Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gilgamesh, a new interpretation

This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

The Sumerian story known today as the Epic of Gilgamesh is among the world's oldest surviving texts, commonly dated to the seventeenth to eighteenth century BC, though the earliest Sumerian poems can be traced to the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC). The Akkadian version, consisting of twelve tablets edited by the scribe Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC, was rediscovered in 1853 in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Sin-liqe-unninni conflated several much more ancient stories to create the Epic of Gilgamesh we know today, and he is also the oldest known 'author' in history, being the first to sign his name to his work.

At heart, Gilgamesh combines two stories, that of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and later, Gilgamesh's odyssey in search of immortality. Here, we will examine the first part of the epic: the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, "two-thirds god and one-third human... terrifying" in his perfection, and his "noble" companion Enkidu, the domesticated savage, his name literally meaning [the god] Enki's creation, formed of "a pinch of clay, let fall into the wilderness."

Such primal word pictures indicate that Gilgamesh is much more than a mere work of fiction; it is clearly a myth: a story that encodes, preserves and transmits truths about the origins and prehistory of humanity in allusive form.

We know today that we are actually a hybrid species: ancient homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals until their extinction some 30,000 years ago. Our Neanderthal genetic inheritance ranges from 1% to 5% of our DNA, with the highest percentages found in modern Europeans. With this in mind, the story of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu takes on an entirely new meaning and is, I believe, in great part a parable recording ancient man's cohabitation with Neanderthals and their subsequent extinction.

Let us first consider Gilgamesh's attributes:
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man...

...none can withstand his arms. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people? His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble.

All this is very clear: Gilgamesh is the "perfect" man, his parentage two-thirds from the gods and the rest from earlier men, with massive strength and lust to match. His fecundity was so boundless and disruptive that the gods needed to quell it by creating "his equal, like him as his own reflection, a second self" as a counterbalance to Gilgamesh's "stormy heart."

That task fell to Araru, goddess of creation, apparently bidden by Enki (above, who also created mankind to serve the gods and saved them from the flood):

She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created... 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 matted hair like Samugan's, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land... Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.

Well, this is all quite obvious, really: Enkidu = Neanderthal. But Enkidu, the wild man, was causing civilized men great trouble by interfering with their hunts. A trapper recounts, "there is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills... He fills in the pits which I dig and tears up my traps; he helps the beasts to escape and now they slip through my fingers." So a clever plot is hatched by the trapper's father; Enkidu will be seduced to sleep with a whore, and once tamed, he will "change the old order" and put King Gilgamesh in his place.

[The whore] was not ashamed to take him, she made herself naked and welcomed his eagerness; as he lay on her murmuring love she taught him the woman's art. For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills; but when he was satisfied he went back to the wild beasts. Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, 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.

Interbreeding with ancient humans has civilized the Neanderthals, but also weakened and deracinated them, estranging them from nature. Indeed, the process is cast as a seduction and wisdom a degenerative corruption perpetrated by a whore (the whore of civilization, who will later reappear as the Biblical whore of Babylon, and their "six days and seven nights" of fornication will echo in the creation story of Genesis. Likewise, Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge proffered by Eve also finds a thematic foreshadowing.)

The whore then convinces Enkidu to come to Uruk (above, the city's legendary brick ramparts today), to meet Gilgamesh:
Enkidu was pleased; he longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart. ‘Come, woman, and take me to that holy temple, to the house of Anu and of Ishtar, and to the place where Gilgamesh lords himself over the people. I will challenge him boldly, I will cry out aloud in Uruk, "I am the strongest here, I have come to change the old order, I am he who was born in the hills, I am he who is strongest of all."'

But the whore knows already which man will dominate; Gilgamesh, whose mind is more variable, who is more perfect, stronger and wiser and with greater intuition. And after all, it is Gilgamesh who is king:

"O Enkidu, you who love life, I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of many moods; you shall look at him well in his radiant manhood. His body is perfect in strength and maturity; he never rests by night or day. He is stronger than you, so leave your boasting. Shamash the glorious sun has given favours to Gilgamesh, and Anu of the heavens, and Enlil, and Ea the wise has given him deep understanding. I tell you, even before you have left the wilderness, Gilgamesh will know in his dreams that you are coming."

The Neanderthal extinction

As "servant" of King Gilgamesh, Enkidu weakens living in the city:
The eyes of Enkidu were full of tears and his heart was sick. He sighed bitterly and Gilgamesh met his eye and said, 'My friend, why do you sigh so bitterly? But Enkidu replied, 'I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.'

