Enlightenment and the Flood


The Flood, Vilmos Aba-Novák, 1923

by Gregory Jusdanis

No, she insisted, she could never go back to Zanesville. Of course, she would continue to visit her hometown but she would not live there again. My student’s words were adamant but her voice broke with undisguised sadness.

I stared at her as the sun flooded the oak desk behind me. Leaning against my chair, I repeated mentally her declaration, one that I had often heard before and had in fact uttered myself years earlier. Many of my students, like the one before me, arrive from small towns and smaller villages. For them Ohio State and Columbus in general often come as a shock, representing not only their first steps away from their families but also into the world. Despite the incessant talk of globalization today, quite a few of my students don’t have passports and some have never buckled their seat belts in a plane. It may seem odd but for some, the first experience of a subway is the Athens metro encountered when they accompany me to Greece during March break.

The university with its mix of people and ideas strikes them often as alienating. This is what my student tried to explain — that her opinions of life, her interpretations of the future, and her thoughts about the world had now distanced her from her parents and her milieu.

For this reason I tempered my own celebration of her “enlightenment,” refusing to pat myself on the back. As teachers, we often rely on the metaphor of darkness and light to explain our professional goals, to lead students from one to the other. But it’s not really that black and white.Modernization, whether of people or of entire communities, leads to as many disruptions as novel connections. It yanks people away from their roots and casts them onto an often alien terrain. And so it was with my student from small-town Ohio. And so it was with me, many decades earlier.

My family had immigrated to Canada from a small village in northern Greece, a place with neither running water nor electricity. My arrival by ocean liner in Halifax came like a watery transition to the twentieth century. Overnight I was transformed from a peasant to a member of the working class and later, when I entered university, I joined the middle class. Upward mobility took on for me sky-high proportions.

This change, as is often the case, necessitated the gradual distancing from the culture and societies of my double inheritance. For I too had to prove what the European Enlightenment had demanded of Jews in the eighteenth century, namely that I was “romansfähig,” capable of reading and appreciating literature or culture in general. Modernization is a Mephistophelean exchange, your simplicity and innocence for its complexity and insight.

Although this is a modern process, what crystalized it for me was paradoxically an encounter with antiquity. In my freshman year I had registered for a class in world religion and one of the readings was the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded epic poem. I was entranced by the strange world of Sumerian Mesopotamia, the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. But coming to the section on the flood I slipped into an existential crisis.

The hero, Utanapishtim, learns that a deluge is about to inundate the world and obliterate humankind. In order to preserve life on earth he is told to build a boat and take in two pairs of each living thing. Since “the gods resolved to send the deluge,” Utanapisthtim “sent up on board all my family and kin,/ Beasts of the steppe, wild animals of the steppe, all types/ of skilled craftsmen I sent up on board.” Upon the seventh day the boat perches on top of a mountain and Utanapishtim releases three birds to ascertain if the flooding is over. (One of Gilgamesh’s great achievements was to bring back to civilization this hitherto forgotten history.)

Here was the story of the flood, which I had known from the Bible, which we had heard in church, and which we had studied in the village school. It was almost the same story verbatim. If the Bible was sacred text, I asked myself, how could this story exist in earlier form?

What was for me divine revelation turned out to be part of a common oral and textual inheritance of the Near East, a local story that eventually acquired global significance, tied to the myth-making of a people. Truth turned to tale.

It was not that I underwent a crisis of faith, saying to myself that I could no longer believe in God. Rather I experienced this particular reading, like my education generally, as a process of alienation, which imperceptibly severed my ties to my village, my family, and my working class neighborhood.

My life seemed to change with that text. Or perhaps that text instantiated the transformation I had to undergo in order to become modern, tolerant, comparative, secular, and interdisciplinary, casting away old stories and acquiring new ones. In any case, I emerged as another insignificant statistic of the march of time, of progress, enlightenment, of analysis, and of dialectic. In short, my education meant that I had fewer stories to share with my family.

For this reason, listening to my student I felt the poignancy of her situation. I remembered my own struggles as an undergraduate. Although we were of different ages and came from two separate places, I felt nevertheless that we were both suspended though the morning sun in a process that we could neither stop nor fully grasp.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License