Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ancient Literature

I'm taking a world literature class. The first half of world literature, aka Ancient Literature. (Yes, the caps are necessary.)

I was going to try to post separately about the various works of literature I'm reading, like the Epic of Gilgamesh and Oedipus the King. Lovely stories. Only made more agreeable by the ripping off of limbs and gouging out of eyes. But truth be told, I have very little to say about these stories. In a classroom setting? I could go on for fifteen minutes about the significance of the text in a historical context and what it says about the culture and time period in which it was written. But honestly? I have no emotional connection to these texts.

Now, an emotional connection isn't really necessary in order to write a paper about it, but to say anything about a book here on the blog would be positively dull if I didn't have some sort of feeling attached to it. Love, hate, anger, whatever. Even just a vague enjoyment.

I was excited to take this class because I thought I would get to learn about mysterious other cultures and their secrets to the universe. Needless to say, this was quite naive. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Oedipus the King, and the Aeneid don't seem to have too many secrets to the universe. (Unless they go something like, "No matter what you do, the gods are going to run your life, so get over it.")

Most of the time, taking a class about something piques my interest in it, even if I don't expect it to. For instance, my 18th-century literature class. I never liked 18th-century literature and never expected to like it, but that class is just a rollicking load of fun (hopefully I'll be posting about that in the future). This class, on the other hand, doesn't seem to make any difference. And despite what you might think, my teacher is actually awesome and my classmates are also great. The class itself is interesting, but the literature bores me out of my mind. (Although things are seeming to get more interesting as we get further and further away from anything that has to do with Western society).

What I am about to say will be my own shame. Be aware that these are just my impressions of the literature, and I'm certainly not trying to pass judgment on the literature itself. But the truth is, this stuff just doesn't strike me as good literature. The characters are not real to me. The language is not beautiful (although I know its beauty is probably just getting lost in translation). The stories are not compelling to me. The only way I can appreciate these texts is in using them in context to understand ancient culture. They seem incredibly detached to me; no part of them has anything to do with me.

In other words, I'm not trying to say that these books are bad...they just seem bad. Which is probably my own problem.

So instead of sharing any inspired thoughts about ancient literature with you today, I'm going to plead with you to share your secrets of ancient-literature wisdom. What do you find compelling about these stories, or other ancient literature you've read? What fascinates you about ancient literature, and why?


  1. Ooo, I can think of lots to say, but I have to take the kids to violin now. Back later...also, can you post the reading list for this class? And the 18th-century one? Enquiring minds want to know!

    1. Oh, lists! I join in the plea! :)

    2. Wow! I didn't realize that would be a subject of interest. Here are the reading lists. The readings for the World Lit class, however, are almost always just selections (sometimes very small) from the entire text. I'll note if it's the full text, if I know.

      World Literature:
      Creation stories (from Egypt, the Bible, etc.--I don't remember exactly which ones)
      The Book of Genesis
      The Book of Job
      The Epic of Gilgamesh (full text)
      Oedipus the King (Sophocles--full text)
      Aesop's Fables
      The Aeneid (Virgil)
      The Bhagavad-gita
      Classic of Poetry and Analects (Confucius)
      The Daodejing
      The New Testament
      Confessions (Augustine)
      Inferno (Dante)
      The Qur'an
      Song of Roland
      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (I think the full text)
      The Thousand and One Nights
      The Tale of Genji (Shikibu)
      Don Quixote
      Orlando Furioso (Ariosto)

      Whew! I'll write another comment for the 18th-century lit.

    3. Restoration and 18th-century Literature class (note, many of the texts are plays):
      All for Love (Dryden)
      The Country Wife (Wycherley)
      The Man of Mode (Etherege)
      The Rover (Behn)
      The Conscious Lovers (Steele)
      She Stoops to Conquer
      Pamela (novel)
      Evelina (novel)

      There are also a number of scholarly essays on the list.

    4. Oh, and She Stoops to Conquer is by Goldsmith.

    5. Wow, I've read so few of those! I've had Don Quixote on my shelf for years, but haven't attempted it yet. It, War and Peace, and Moby Dick are all things I'm still working up the courage to try.

      I've seen She Stoops to Conquer performed back in college, and read all of Gilgamesh and the selections from the Bible. I've read parts of The Inferno, Augustine's Confessions, Song of Roland, The Thousand and One Nights, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So I would rather take your Restoration and 18th century class, as there's a lot more there that I haven't sampled.

  2. I like how honest you are :)

    For me a lot of pre-19 century stuff is very tiresome. People just seem to have had enormous amounts of time and not a lot of books to read. So I mainly read the "oldies" to understand the references in other books. It really bothers me to see a book mentioned which I haven't read... I'm crazy, I know :)

    But some of them DID impress me. Like Gilgamesh. If you thing how LONG ago it was written, and yet people were already concerned with such complex problems as immortality, it just takes your breath away. And Greeks are sometimes hilarious and certainly don't lack fantasy, although most of the stuff is really cumbersome...

    I am a bit jealous of your study plan :) It's tiresome to read the ancients just for fun, but I guess studying them is very interesting :)

    1. I get that same feeling with some of the art and architecture. That's the kind of stuff that takes my breath away. (Maybe because I don't know a lot about art and architecture...?) For some reason, though, it doesn't impress me as much in writing. But I get why you say that. I really do. And from an intellectual standpoint, I do find myself sometimes awed by the way they approached these issues in writing. I think it's just so far from anything that I can personally relate to, though--strangely immoral/powerful kings searching for the elixir of life? Too distant for an emotional connection, for me.

  3. It's probably pointless to point this out, since I'm sure you've discussed it in class, but you didn't bring it up in your post, so I'm going to go ahead and say it here. Stuff like The Iliad and The Odyssey, and I think also The Aeneid were passed along orally -- they didn't get written down right away, and they were composed with a lot of repetition, etc, to make them easier to remember. So yeah... the writing is not what we today particularly enjoy.

    That said -- they don't thrill me either. I can appreciate them for their historical context, for the window they give us into ancient life and thought, and for the amazing way their themes and character types still work today. But I don't get caught up in them.

    1. Yes, that is true sometimes, but not always, which is why I didn't bring it up in the post. The Aeneid, actually, was composed and written down by Virgil (according to what we know), and so was Oedipus the King. Although both were based on ideas that had been passed down from legends and religion. Unfortunately with the Aeneid, the big deal in the writing was that the meter was practically perfect in every way, and of course that's impossible to recreate when it's been translated into English.

      Your view of it exactly describes my own--I love that aspect of them, but I just can't get attached.