Gilgamesh, seeking both challenge and renown, decides that together they will kill the evil Humbaba, "a great warrior, a battering-ram... the watchman of the cedar forest who never sleeps." They set off on their quest to the cedar-forested mountain and are ultimately victorious in battle, capturing Humbaba. Gilgamesh, swayed by Humbaba's pleas for mercy, considers sparing him, but Enkidu urges his death, warning of future treachery, and Humbaba curses Enkidu, saying, "May he not live the longer of the two."

They cut off his head; trees were felled, including the Great Cedar whose crown scraped the sky. From its timber a door was made—72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide and one cubit thick—for Enlil's temple in Nippur. Gilgamesh and Enkidu: their names will now be remembered by posterity, and by the gods.

Upon their return, the goddess Ishtar, "queen of Heaven," proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, who rejects it, citing her inconstancy and the horrible ends met by her discarded lovers. Enraged, she demands that her father Anu set the bull of heaven (the constellation Taurus) to wreak havoc upon Uruk, but together Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaughter the bull, and Endiku mocks Ishtar by tossing its severed leg at her. (The thigh of the bull was an important constellation to the ancient Egyptians, appearing countless times in their texts, and is assumed by Egyptologists to refer to the "imperishable stars.")

These killings enrage the gods (the bull Taurus was often depicted accompanying man's creator, Enki) and Anu passes judgment upon Enkidu, who sickens and dies over 12 days, and in his delerium curses Enlil: "what ingratitude for the sake of a door!"

As Enkidu slept alone in his sickness, in bitterness of spirit he poured out his heart to his friend. "It was I who cut down the cedar, I who leveled the forest, I who slew Humbaba, and now see what has become of me."

The bull of heaven episode can be understood as a marker for the actual zodiacal age when the epic was composed, the Age of Taurus, which spanned from circa 4300 BC to circa 2150 BC. However, if we accept that Enkidu = Neanderthals, then it appears that the bull story, which leads to Enkidu's death, is more probably encoding the time of the Neanderthal extinction.

To reach that prior Taurean Age requires the completion of a full cycle of precession of the equinoxes, a "Great Year" or "Great Return" of nearly 26,000 years, placing the Neanderthal extinction some 32,000 years ago—exactly in line with current estimates.

According to those who interpret myth in relation to ancient astronomical knowledge, massive trees such as the Great Cedar often symbolize the earth's polar axis and are markers for information about the Great Year—the earth's long, slow axial "wobble" through the twelve houses of the zodiac.

72 (the height in cubits of the temple door hewn from the Great Cedar) is the pre-eminent number in this numerical encoding, since 72 is the closest whole-number value for the number of years (71.6) required for a precessional shift of one degree along the ecliptic. (In Egyptian mythology, for example, Osiris is killed by 72 lackeys of Set.)

Twelve, recurrent in the text (most notably as the number of days of Enkidu's sickness) along with its double 24 (the width of the temple door), is of course the number of constellations in the zodiac, and the linkage of 72 with 24, not 12, may very well have been employed to indicate the second, earlier Age of Taurus. 30, appearing in the text as 300, the number of citizens of Uruk killed by the bull (100 then 200), is the number of arc-degrees each constellation occupies along the ecliptic. Thus 72 years x 12 constellations x 30 degrees of arc = 25,920 years, or one Great Year.

The prologue that begins this post is apparently quite literally true: Gilgamesh did indeed know secret things and brought us a story from a time before the flood (i.e., the end of the last ice age), preserving our earliest history in stone.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Beautiful Fall

In this autumn of our discontent, when today's Washington Post lead headline reads "United in anger, 'Occupy' protests go global," it seems a fitting moment to discuss the garden architecture of pre-revolutionary France. You may smile—indeed we hope you do—but also do recognize that the two subjects are far from being non sequiturs and in fact the garden buildings erected for the aristocracy during the reign of Louis XVI foreshadow later events as presciently as any scandals or political machinations of the period.

Lest we forget, in 1663 Colbert had advised the young Louis XIV (well before he had done anything of serious note) that nothing would increase a monarch's reputation more than glorious exploits in war and building impressive monuments. War and building were uttered in the same breath and indeed were twin pillars of the Sun King's reign: architecture held the highest strategic importance and building was a tool second only to war in the state's policy arsenal. (Below: Versailles, what Louis XIV built to amuse himself.)

