Bartleby appears more natural, as the setting of a fast paced, economically booming Wall Street makes itself perceptible. This work is an allegory for corporate discontent. Bartleby is a sensitive, timid soul who only shows firmness in his utter abandonment of any sort of occupation. It is pleasantly convenient that the narrator is also a meek man who tends to avoid conflict and rather adjusts to his environment and the people within it. This capability allows him to survive the travails of a soulless working establishment, where everyone is expendable and sympathy lasts a short time. Bartleby drowns his apprehensions in diligent and precise work, until that can no longer emotionally uphold him. His “preference not to” do little tasks or errands, nor later on to change professions, signifies his lack of enthusiasm and excitement for any task in an empty environment and life. The descriptions of Bartleby become linked to that of a phantom or a ghost, further delineating him as an outsider, or someone not of this world.
Bartleby’s inability to cope and adapt to this life doesn’t, at a second glance, seem overly unnatural. Rather, the state of Turkey and Nippers comes into question, as their strange parallelism comes into view. Their temper switches back and forth between them as morning turns into afternoon. Their temperaments and eccentricities are unsympathetic and repellent. Their behavior seems to be a result of their coping with their environment and seems in that sense as a bigger negative than the outcome of Bartleby’s conflicted and tragic personal battle.
It is unfortunate that poor Bartleby’s setting transforms from a closed office to an actual jail. This sad shift illustrates that corporate and professional captivity does not differ much from actual captivity and contains the same sort of hopeless emptiness as an empty room you are not allowed to leave.
The speaker addresses his listener and suggests that he, the speaker, resembles a certain time of year, when elements of nature wither, dry up, and decay (the time of year indicated is autumn or the fall). He compares himself to a sunset taken away by the night, indicating the process of aging. He expands on this theme through mentioning the ashes of youth and their expiration on a deathbed. He exclaims that the listener perceives these processes and it makes his/her love stronger towards that which he/she must leave or lose shortly. The departure strictly indicates youth itself.
The personification of a yearly season in the speaker is a dramatic and powerful image. His elegant description of fall nicely corresponds with the travails of age, and the correlation is attractive and grand. Shakespeare goes on to personify the onset of the night as that which takes the daylight or in this matter youth away. This is easily recognizable by the reader as it recalls the eternal cycle. In life, we are born, reach our childhood, adolescence, and youth. We then reach our middle years, senior years and begin to near extinction, a state that will resemble the time shortly after birth. Similarly, the early morning disperses night, becomes the afternoon, and dawns into the beginning state of a dark night.
Shakespeare’s stylish symbolism is very apparent in the lines describing the speaker lying on the ashes of his youth, as if ravaged by fire, which in this sense parallels the process of life. This is a beautiful concept and is elaborated with the lines describing the nourishment of life, or in association, the fuel which fire provides as the same cause, which will eventually drain and lead to a steady demise.
Shakespeare mentions the word death only twice in this sonnet, and both times it refers to the death of youth rather than the death of the person. At first reading, this can be somewhat misread as our associations might place the somber tone, and grave words as an indication of someone sick uttering their last words. At a closer reading, it becomes clear that the speaker understands the listener’s awareness of his state and knows that the listener has a stronger love for his own youth and treasures it even more knowing it will one day disappear as in the case of the speaker.
Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine. His face was sweaty and dirty. The sun shone on his face. The day was very hot. Rinaldi, big backed, his equipment sprawling, lay face downward against the wall. Nick looked straight ahead brilliantly. The pink wall of the house opposite had fallen out from the roof, and an iron bedstead hung twisted toward the street. Two Austrian dead lay in the rubble in the shade of the house. Up the street were other dead. Things were getting forward in the town. It was going well. Stretcher bearers would be along any time now. Nick turned his head carefully and looked down at Rinaldi. “Senta Rinaldi. Senta. You and me we’ve made a separate peace.” Rinaldi lay still in the sun breathing with difficulty. “Not patriots.” Nick turned his head carefully away smiling sweatily. Rinaldi was a disappointing audience.
Hemingway – Genius Misunderstood
Not many people like this short story collection, despite its brilliance. Hemingway had a way of forcing the reader to use their imagination through subtle, brilliant, minimalist evocation. You have to work for it, but once you get it, it’s a revelation. Nick sitting against a wall, “legs stuck out awkwardly” from being hit in the spine. You feel and hear the machine gun fire across the street. Notice the mention of the word “face” twice, once when it’s sweaty and dirty, secondly when the sun shines on it. Add the oppressiveness of the day being very hot and you can imagine how uncomfortable he must be. Note the word use “brilliantly” describing how he looks across the street, indicating a sharpened, more acute sense in which he perceives the surrounding action. Seeing the dead Austrian bodies around him, Nick describes the battle as “going well” which to him, means stretchers will pick him up soon, which is why he tells Rinaldi that they’ve made a “separate peace” as the war for him will most likely end. Rinaldi’s lack of response can signify many things, perhaps he’s nearing death and is incapable of speech or maybe he sees Nick’s optimism as a delusion. We don’t know what will happen, but there’s a dread hidden in anticipating what might.
