The Eternal Moment of Modernity
Somewhere in Sumer, long before the Hebrews wrote of it in Genesis, a man once looked into those heavens and saw time's turnings, as measured as Newtonian mechanisms, counted out by the soss, the ner, the sar and the great sar. Living in a new now, that man knew modernity, the rationality and romance of it.
The Rationalism / Romanticism dichotomy begins in antiquity, in the earliest of all surviving stories, where we find the duality of the civilised man and the wild man, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh is introduced as a builder of walls, which is to say, a builder of civilisation as the enclosed domain of formal, definitional structures -- the outer temple, the inner temple, the city walls. He lives within frames, creates them himself. Enkidu, by contrast, is introduced as a beast at a watering-hole, which is to say, a creature of the wilderness as the open territory of informal, nominative symbols -- animal, water, hill, tree. The only frame here is the edge of the pool, which Enkidu kneels outside of, leaning down to lap up water as a beast.
Gilgamesh is man as king. Enkidu is man as animal. In the walls of Uruk, the buttresses of will, of religious and military authority, we see the clean lines of David's "Oath of the Horatii", the aesthetic of Neo-Classicism, Rationalism in paint. In the long hair that coats Enkidu's body, the locks of passion, of bestial and sensual autonomy, we see the rough brush strokes of Delacroix's "Raft of the Medusa", the aesthetic of Romanticism. We see Apollo in one, Dionysus in the other.
When the world of Gilgamesh impinges on Enkidu it comes as a hunter, a trapper, a man of snares and pits, lines and edges. This is how authority impinges on autonomy, how will impinges on passion, how Rationalism impinges on Romance. Enkidu, the first of the Romantic heroes, will accept no such traps, no parameters and perimeters to his world:
He fills in the pits that I [myself] dig,
He pulls up the snares [that I lay.]
He sets free from my grasp all the beasts of the field,
He stops me doing the work of the wild.
The words of the hunter echo through time. Enkidu's rejection of the holes and nooses by which we carry out the "work of the wild" -- which is to civilise it, bind it and tame it -- echo in the poetry of Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar", and wilder still, as Stevens rejects the nominative with the definitional, structure and symbol:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that
But do not use the rotted names.
Modernism is often confused with Rationalism, seen in opposition to Romanticism, but it is a fusion of the two. Where Rationalism abstracts to the eternals of law, the Platonic essence, denying the moments of life, where Romanticism revels in the moments of life, the Byronic existence, denying the eternals of law, Modernism's project is to reconcile the two in the eternal moment.
Every era is the Modern Era because the Modern Era is always now, or a now, at least, that has existed since Gilgamesh and Enkidu met.
The now of Gilgamesh is a present with past and future; when Inanna courts him, he applies hindsight and foresight, listing her trail of jilted and cuckolded lovers as he rejects her. The now of Enkidu is a present with neither future nor past; when the hunter brings the harlot to him, when she offers herself, he goes willingly with her, to fuck for days in the seemingly endless immediacy of lust, not knowing that this will sunder him forever from his animal existence, his wild hair shaved, his skin oiled as an athlete's. He does not know that in entering the world of Gilgamesh, in meeting him on the threshold of a doorway -- the wild man and the king, Romance and Rationalism -- in coming together first as enemies and then as friends, perhaps even lovers, in the collision and collusion of aesthetics, they will both cease to be what they were, and become Modern.
Neither does Gilgamesh know that in entering the world of Enkidu, in loving him and losing him to death, this will sunder him forever from his godly essence, leave him a mortal man, maddened, wildened, wandering through the wilderness in a futile search for immortality. He does not know that when they set out together to kill the giant Humbaba and cut down the sacred cedar, this sacrilege will turn the gods against them, leave one dead and one doomed, aware of his position as a mortal being on that mesocosmic human scale of time between the cycles of stars and the moments of beasts -- the Modern Era in which we live and die.
The world in which Gilgamesh lives before Enkidu is the world of the me, the world shaped by craftsman Enki, god of clay, inventor of the wedge-shaped imprints of cuneiform, and the mathematics and writing that those marks graved into the world, inventor of irrigation, delineating territory into fields with the inscriptions of trenches. Enki, a metaphysical agency, yes -- a principle, as Anu of the heavens, Enlil of the stormy sky, Ninhursag of the foothills -- but the agency of reason, rationality as a principle, a force, a being. Enki's me, his Tablets of Destiny are the systems of the world:
Supreme lordship; godship; the exalted and enduring crown; the throne of kingship; the exalted scepter; the royal insignia; the exalted shrine; shepherdship; kingship; lasting ladyship; the priestly office known as "divine lady"; the priestly office known as ishib; the priestly office known as lumah; the priestly office known as gutug; truth; descent into the nether world; ascent from the nether world; the office of the eunuch known as kurgarru; the office of the eunuch known as girbadara; the office of the eunuch known as sagursag; the battle standard; the flood; weapons; sexual intercourse; prostitution; legal procedure; libel; art; the cult chamber; the role of the "heirodule of heaven"; the musical instrument called gusilim; music; eldership; heroship; power; enmity; straightforwardness; the destruction of cities; lamentation; rejoicing of the heart; falsehood; the rebel land; goodness; justice; the art of woodworking; the art of metalworking; scribeship; the craft of the smith; the craft of the leatherworker; the craft of the builder; the craft of the basket weaver; wisdom; attention; holy purification; fear; terror; strife; peace; weariness; victory; counsel; the troubled heart; judgement; decision; the musical instrument called lilis; the musical instrument called ub; the musical instrument called mesi; the musical instrument called ala.
