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The Web site of aleph · Index
The lethal text
Writing under erasure
Mesopotamian myth
The Gilgamesh legend
The nam-shub of Enki
The Tower of Babel story
The song of the Sirens
Plato's metaphor of the cave
"man's insanity is heaven's sense"
The Ultimate Melody
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Snow Crash

Once upon a time The Web site of aleph by Michael Chorost existed, but has since ceased. These texts represent a small measure of its content. Image from the short story ARI-L by Caza.

deoxy > philosophos

Mesopotamian myth

Mespotamian myth seems to be a common touchstone, as if the first culture to develop a written language was also the first (and only) one to experience some kind of tragic Fall from prelinguistic grace. It is invoked by at least three stories which contain lethal texts (Snow Crash, Macroscope, and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.) Mesopotamia has a kind of wondrous resonance, as if its people knew something magical about language by virtue of their pivotal position between orality and literacy, and were able to create lethal texts which really worked. (It is not uncommon for the very first people to do something to do it extraordinarily well.)

Mesopotamian legends, such as Gilgamesh, differ in a key way from Biblical legends. Mesopotamian myths emphasize a free exchange between the realms of the living and the dead. For example, the bodies of the dead were buried with food and servants, to see them on their way in the spiritual realm, which was envisioned to be much like the realm they had just left. Conversely, the dead could interact with the living, blessing those who propitiated them and cursing those who did not. This makes Mesopotamian legend highly amenable to symbolic manipulation, for what happens in one realm is mirrored in the other. In other words, it is saturated with magic. Biblical legend, on the other hand, institutes a sharp division between the two realms, and thus is much less focused on symbolic manipulation. It posits a nonmagical, material, realist world. I believe this helps explain why two important novels about cyberspace, Snow Crash and Macroscope, both hark back to Mesopotamian rather than Biblical myth: both are about worlds where symbolic manipulation, that is, magic, plays a central role.

It is worth noting that some Biblical legends are clearly reworkings of Mesopotamian legends. The story of the Flood can be found in the Gilgamesh legend, and the Tower of Babel story appears in Sumerian nam-shubs.