My ordeal, like most variations of personal hell, felt isolating, immense and unshareable. Some years later, when I reread the Gilgamesh epic1, it dawned on me that what I’d experienced was written there. In this ancient Mesopotamian poem, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk2, expends vast energies in his city and in heroic ventures with his alterego Enkidu. When Enkidu dies3, the bereft hero, overwhelmed by the realization of his own mortality4, goes on an soul-purging, exhausting journey to the ends of the earth in a vain quest for eternal life.
What resonated with me was not the loss of a friend as close as a second self– though something like that had happened years before5; nor the terror of death, though I’m sure that such terror could take much the same form as what I experienced6. But the self-consuming energy, the vast exhausting world, the body as an engine driving toward final irremediable loss7 – that I understood. The epic of Gilgamesh came to represent whatever was wise and heroic in what I experienced at this great transition in my own life, as it speaks to many people about their own losses and transitions8.
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