Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE ARK BEFORE NOAH


I have now finished reading The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel, who is described on the dust jacket as “Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum.”  It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.  Now, this means less than might at first appear, since, as I have often observed here, I read slowly and not a great deal.  But I have been at it, reading slowly, for the best part of eighty years, and in that time I have managed at my snail’s pace to plow through a considerable number of books.

It would be tedious and impractical for me to do what I would most like to do, which is simply to quote endless passages from Finkel and leave it to you to form your own opinion.  So in this post, I shall try to explain what has impressed me so powerfully about the book, aside from its sprightly style and Finkel’s delightful personality, which are on display on every page.  I urge you strongly to buy a copy and dig into it yourselves.

The oldest civilization known to us today arose in the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [hence Meso-potamia] in what is, at least for the moment, Iraq.  Somewhere between five thousand and five thousand four hundred years ago, in that area, writing was invented – for the very first time, so far as anyone today knows  [although there is some argument to the effect that Egyptian hieroglyphics were invented in the same time period, possibly under the influence of cuneiform writing.]  The physical technique used at that time, more than five millennia ago, was to inscribe series of straight wedges in clay tablets with little sticks.  This system of writing is called “cuneiform,” from the Latin “cuneus” for “wedge.” The tablets, which for the most part were small enough to be held in one’s hand, rather like a PDA or large cellphone, were frequently inscribed with writing on both sides.  Some were fired in an oven to harden, others were simply allowed to dry in the sun to an acceptable hardness.  The invention of writing appears to have been spurred by the practical necessity of recording mercantile transactions and keeping track of supplies or promulgating state regulations, but as time went on, the tablets came to be used for personal letters, for literary works, for school exercises, for recording myths and legends, spells and incantations, and for every other purpose to which writing has been put ever since.

THIS ORIGINAL SYSTEM OF WRITING CONTINUED IN ACTIVE USE FOR MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND YEARS.

Let me say that again, because it is the single most astonishing fact I learned from Finkel’s book:

THIS ORIGINAL SYSTEM OF WRITING CONTINUED IN ACTIVE USE FOR MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND YEARS.

For sixty percent of all the time that human beings have been writing, some of them at least were making wedges in clay tablets with styli.  Clay tablets are quite durable, and at last 150,000 of them have been recovered from archeological digs here and there, many of course in damaged or fragmentary condition.

Finkel’s book is about a newly surfaced tablet that records a part of a version of an old and well-established story about a great flood and a boat built at the direction of a god to save a remnant of human and animal life from extinction.  [By the way, in the earliest version of the myth, the gods decide to wipe out human beings because they are too noisy!  Don’t you love it?]

Scholars have long known of a number of such myths, clearly much more ancient than the biblical story of Noah and serving as the sources for the Noah story.  Finkel’s excitement, which he communicates charmingly, derives from the fact that the phrase “the animals entered two by two,” long thought to have been a biblical innovation, appears on this Ark Tablet,” as he calls it, and – even more exciting – from the clear evidence that the ark commanded to be built by a god was an enormous coracle – which is to say, a perfectly circular boat made like a basket from a long, coiled rope sewn together and buttressed with ribs of wood.  These coracles were used by the ancient Mesopotamians and continued to be used right up to the point, not many years ago, when Saddam Hussein, for political reasons, drained the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates and thereby destroyed what is arguably the oldest continuous material culture known to man.

Like many humanist intellectuals, my picture of civilization and culture is powerfully shaped by the combined Graeco-Roman-Biblical tradition, whose recorded origins do not reach as far back as the beginning of the first millennium B. C.  The effect of Finkel’s book on me has been to provide a major corrective to that mental image.

Take a look at The Ark Before Noah.  I think it may have the same effect on you.

 

1 comment:

TheDudeDiogenes said...

This isn't related to this post, exactly, but in a post on another blog I read, I just came across this sentence: "After visiting the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore back in the 1960s, Tom decided that Omaha needed what Paris had." I think you'll find the rest of the post (and probably the blog in general), quite interesting reading.