Monday, March 28, 2011

Sumer time, and the living is easy

After yesterday's post about Babylonian law codes, crime, and beer, I'm bringing back this old post (with some new thoughts added). I originally titled it "A noir story set in Iraq," and it's about a proto-crime story even older than the Babylonians.

And it includes an invasion of Lebanon.

OK, it's not all noir, and its setting was not called Iraq 4,600 years ago, when the title character lived, or 2,700 years ago, when the most complete version of the tale was set down.

The story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, called simply Gilgamesh in Stephen Mitchell's 2004 version, and, in addition to being one of the most stirring stories ever told, it offers what is likely world literature's first femme fatale.
In this scene, Ishtar, played by Joan Bennett or Mary Astor, says:
"Come here, Gilgamesh ...
marry me, give me your luscious fruits
be my husband, be my sweet man ... "
to which Gilgamesh, played by Sterling Hayden or Humphrey Bogart, replies, in part,
"Which of your husbands did you love forever?
Which could satisfy your endless desires?
Let me remind you of how they suffered,
how each one came to a bitter end,"
rejecting her advances as surely as Sam Spade rejected Brigid O'Shaughnessy's at the end of The Maltese Falcon. And then:
"Ishtar shrieked, she exploded with fury."
Not all Gilgamesh's femmes are fatales. Shamhat seduces Gilgamesh's future sidekick, Enkidu, in one of the sexiest scenes in any ancient epic, but the sex civilizes the feral giant rather than threatening his downfall. Still, the scary Ishtar and the stoic Gilgamesh earn the epic a place on history's list of proto-noir and proto-crime classics.

Ishtar, or DINGIR INANNA in Akkadian, kicks even more butt in "Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World," threatening the gatekeeper that:
"If thou openest not the gate so that I cannot enter
I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt,
I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors,
I will raise the up the dead, eating the living,
So that the dead will outnumber the living."
Needless to say, she gets in. She also does a slow strip along the way, and whoever called the netherworld "the house which none leave who have entered it ... the road from which there is no way back" had not met Ishtar.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2011

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read that exact edition a long time ago for class, and I would have never guessed that that could be considered a noir story. Well, back then I didn't really know what noir was anyway.

Doesn't Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestle naked or something at some point? I remember there being quite a bit of sensuality in the book.

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, let's say that the Gilamesh-Ishtar scene exploits an aspect of human relations that later gets picked up in noir stories.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestle naked, and footnotes to my edition say that the sexual aspect of their relationship is more explicit in another poem about the two.

This edition is very explicitly sexual in the scenes with Shamhat and Enkidu and with Ishtar and Gilgamesh. In footnotes, the author provides literal translations of these scenes. Based on those literal translations, I'd say the explicitness was accurate.

I read Gilgamesh years ago for a class and remember nothing of it. I read it again a few years ago and was thrilled. My having remembered nothing of it from the class is yet one more support for the proposition that literature is wasted on college students. Or maybe I was just a particularly distracted and obtuse college student.

July 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few more unusual suspects:

Stan Ridgway
"Peg and Pete and Me"-the story is similar to "The Postman always rings twice" only Peg gets the money and the narrator is framed for the murder.
"Calling out to Carol" the narrator tries to contact Carol (a high class prostitute?) but she's disappeared without a trace.

"Frankie Teardrop" a terrifying ten-minute song about a men who kills his family and then shots himself because he cannot make enough money to maintain them and on top of that he's getting evicted blood-curdling screams are included

Slightly off-topic,there are records which,even when they do not feature explicitly criminal events in their lyrics,are strongly influenced by the noir aesthetic,and feel like imaginary soundtracks:for example Portishead's debut "Dummy" (and they did use some of the songs for the soundtrack of a ten minute spy/mystery film they made,"To kill a dead man") or Gallon Drunk's "From the Heart of the Town".
Gallon Drunk also provided the musical accompaniment to a reading of "I was Dora Suarez" by Derek Raymond.

July 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops!Sorry I replied to the wrong post

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No trouble. I'll just copy your comments over to the Crime songs post, and I'll reply to them there. Thanks for visiting.

July 14, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Hello Peter. What an interesting post. Have never been exposed to this book which sounds like a wonderful read. Thank you for sharing. Petra

July 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The book (poem, actually) is one of those ancient classics that are staples of basic humanities and literature courses and, despite this, turn out to be splendid and thrilling when one reads them years later. This particular edition takes pains to be readable. You might enjoy ut.

July 15, 2008  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Lots of ancient epics make good reading. In addition, they pretty much defined the concept of the hero.
And the Nibelungenlied is also a crime story.
Besides, they rock when it comes to supernatural creatures. Weep, vampires!

March 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's also something disquieting and exciting about going into the realm of the dead, as Alcestis and Orpheus and Ishtar, and about reading about cities thousands of years old. And, in the case of Ishtar, of a woman raising hell in the way that not many female characters do.

March 29, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

It is the oldest & one of the most wonderful stories. It even has a Great Flood. Yep, the gods get pissed at humanity ... because we are so noisy!!! (That was before cell phones, too.) And two days ago (ask Mike Lipkin) I came to the conclusion that The Book of Job, another oldie but goodie, is also a great Book of Noir. (Minus the Hollywood Happy Ending the rabbis pasted on to cover up what came before.)

March 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've cited all sorts of proto-noir stories, but I don't think I've mentioned Job. But you're right: David Goodis could have written it.

March 29, 2011  

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