Wisdom in Akkadian Literature: Expression, Instruction, Dialogue

by Benjamin R. Foster
Wisdom in Akkadian Literature: Expression, Instruction, Dialogue
Benjamin R. Foster
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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 Reviewed work(s): Wisdom in Akkadian Literature: Expression, Instruction, Dialogue by Sara Denning-Bolle A study of wisdom in Akkadian literature is to be welcomed on many counts. The harvest of interpretive studies of Akkadian literature is still meager; so much basic work remains to be undertaken. The texts referred to as "wisdom literature" are available in excellent editions, so discussion can go beyond philological and text critical problems. The texts themselves are replete with human interest and of sufficient variety to satisfy almost any taste in reading. Thus Denning-Bolle's work can at the outset break new ground and go in many directions. After a brief introduction, the second chapter is called "Survey of Secondary Literature." This consists of sometimes lengthy summaries of books and articles on ancient Near Eastern (including Biblical) wisdom, with emphasis on publications since 1960. Her conclusion is that scholars do not agree on what wisdom implies nor what texts should be considered wisdom texts (a term some regard as a literary genre, others as a style or mode, others as a traditional label). So much epitomizing in such detail seemed to this reader tedious and unproductive. Any student of Mesopotamian wisdom will be familiar with W. G. Lambert's Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960). One therefore scarcely needs one page of Denning-Bolle summarizing page 1 of Lambert, not to mention summaries of passages in other works that are themselves summaries (p. 27). The contents of this chapter could well have been compressed into a few paragraphs with bibliographical references, especially since the conclusion is self-evident.  In chapter three, "The Notion of 'Wisdom' in Ancient Mesopotamia," the author collects terms for wisdom and quotes a variety of passages in the style of a dictionary article. There is a discussion of Ea/Enki, without reference to the dissertation of H. Gaiter, Der Gott Ea/Enki in der akkadischen Uberlieferung (Graz: Karl-Franzens-Universitat, 1981). Her treatment (p. 41) of Enuma Elis I 94ff. is no improvement over traditional renderings; her proposal that irtibu erbetta hasis u ini kima suatu ibarra gimreti contains a result clause ("Each of his four ears grew large / and (his) eyes likewise, to see everything") implies that Marduk sees with his ears. There is discussion of the Marduk-Ea incantation type (pp. 41-43), then remarks on Atrahasis. Instead of documenting Atrahasis' wisdom, the author cites only the passage (II ii 42-47) where Atrahasis vomits, remarking that this depicts him as "a man with feelings" (p. 44). What is the point in connection with wisdom? In her striving towards a definition of wisdom, the author opines that Lambert's emphasis on magical and cultic expertise "does not really indicate that other paths were open for the acquisition of wisdom" (p. 9), but she often ends up with the same conclusion (pp. 39, 43, 57: "Especially in Mesopotamia was this knowledge and technical know-how intimately bound to ritual and magic activities"). This leaves the impression of going in circles. Her discussion of references to exorcists and other professionals in literary contexts misses the point that their wisdom is insufficient to be of any use. This motif the author could well have followed up in more detail at the expense of some of the irrelevant, even bizarre digressions in the volume, such as passing remarks on the Dutch national anthem (p. 138) or a three-page summary of Porphyry's Life of Plotinus (pp. 76-78, for example, "Porphyry tells us that from the first year of Gallienus (253 A.D.), Plotinus began to write down his treatises ..."), not to mention two pages devoted to Bakhtin on the novels of Dostoevsky (pp. 80-82). The reader interested in Plotinus' career could glean these details from an authoritative study, to which reference could have been provided in a footnote; they are of no use in a study of Akkadian wisdom. The author puts forward ideas and observations of interest, but they tend to be lost in a welter of eclectic associations that can lead the reader far from the topic and leave him wondering when she is going to come to grips with her titular subject. There are some misunderstandings along the way, for example, her treatment of an excerpt from Plato's Seventh Letter (pp. 70-71). This agonizes over the gap between understanding and formulation, but Denning-Bolle takes it to prefer conversation over writing, an exegesis which has no foundation in the passage quoted. On p. 85 the discussion turns to "dialogue in Akkadian literature." One might expect the focus to be on wisdom, since dialogue would entail a large monograph on its own, but instead the author chooses a speech from the Gilgamesh epic (Gilgamesh's rejection of Ishtar's sexual advances, which, astonishingly, Denning-Bolle finds "not tactless" [p. 100]). Her point is interesting: how Gilgamesh develops and manifests wisdom through dialogue in the poem, but the exposition and defense of this proposal are not clear and systematic enough to do it justice. From