As Louis XIV's legacy played out, his successor, Louis XV, naturally timid and reclusive, built intimate pavilions rather than palaces, the pendulum swinging in the mid 18th century to its opposite apogee. In part this was because his predecessor had bankrupted France with his wars and his monuments—to which Louis XV was obliged to add his own, without ever undertaking the necessary reforms to support them. The perpetual, unstated bankruptcy of the state, thrown to a crisis pitch after the disaster of the Seven Years' War, would mean that bills simply were not paid—not that expenses were seriously curtailed. Royal architects, clerks and draftsmen worked years without pay; gardeners starved and finally deserted; maintenance was deferred and broken windows were replaced by oiled paper. The king would most famously say, "Après moi le déluge," and he could not have been more correct, or more cynical. (Below: the Petit Trianon, what Louis XV built to amuse himself.)

Louis XVI, even more timid and maladroit than his predecessor, built next to nothing. (The Sun King's great legacy and burden had run to ground, perfectly illustrating the old adage of "Clogs to clogs in three generations," but in this instance the fortune built and squandered by the Bourbons was that of Europe's richest and most populous nation.) It was Louis XVI's queen, Marie-Antoinette, who commissioned nearly all royal building during the reign, to the extent that she provoked scandal by creating the position of first architect to the queen. (Below: the Marlborough Tower at the hameau, what Louis XVI's wife built to amuse herself while the king amused himself with clockworks.)

The manifest decadence of her elaborate farmers' hamlet at Trianon, le hameau, whose rustic stucco walls were cracked and aged by artisans, provoked the scorn and ire of her subjects, who rightly saw a queen playing milkmaid with Sevres jugs at Versailles while there were bread riots in Paris as contempt for their plight. Likewise, the hameau was taken as certain proof that consideration of the people's opinion did not even cross their rulers' minds; even hypocrisy would have been preferred to having simply been forgotten—or in the queen's case, to having never entered her consciousness at all. It is safe to say that the hameau, along with the infamous diamond necklace scandal, cost the queen her head exactly 218 years ago today. (Below: a Sevres milk bowl and stand, commissioned by Marie-Antoinette for the dairy at Rambouillet.)

More broadly, though, the last decade before the revolution witnesses the French aristocracy—or more accurately that portion of it attached to the court—building ever more elaborate gardens and shoehorning onto them ever more and ever more exotic follies. The competition was fierce and a desperate rage for exoticism gripped the players. Here we quote from our first book, Pleasure Pavilions and Follies:

These late follies offered a boundless repertoire of imagery: pagodas evoked the Orient, innumerable thatched huts hearkened to Edenic idylls, farm villages presented a supremely false vision of peasant life, temples and rotundas echoed the Ancients. All the world and all its cultures were plundered to provide adornments for a nobleman's garden, leading the prince de Ligne to bemoan in 1781 that "Chinese buildings reek of the boulevards and sideshow fairs," and that "Gothic houses, too, are becoming too common." He proposed instead the hitherto untapped ornamental possibilities of Moldavian huts and allowed that Arab and Turkish styles had not yet been exhausted.

(Below: the mosque at Armainvilliers, built for the princesse de Lamballe, intimate of the queen, by an indulgent father who also happened to be the richest man in France.)

De Ligne, another intimate of the queen and someone for whom the oxymoron "profoundly frivolous" could have been coined, had captured the zeitgeist perfectly; in fact, he incarnated it, bragging that he ordered all his follies and suits on credit.

This decadence also expressed itself financially, as it always does. De Ligne, like the baron de Saint-James, the duc de Choiseul and others, bankrupted himself on his gardens, just as, in the late 1780s, the French state was borrowing against projected tax receipts decades hence. If one stops to ponder, it is simply extraordinary that someone like the duc de Choiseul, who ruled France for over a decade as de facto Prime Minister for Louis XV, could bankrupt himself at all, and that he had done so upon a garden. All these élites throwing all their money into gardens, their progeny be damned—quite the spectacle. And what is a garden in the end but a useless fantasy, a cipher for Eden, for paradise, an escape?

(Below: the Lake Pagoda at the Folie Saint-James, which, as its name indicates, stood on wooden pilings sunk into an artificial lake, and was reached by a fretwork Chinoiserie skiff.)

