The first library was created by Ashurbanipal in Assyria. 2,700 years ago.
Bless the day, bless that lonely prince.
His father the King could not read, distrusted all, so he decreed his son the prince should be taught the scribal arts.
Cuneiform, the first written language, was already ancient, a thousand years old, and scribes had to learn the dead tongues of Sumerian and Akkadian to read their oldest clay tablets.
Anger simply is.
When I deny it, or push it away? it grows fangs, sinks into me, shakes me hard.
I have learned to observe it. Admit it. Refrain from feeding it.
Some anger is justified. Against great wrongs, against injustice.
To clarify the lines of decency and safety for children.
Reading and writing made it possible for me to see when it is real and when it is not, when anger has a social purpose -- end child labor! civil rights! -- and when it is fuel for fools.
My anger is usually fool fuel.
It is a moebius path of fear on which I run and sweat before I even choose motion.
I know my anger. My self-righteous anger is my undoing. Bad for me, bad for the ones I love.
He didn't just learn to read spy reports and troubling portents.
He tried his hand at poetry :
"Often I go up to the roof in order to plunge down, but my life is too precious, it turns me back.
I would hearten myself, but what heart do I have to give?
I would make up my mind, but what mind do i have to make up?"
Do I have to spell it out?
Words are necessary. If not for libraries I would be dead. Me, or someone else.
Seen from afar we are odd apes, draped in colors and patterns that disguise our silly putty limbs. Sped up, our communal lives are a blur of tangling arms then bent study; we grope around, embracing, slashing -- then prolonged stillness. Squinting at squiggles and jots, at flat rectangles of jabbering frenzy, to gliding and punctuated sound. What for?
We want to know. We read for signs, to find a voice over us, to understand our own story.
Does this sound familiar? A king who wants to die, but cannot.
He amassed records, centralized them and said: this has Value. Words. The daily activities, the banal trade and exchanges, the gods' signs and people's pleas, the epics.
Gilgamesh, the first epic, was already ancient when he made sure versions were collected and scratched in clay.
So what, Gilgamesh?
4,700 years ago; so what?
We write to say how, to name the sorrow, to identify the cost, to defuse the bombs. To signify our brief tumult before we are smithereened, like all before us.
And it is all crap if our anger consumes us. Me, you, them, the other ones; all of the lucky enough who follow later, lucky to be the eyes of existence, peering at itself.
Even justified anger destroys. What hope do we have?
Imagine the Nazis had prudently flanked Russia, abandoned Barbarossa for the epic vanity it was, headed for the oil fields and thus sustained their efforts fruitfully. Eventually they would have encountered Ghandi. See him, in his loin cloth, with his walking stick, his followers amassed behind him.
The SS officer leaves the armored half-track and strides forward, amused. He stops, listens, nods.
Then he pulls his luger and pop! between the eyes.
"You are young, Gilgamesh, borne along by emotion, all that you talk of you don't understand."
Gilgamesh wants to rape; Enkidu the wild man stops him. He fights Enkidu to a draw. They become friends.
He must defeat the ogre Humbaba, the monster in the cedar forests of Lebanon, far to the northwest of civilized Sumer.
He and Enkidu must dig for water
at every stop.
He finds Humbaba
and destroys him.
We are dreadful, terrible, no?
Will we ever rise up?
We feed our anger, one by bloody one, day by lost day. We feel each slight, we amass the wrongs against us into pyramids of cracked glass marbles; gathered in, and always collapsing, spilling, rolling out of reach.
A danger to all who would walk upright in our midst.
These necessary piles, these justified collections.
But if we learn to pacify, to calm, what defense do we have against the unscrupulous, the greedy, the ogre in the woods?
Buddha realized the third way. Pol Pot would have tortured him to death.
He defeated the Bull of Heaven, the one who ravaged the land and destroyed hope; he "smote its skull with his axe weighing seven talents. The Bull reared up so high, so high that it overbalanced. It spattered like rain, it spread itself out like the harvested crop".
The Bull of Heaven.
He defeated Aga, his king and benefactor, in order to set himself above all others, to conquer; he "cast down multitudes, he raised up multitudes, multitudes were smeared with dust, all the nations were overwhelmed, the land's canal-mouths were filled with silt, the barges' prows were broken, and he took Aga, the king of Kic, captive in the midst of his army."
But because of the great pity and understanding Gilgamesh had acquired in his battles against the wild man, the ogre, the bull, against all the raging powers of disorder and chaos and rage, he was able to say this to Aga: "Aga gave me breath, Aga gave me life: Aga took a fugitive into his embrace, Aga provided the fleeing bird with grain."
And he set Aga free.
Jesus said turn the other cheek. And he turned his eye from slavery, was mum about the hopeless injustice of that natural disorder of inhumanity, the owned and owners.
Shakers devised remarkable sustainable production methods, re-routing streams under intimate factories, where water-powered lathes ran on belts that emerged from floors 30 feet above the flow. In quiet rooms they shaped elegant spindles.
They castrated themselves and have no inheritors.
What is wrong with us?
Why is gentle strength beyond our reach?
I say: it is not. Because of these, these words, strung like beads on holy lines, piled and sorted in libraries, cared for.
Because of libraries we have examples. We can lower our furious arms, ponder on meaning, because of words.
Perhaps we must each wrestle our wild Enkidus until we exhaust ourselves and become as one. Perhaps evil Humbabas have to die. Perhaps the Bull of Heaven destroys us if we do not destroy him first, subdue him, consume him, feed the poor with his sweat and meat, again and again.
Gilgamesh at last loses Enkidu, because his beloved friend "hit his son when he was annoyed with him. He aroused an outcry and was detained in the nether world."
He opens a hole and has Enkidu returned to him from the darkness below, and asks him the fate of all who passed before. The list is long and the fates are strange; some just, some unjust, others merely, eternally sustained.
"Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?"
"I saw them."
"How do they fare?"
"They play at a table of gold and silver, laden with honey and ghee."
It ends like this:
"Did you see him who was set on fire?"
"I did not see him. His spirit is not about. His smoke went up to the sky."
Perhaps we are always doomed, and kings will always conquer kings.
But maybe, if we love justice, if we learn to read? if we recognize how those before us sometimes managed to provide the fleeing bird with grain, to struggle to do right, we will battle with words and heal the world.
Here. Now. Together.
We are all on epic journeys. We must dig wells before we rest, for ourselves and all who come after us.
We must write and read, and save the stories, all of them: the ugliness in us, the fables about birds and grain, the hills we scramble down, the boys we save, the girls we raise up, the love we have for those who light our way. We must observe our anger, turn it to justice, and always release our enemies, free the good king, even in our triumph.
We must bear witness: we are fierce, yes, we are, we are fierce.
But we must quench our terrible fire,
or else be smoke in the sky.