there she proceeds to a discussion of dreams (pp. 92-94), then to the encounter of Gilgamesh and Siduri in the epic, Tablet X. While these are interesting passages, her attempt to treat them in the context of a discussion of wisdom seems to me original but unconvincing. To this reader, the portrayal of Gilgamesh as a wisdom figure is a secondary accretion to the poem, worked in as a kind of prologue, and not an underlying theme as this study would suggest. Gilgamesh's progress owes more to the (irrational) intervention of women than to his own developing perception or enriched experience. Denning-Bolle makes no reference to other interpretations of these same passages which are at variance with her own, for example, Tzvi Abusch, "Ishtar's Proposal and Gilgamesh's Refusal: An Interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 6, Lines 1-79," History of Religions 26 (1986): 143-87; Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), 218; Benjamin R. Foster, "Gilgamesh: Sex, Love and the Ascent of Knowledge," in Love and Death in the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of Marvin H. Pope, ed. John H. Marks and Robert M. Good (Guilford, Conn.: Four Quarters, 1987), 34-37, and, too recently for her book, T. Abusch, "Gilgamesh's Request and Siduri's Denial, pt. I: The Meaning of the Dialogue and its Implications for the History of the Epic," in The Tablet and the Scroll: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo, ed. Mark E. Cohen, Daniel C. Snell, and David B. Weisberg (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993), 1-14. She speculates that Enkidu "is a more dispensable character" because he is inferior in wisdom and intelligence (p. 100), but surely Gilgamesh is spared because he is the king, whom Enkidu himself is bound to return in safety (Nineveh III lines 12, 242ff.); wisdom is not the issue here. There follows a lengthy summary, with quotations, from the disputations and fables, with a bulky excerpt from Aesop (p. 115); perhaps some of this space could have been used to evaluate R. Falkowitz's comments in his "Discrimination and Condensation of Sacred Categories: The Fable in Early Mesopotamian Literature," Entretiens sur l'antiquite classique 30 (1984): 1-32. Though there the focus is on Sumerian, this would have been closer to the topic than Greek, especially since the author herself warns her reader against the pitfalls of taking a "Greek" stance elsewhere (p. 69). One problem with her exposition is that the author brushes, often repeatedly, against interesting and important issues: dialogue versus monologue, inner speech, I-Thou style (as in prayers, here treated as a sub-category of dialogue, pp. 119-20), use of dialogue in narrative poetry, formalized dialogue in spells. This reader found himself wishing that she had chosen a few of these and gone into depth, showing how they are related to wisdom, rather than galloping by so many, hardly able to do more than draw attention to their existence within a few examples and observations. There are, along the way, some interesting proposals. For example, she considers the possibility that the Theodicy is an inner dialogue (p. 155), but on the basis of other examples of inner speech in Akkadian literature (for example, Tukulti-Ninurta Epic iii 25'-56'; Cuthaean Legend of Naram-Sin lines 89-98; see also D. O. Edzard, "Selbstgesprach und Monolog in der akkadischen Literatur," in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, ed. Tzvi Abusch, John Huehnergard, and Piotr Steinkeller, Harvard Semitic Series 37 [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990], 149-62), which do not contain characterizations of the interlocutor in the style of the Theodicy, this reader would abandon the idea after due consideration. There are remarks on rhetorical questions, but again no systematic inquiry into this challenging topic (p. 180). Since the author offers remarks on the dramaturgy of Aeschylus (p. 80), Dutch idiomatic expressions (which she confuses with proverbs) for which she knows no English equivalents (p. 64: aap uit de mouw is, in fact, "cat out of the bag," and so forth), one does not have the feeling that she omitted further discussion for want of space. In addition, the sometimes discursive, school-marmy style (compare, all from p. 56: "So far I have discussed ... Earlier in the chapter, I talked about ... I differentiated ... I said ... I also emphasized ... I would like now ...") unwittingly denigrates either the reader's intelligence or his attention to her work. Yet this reader's disappointment is born of respect rather than misprision. This is a lively and learned discussion, manifesting deep interest in Akkadian literature and ideas and strategies for reading it. The wisdom, talent, and training so amply documented here could have led the reader farther into the topic chosen than this frequently undisciplined and diffuse essay. This reader was pained to find so little that he liked in the book, beyond an engaging literary persons. Nonetheless, I hope that the author will return to any of the interesting issues she raises and that she will do them the justice that her enviable attainments and literary sensitivity will surely allow. BENJAMIN R. FOSTER YALE UNIVERSITY COPYRIGHT 1994 American Oriental Society 

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