These bankruptcies showed great determination, since the élite had abandoned both traditional stone construction and the cheaper but inferior method of rubble-fill and stucco as well. They had also abandoned the formal French garden of Le Nôtre for Anglo-Chinese folly gardens and also for Masonic gardens, since they had also abandoned the Church and freemasonry was rampant. They built for novelty and effect, not permanence. They erected literally hundreds of flimsy stick-and-lathe structures, crass bastardizations of the world's native cultures, from pagodas to teepees, most of which would not survive the next decade let alone the next century. Or they squandered immense sums on absurdities such as an enormous boulder destined for a grotto in the baron de Saint-James' garden—a stone that required 40 draft horses to drag from the forest of Fontainebleau to Neuilly. (Louis XVI came upon the Sisyphean scene while hunting and, flabbergasted, inquired about the owner, and thereafter referred to Saint-James—who died a pauper in the Bastille—as "the man with the rock.")

Fake tombs and real hermits were also much in vogue. The princesse de Monaco, mistress of the prince de Condé, commissioned an entire "Valley of the Tombs" for her estate of Betz and also kept a hermit, who was forbidden to speak, to animate her thatch-roofed ermitage. The marquis de Girardin also kept a hermit, whose ermitage was praised in a guide for its Spartan furnishings, and moreover the marquis had the great good fortune that his most famous guest, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, died while visiting Ermenonville, permitting him to inter the great writer in a pseudo-antique sarcophagus on a small island in the lake fronting his château, making Rousseau's corpse the ultimate in morbid garden ornaments-cum-prizes. (Above: Girardin's Spartan-chic ermitage at Ermenonville; below: Rousseau's tomb.)

The list of instances of wretched excess and breathtaking decadence, of abandoned traditions and frivolous dilettantism, of willful blindness and stunning naïveté, of callous inhumanity and ostentatious self-gratification could go on for volumes, and this is only history as told through garden follies. The revolution, when it came, swept over France with unparalleled fury; hideous vengeance was exacted and it required well over a century for the country to settle finally into stable democratic rule. We'll leave it at that.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Fête at Vaux

350 years ago this past August, the most famous fête in French history was given by Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île and finance minister to Louis XIV, who wished to unveil his newly completed château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, to the king and the court. Beside infuriating and humiliating his youthful guest of honor with a display of wealth, comfort and taste far beyond anything the 22-year-old king himself was capable of undertaking, nonetheless had ever experienced, Fouquet by his example also instructed the king on the art of living and furnished him with the template for—and the personnel to create—Versailles, and indeed provided the entire artistic and cultural model for his reign.

If the story were to end there, it would be remarkable enough, but in reality the fête at Vaux occurs in the middle of a train of extraordinary intrigues that were to shape the course of Louis XIV's reign and by extension the fate of France and of Europe. Because of its sumptuous setting and the archetypal motivations propelling its actors, the evening is also one of those episodes in history that would (and did) make appallingly bad cinema. Indeed it reads like a fable from Perrault or La Fontaine—both of whom attended. So, with that injunction in mind, let us begin our tale of "once upon a time."

The appointed day, 17 August 1661, dawned clear and warm. Over 6,000 invitations had been distributed throughout Europe requesting attendance at the fête to be given in Louis XIV’s honor. Thousands of carriages left Paris and by early afternoon traffic on the road to Melun had collapsed. The king, accompanied by his brother, Monsieur, and his mother, Anne of Austria, departed Fontainebleau at three pm and arrived at Vaux-le-Vicomte three hours later.

The royal carriages entered through gates designed by Nicolas Poussin and stopped before the château, the work of the king’s own First Architect, Louis Le Vau. The king retired to the apartment that his future First Painter, Charles Le Brun, had decorated and furnished for him in the western range of the château. The rooms had been painted with arabesques and allegorical scenes which showered Olympian honors upon his host, and were hung with tapestries woven in Fouquet's own private manufactory. The squirrel, Fouquet's devise, and his motto, Quo non ascendit? ("How high will he rise?") were cleverly worked throughout the décor.

The marble sculptures on display were either Antique or works commissioned from Puget and Anguier; there were collections of paintings as well, and of gems and precious stones, cameos and medals, of rare or finely bound books, miniatures, watches, Northern tapestries and Eastern carpets, and also of Oriental porcelains and vases of Egyptian porphyry and jasper, but there was not time enough to view them all.

(Below: the Grand Salon, located beneath the dome and giving upon the gardens, whose decoration was never completed.)

After resting, the king toured the gardens, which had been designed by his own gardener, André Le Nôtre. A village and two hamlets had been razed to accommodate the park; 1200 water jets played into the fountains and over a thousand orange trees had been ranged about the walks and on the terraces.

