On a fine sunny morning, not long after the birth of my third child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button.
In an instant, Google takes me to the “Immortality Institute,” dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”
Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white. Nothing really caught my eye. Cyronics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc. – pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.
Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen.
There were four ads. The first was someone who claimed to have met “immortal ETs.” Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo! Shopping. These mega sites had purchased the “immortality” keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might somehow find relief through…buying shit online. (In fact what Yahoo and eBay were doing was a sort of secondary search arbitrage – buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own site). Interesting, but I wasn’t searching immortality so I could go buy stuff. I took a pass on those as well.
But the second paid link pointed to the Epic of Gilgamesh, “mankind’s first epic,” which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down – in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served (and it did, thanks to my mother, a middle school English teacher for 25 years). I clicked on the link – by that action earning Google a few ephemeral pennies – and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”
Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. But I didn’t want to buy a book, I wanted to read the epic, right there, right now. So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options. But this time the organic results nailed it: The first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the Epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story, a summary which echoed much of my own inarticulate thoughts about the importance of search:
Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. Although historians (and your textbook) tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive….written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets… found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!
In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author, within thirty seconds I came to know his name and his work. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind, and in a sense, has through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, become immortal. Even stonier, if you will, Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism.
The opening lines of the first tablet certainly resonate:
The one who saw all [Sha nagba imuru ]I will declare to the world,
The one who knew all I will tell about
He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden:
He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood.
He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion,
And then carved his story on stone. [naru : stone tablets ]
What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay – or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the web? Is that not what every person longs for – what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality – to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint – is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For bloggers, in particular, I believe the answer is yes.
Loyal readers know they must suffer through my tendencies to wander off into the desert of joint-after-midnight meanderings (even if the joints have not been formally broken out), but there you have it. I searched for immortality, and dadgummit, I think I found it.