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Essays

Campus Classics

Dec 2008

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Eugene Ostashevsky of NYU here shares his thoughts on teaching Andrew George's translation of Gilgamesh.

I start my Cultural Foundations sequence at NYU with Andrew George's translation of the Mesopotamian mini-epic Gilgamesh. I'm a huge, huge fan of both Gilgamesh and this rendition of it. The beautiful and poignant poem is about finitude: not just in the sense of mortality but also of imperfection; it asks, what do we make of our lives given that we have limits? The way it asks this question the character of Gilgamesh, his desperate adventures, his failures speaks directly to my eighteen-year-old students and their life experience. As for George's translation, it is far and away the best available. An Assyriologist, Prof. George gives us the text in its most up-to-date form but without cosmetics: letting lacunae remain lacunae; italicizing his guesses; presenting the Standard Version, the Old Babylonian and the Sumerian redactions separately. His readers encounter the story as a process, as stages in a millennium-long oral and written tradition. In other words, his version doesn't convert Gilgamesh into a unified text produced by our rules of composition. At the same time, Prof. George is a tremendously talented writer: the spare elegance of his language results in precise, memorable lines that move us as true poetry should. I recommend this book to just about anyone who listens, and would love to see Penguin publish more Mesopotamian literature by this translator-scholar.

In a Great Books course like mine, Gilgamesh forms a perfect preamble to Genesis, especially if the latter is presented in terms of the documentary hypothesis. It also sheds unexpected light on Homer. Finally, the descent to the Netherworld in the Sumerian tablets compares well with book XI of The Odyssey , book VI of The Aeneid and, of course, Dante's Inferno.

Eugene Ostashevsky
Master Teacher of the Humanities
Liberal Studies Program
New York University