The royal family dined at twilight while two dozen violinists serenaded with music composed by Lully. The food had been prepared by Vatel and was served upon 500 twelve-piece place settings of porcelain and 36 twelve-piece settings in solid silver, as well as the solid-gold settings reserved for the royal table. After dining, the company attended the premier of Molière’s Les Fâcheux, performed on a temporary stage embowered in an evergreen glade. Between acts, fauns and elves emerged from the greenery, offering diamonds to the ladies. Madame de Sevigné and Jean de La Fontaine were among those in attendance, and each would record their impressions of the evening and in truth Fouquet had retained the author of the Fables to compose an epic poem about the fête, later published as The Dream of Vaux.

Afterward, the guests traversed the parterres along the estate's infinite axis, which met the southern sky nearly a kilometre distant, and assembled before the Grand Canal, where a mock naval battle was staged with reduced-scale galleons. Upon its conclusion, a grandiose fireworks display lit the night sky and was reflected in the waters. Believing the festivities at an end, the royal party returned to the château, now illuminated by hundreds of lanterns lining its cornices. As they drew near, a fountain of rockets streaked from behind the dome, burst overhead and bathed the royal family in a rain of golden embers. Later, lottery tickets were redeemed and miraculously all numbers were winners, the men receiving arms and the women yet more diamonds. Near dawn, a last meal was served and the king departed for Fontainebleau at first light.

Act II
Some three weeks later, Louis XIV celebrated his 23rd birthday, the fifth September 1661, by ordering the musketeer d'Artagnan to arrest Fouquet for treason and embezzlement. Yes, d'Artagnan is indeed the same musketeer immortalized by Alexandre Dumas' novel, a slew of Hollywood swashbuckler films and the eponymous candy bar; he was also a close friend of Fouquet and wept while carrying out his orders and later he would periodically visit Fouquet in prison until his death. Fouquet, 46, had been lured by the king and his minister-factotum, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to Nantes, for fear that news of his arrest could reignite the Fronde, the opera-buffa insurrection that had dragged on fitfully throughout the king's youth.

As surintendant des finances, Fouquet (above) was the richest and in many ways the most powerful man in France, and had expected to rule after the model of Richelieu upon the death of the Cardinal Jules Mazarin that spring. Mazarin, a brilliant Italian-born cleric-politician, had been de facto regent for the child-king Louis XIV, lover of the king's mother, Anne of Austria, rumoured by many to actually have been the king's natural father, and indeed assumed that role upon the death of Louis XIII. In the opaque financial structure cobbled together by his predecessors, Fouquet oversaw the royal treasury as if it was his own fortune, and essentially it was. He borrowed and lent for the state on his own personal credit and personally appointed and directed the royal tax farmers. The position was ripe for abuse and was abused accordingly, and French kings had always been paupers compared to their finance ministers.

Intelligent, ambitious and headstrong, the young Louis XIV (above; pastel portait by Charles Le Brun) was instructed by Mazarin in the ways of power, and with wise foresight Mazarin ensured the king's future success by also forming Colbert (portrait below, attributed to Jacques Aved) as the loyal, diligent and capable bureaucrat-advisor par excellence. In essence, Fouquet's arrest was a carefully plotted coup d'état which was necessary to permit the king to actually govern France himself. Colbert, Mazarin's protegé, was also determined to rise to power through service to the king, and saw in Fouquet the perfect target upon which to pin blame for Mazarin's own colossal embezzlement, of which he was also a benefactor.

The young king's ambition, his love for the memory of Mazarin and trust in Colbert's manifest competence and the evidence his spies had uncovered, as well as the affront of Fouquet's smug, self-satisfied figure, led him easily into the plot. The arrest had actually been decided in March of 1661 when, along with evidence of his embezzlement, Colbert presented proofs that Fouquet was courting the king's own mistress, the beautifully simple-minded Louise de la Vallière. The conspirators patiently bided their time until autumn, when both grain and taxes were harvested, and the ill-considered ostentation of the fête at Vaux was simply salt in the king's festering wounds. Indeed, Louis XIV was reportedly so furious while at Vaux that he was only dissuaded from arresting Fouquet there and then by his mother, who said such an act would remain unpardonable in the eyes of history.

Fouquet was brought to Vincennes and his show trial, which Colbert organized, selecting the judges and harrying them mercilessly, required nearly three years to reach a verdict of banishment, infuriating the king. He cynically rejected the verdict as overly harsh, "commuting" Fouquet's sentence by ordering him imprisoned in the fortress of Pignerol for life. Despite the outcry from Fouquet's many partisans, the point had been made and Louis XIV had established his authority; most importantly, he had secured control over the royal finances. His reign, which had started almost two decades earlier, in 1643 at the age of four, had finally begun.