Enkidu by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90610606
One of my favorite themes is Civilization vs Nature and luckily for me, it is very present in this ancient masterpiece. Why do I love it? Look at the effects the pandemic of COVID has had on our planet. The polluted skies have cleared, animals roam the temporarily uninhabited streets, and I gleefully inhale the actually fresh air whenever I step outside or go for a run. This by itself isn’t the conflict of nature and civilization, but the peak of nature I just alluded to exposes the grim juxtaposition civilization can sometimes produce. Overcrowded streets and transportation systems, zombie-like walkers in human form staring at a small screen and making ugly comments on their social media, people in perpetual conflict and anxiety, rushing off to either fight for a cause or keep up in a rat race akin to a hamster wheel.
Contrast this with the harmony and simplicity of nature, where predator and prey support an awe-inspiring and intricate ecosystem filled with the wonder of creation, growth, and beauty. Where everything, from the largest, tallest tree, to the smallest and unassuming insect has an important purpose and interweaves with the existence of everything else.
Sure, it seems as if I have chosen which side of the debate I belong on, but civilization has its ardent protectors as well, and this wonderful theme plays out incredibly in this wonderful masterpiece of an epic.
The Creation of Enkidu
Here’s a little mini-summary of the plot in order to understand how this theme plays out. Gilgamesh, at the beginning of the epic is an arrogant, tyrannical and despotic king. He takes his citizens’ sons and uses them for battle in needless wars; his lust is insatiable and he sleeps with the wives of his citizens and in this case does not discriminate between the nobles and the lower classes. Anu, the king of the Sumerian gods hear the laments of the citizens of Uruk and decides on creating an equal to Gilgamesh, capable of challenging him and thereby occupying Gilgamesh enough to leave Uruk in peace. He asks Aruru, the goddess of creation to make Enkidu, a man equal in stature and strength to the mighty Gilgamesh. Enkidu is dropped off in the wilderness and described thusly:
There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself. His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matter hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. (Tablet 1)
So, this walking image of the gods spends his first days on hills with gazelles, eating grass, and drinking water out of lakes huddled among all the beasts of nature. He lives as one of them until he is discovered by a young hunter at the lake. The hunter is terrified and realizes that Enkidu has been releasing animals from the hunter’s traps. He returns home and tells his father, who (being a wise and unperturbed man) tells him to go to Uruk, tell Gilgamesh about the might of this savage, and to ask him for a harlot to return with him in order to “let her woman’s power overpower this man” (Tablet 1). The hunter’s father knows that after Enkidu sleeps with a harlot, the wild beasts will reject him. The hunter does as he is told and returns home with the harlot named Shamhat.
They go to the plains together, and Shamhat lures Enkidu using her womanly wiles and they sleep together for six days and seven nights. After his lust is sated. Enkidu returns to the wild. When the gazelles and other wild animals see him, they flee. Enkidu attempts to follow them, but “his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart” (Tablet 1).
Saddened, Enkidu returns to Shamhat, who comforts him and tells him that she will take him to Uruk to see the great-walled city inhabited by Gilgamesh. Enkidu lightens up and swells up with joy at the prospect of challenging Gilgamesh.
Notice how this part of the story describes the change in Enkidu. The beasts run away from him because “wisdom was in him.” He is unable to go back to his old way of life because he has laid with a woman. But surely, it isn’t just the sex that makes Enkidu unable to roam with the beasts, for “the thoughts of a man were in his heart.” If you are unaccustomed to the style of this ancient text, the change in Enkidu will seem to be abrupt and unexplained, but it is up to us, the readers, to excavate the greater meaning of this occurrence. Keep in mind, that Enkidu is still powerful and fast, more god than man, yet his inability to keep up with the beasts isn’t necessarily physical, but rather psychological. It is his understanding that has expanded and thereby taken his innocence. Remember, after his creation, he is described as being “innocent of mankind,” and this innocence is taken two-fold, by the loss of his virginity, and by the introduction into the world of man by Shamhat. She acts as his instructor, and prepares him for his journey ahead and what he will encounter. She is a very important aspect of the story, and I want to delve more into her character in later analyses.
What does this tell us? That nature is associated with innocence, simplicity, purity and an uncultivated land. It is this innocence that mankind sometimes yearns for and sees solace in. Civilization is something else entirely, and while this story is respects nature, it sees civilization as the next, necessary step in progression. It is my theory that the Sumerians didn’t see nature as in conflict with civilization, but rather as the first step leading towards it.
My next article will explore friendship in The Epic of Gilgamesh.