Why we still read Gilgamesh

Musings on a Pseudo-Aesthetic Artistic Theory

One question that many artists eventually ask themselves is “What is my art responding to? What personal, internal realities am I working on or working out? Or what social, external realities am I working on or working out?”

For playwrights and screenwriters, the last question has a natural precedence. These mediums, especially stage plays, are inherently social. Then again, you can make a movie with just one actor or a play with just one person, like the Samuel Beckett play, Krapp’s Last Tape, that’s going up now in Los Angeles. It’s possible.

The Beckett play is a nice example of how art can blur the line between personal and social. A play with one person in it still ends up being about more than one person.

Substantially, the monologues will include reference to the people that have made up the matrix of the community that defines the single character. Formally, the audience will listen to the actor in his exploratory confession as he gropes toward creating some meaning from his memories. It will be a conversation – a one-sided conversation, but a conversation none-the-less.


In the example of a one-character play, there is an implied idea that the answer to all three questions at the top here will be the same. The social question is the personal question and vice versa.

Reading Wallace Stevens’ book of essays, The Necessary Angel, recently I came across a moment where he quotes Andre Gide. Gide says that the artist has found the true dynamic thrust of his craft when he realizes that his work must consist of exploring the balance between man’s individual need to increase his own happiness and society’s need to increase its own.

Stevens suggests that art is the exploration and articulation of that balance.

There are other ways to put this.

The artist realizes the nature of his craft when he sees that it must refer to identity as a balance of the Personal and the Social. In one of my own stories, I happened upon this phrase to describe this idea: The self is a membrane between the Inner and the Outer.

When considering the self, in art, we are not merely contemplating the individual as an isolated entity, encased in a nimbus of protective isolation. The individual, in art as in life, is defined by other people, by relationships, and by ideas, by beliefs, by an internal series of conversations and discourses. (These discourses and beliefs have not been internally generated, at least not entirely. They have been taken in from the external world, in various ways, but they end up being the definitive elements of a private, interior world.) 

Articulating the balance between the “desire of the individual to increase his own happiness and society’s need to increase its own” seems to require, primarily, an assessment of crisis.

The artist has to ask questions of himself and his society, essentially asking of each, “What troubles you?”

The trouble is the crisis, in the Erik Erickson sense. The crisis is the opportunity for transformation, the moment of change.

(This concept is natural to the way we tell stories. The climax is the high point of crisis where the bad guy might win or the good guy might win. The outcome is to be decided in this crisis moment. So, this is the moment of change and transformation. The world we either be safe from the Joker because Batman wins or it will be plunged into a darkness and chaos. Either way, on the far side of the crisis a change will have taken place.)

In assessing the answer to his latest question, the artist will try to figure out what forces are in conflict. What is at stake? Who stands to win or lose? What will be won or lost?

We can reduce this subject to a simple but poignant question. The artist can simply be seen to ask: What is the most important artistic work I can do?

This question leads to the same result as the one that first takes into account the nature of the self as a balance between the Personal and the Social. This question ends up trying to determine the most personally resonant subjects that currently exist in society.


The most significant works of fiction from the 20th century seem consistent with the idea of the self as a membrane (a fragile one) mediating the Inner world and the Outer world. Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby are both figures pushed to take up false conceptions of who they are as individuals, ignoring their natures in favor of a culturally generated dream.

Camus’ The Stranger presented a similar scenario, but his character denied the culturally generated dream. He met the same fate anyway.

(We can pull in examples from visual art and music into this conversation as well, and I’m sure you’re already thinking of painters  who were interested in the line between the Personal and the Social and the ways that individuals exist as an internal reflection of the cultural world that raised them. As a writer, I’ll continue to draw my examples from literature.)

Going back a few years, this dynamic played into Shakespeare’s plays. The self as a balance of forces, Inner and Outer, anchored Hamlet and King Lear. Lear gives up his identity, which for him is his power, so that he can join the larger group. He is out of balance. When he abandoned his own need to increase his individual happiness, he effectively abandoned his individuality. He gets swallowed up and goes insane.

Oedipus Rex presents another case of the individual suffering, like Lear, for abandoning the position of balance. Oedipus commits the folly of attempting to free himself from the ties that bond him to family. He tries to be an autonomous entity. He does this in an attempt to escape his fate, but another way to read this tragedy is to see Oedipus as a character that loses the balance between the Inner and Outer.

You can’t be all Inner. You just can’t.

For one more example, we can go all the way back to Gilgamesh. His lessons all stem from the notion that he acts out of balance. The villagers pray that his mother will come make him stop raping people and beating them up. He needs to learn that he is part of the community. He needs to balance his desire for increased individual happiness with society’s need to be happy too.

Looking at these stories this way makes me wonder if Wallace Stevens and Andre Gide were right. Is the best and most lasting art lasting and good because it takes up this subject?


Two ideas are being presented here. First, there is the idea that art should seek to articulate the balance between the individual’s need for increased happiness against society’s need for increased happiness.

Second, there is the idea that the articulation of this balance includes a consideration of the crisis moment wherein forces of opposition, Inner and Outer, are vying for dominance. The question in the art becomes “Where does the Inner end and where does the Outer end?”

This becomes a question of self, as the self is a membrane between the Inner and the Outer.

Thus, the Personal question is the Social question.


Maybe this means that when the writer sits down to meditate on his next project and casts about for a compelling and important subject – the most important subject available to him – he is attempting to ascertain the answer to just one question:

What is troubling me?

Not as trifling or infantile as it sounds, this question, I hope, now has resonance with the complex notion of the individual being defined by forces that are definitively Inner and Outer and some which are unidentified or unaffiliated.

To get a bit more concrete, we have many examples to draw upon. Divorce presents us with a complicated idea of loyalty, family, identity, and expectation. We all know we can get divorced as easily as we get married. We know, perhaps more powerfully, that “everyone does it” and so we can too.

This is not necessarily a new idea, but it is troubling because the definitions of self are created in response to structural relationships that come from family. There is more to identity than this, of course. One clearly troubling aspect of divorce, however, comes in the erasure of an “identity structure” from our field of experience.

Oddly, this can be true even if we are not divorced or have not been raised in a family of divorced parents. The idea of divorce has permeated our notional reality.

The thought of marriage has now been changed. This is not a bad thing. At least it doesn’t have to be. It is troubling though.

I’m not one to stand on the hill top or cry in the woods with any Jeremiads. This is not a Jeremiad. There’s no judgment here and no cry of doom. What I see in this example is a case of confusion in the Outer world of society and I know it has an impact on the Inner world of the individual.

The nature of that impact is a subject for art.

(This is just one example. What comes to your mind when you think about this stuff? Write in!)