From here it is only a small step to the Law Code of Hamurabi, the Mosaic Law, and monotheism as a universalised, legislative anthropomorphism that denies its own athropomorphism with a God whose face must not be drawn, whose name must not be spoken. It is a small step to the destruction of idols, graven images, the exile of all animistic spirits from the dust of the world. These steps must be small, because the Rationalist aesthetic is an artificed superposition, an imposition on the clay of a world deeply Romanticised by many. The overthrow of the animistic worldviews is seen as a hostile act of aggression by those who would rather live in the widernesses of informal, nominative symbols resonant with intent, with divine power. In many respects, because that Rationalism is seeking not just to delineate the territory into fields but to purge it of symbols first, to scour it down to a tabula rasa on which one particular new system of the world is to be engraved, it is a hostile act of aggression.
Still, the forward drive of Rationalism is insistent and it is a small step from the God of Moses to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, scoffing at those who would pray to images, comparing such superstition to prayers directed at a house, a small step to that same Heraclitus mocking the followers of mysteries who would "wash themselves with blood", as if, in stepping out of the sewer, one sought to cleanse oneself with shit. It is a small step to the original skeptics and cynics who took Rationalism from the religious domain of monotheism into the secular domain of philosophy. There are many such small steps though, and the Rationalism of this world will take three or four thousand years to truly come to fruition in the Deus Absconditus of Newton or the dead God of Nietszche, who once talked of looking into the abyss and finding it look back at you, into you. Still...
He who looked upon the deep, the Epic of Gilgamesh begins.
Every era is the Modern Era, and Gilgamesh is the first fictional character who exists in Modernity on record perhaps simply because he is the first fictional character on record at all. His world is one of technology and industry -- one of warlords and empires, yes, but also one of federations of city-states, with sovereigns who could be impeached and punished (as the king of gods, Enlil himself is exiled for rape) by assemblies of elders as executive and legislative powers. It is a world of the me, of the systems of the world. It is a Rationalist world, like our own, and, also like our own, equally as Romantic, because it is as much Enkidu's world as Gilgamesh's.
Enkidu at his watering hole is Pan in the forest, Dionysus and his Bacchae up on the hills. Enkidu ensnared by the hunter's plan is Dionysus bound by Pentheus, Romance trapped by Rationalism, bound by a King of Tears whose great crime is to refuse to pay this god of passion the honour that he's due, to deny the revels, the wild moments of Byronic existence. It should be remembered by all Rationalists that Dionysus destroys Pentheus utterly. Though the names of "Romanticism" and "Rationalism" were born in the Enlightenment, the aesthetics that they map to are as old as civilisation; and the conflict between them, from which the aesthetic of Modernism is generated, goes back to the wrestling of Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the threshold of a doorway on the day of a wedding feast in the ancient city of Uruk.
Enkidu at his watering hole can be found in Molly Bloom "under the Moorish wall", in the soliloquy at the end of Ulysses which celebrates the wild surrender to passion, to the moment, in a loss of virginity, pointedly located in an undelineated world, a world where civilisation and culture has abandoned the constraints of formal definitional structures, all those pits and snares, all those systems of inner temple, outer temple, city walls, all of them crumbling, becoming the Romantic wilderness of "the sea the sea the crimson sea sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes..."
Gilgamesh can be found, at the end of his story, where it all began, amongst the great walls he built round Uruk. There is an emptiness to that grandeur now, however, a loneliness and desparation as Gilgamesh urges the boatman who has brought him back from his failed quest to examine and admire his handiwork, how well wrought these walls are, how they will last. It is left unspoken that Gilgamesh himself will not. The desolation is as Romantic as that of Freidrich's"The Wanderer", where a lone figure looks out over the sublime Alpine wilds. It is as Rationalist as the deslation of the heavens in H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds -- that "timeless gulf of space", barren of life, of agency, of intent. It is as Modernist as the desolation we find in Yeats's "Byzantium", where:
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Hearing the mathematical atonalities of Modernist music, seeing the geometric abstractions of Modernist architecture, we might be forgiven for thinking that Modernism is merely Rationalism by another name, implacably opposed to the Romantic. But when we look at much of the written form we find something far less sterile and intellectual. We find elegies for the Romantic, celebrations of the Archaic, attempts to turn the measuring of the world against itself, to restore the animism of antiquity, to reject the very possibility of a truly Rationalist delineation of the world, devoid of Romance.
In Guy Davenport's "The Playing Field":
On the willow oak under which Mikkel and Magnus were lying one summer afternoon there rained down ever second on every centimeter of long sunlit leaf a quintillion photons.
In W.B. Yeats's "Byzantium":
At midnight on the Emperor's pavements flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit.
In Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar":
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a bue guitar."
The Modernist looking up into the heavens today sees the stars and planets, sun and moon, cycles of seasons, months and days measured in time that warps and twists, sees cycles of centuries, precessions of equinoxes, processions of arcane symbols still alive in the imagination, symbols of ancient civilisations now in ruins, the whole cosmos not as clock and calendar but as a new deep, a new abyss, a new wilderness where the only real frame is the edge of the watering hole we stand outside of, children of kings and animals, leaning down to be surprised at our own reflection, seeing ourselves against that backdrop, looking for the eternal moment where essence and existence collide and collude in a Rational Romanticism, a Romantic Rationalism.