by Tatiana Dubin
It’s a soggy November afternoon, heavy with the kind of dampness that activates color and transforms trees and streetscapes into oil paintings. Enheduanna likes to pay me a visit on days like this one, when the world is alight with something other than sunlight. Forecast reads rain but the sky is stubbornly suspended, taunting us with its impending collapse. Well above freezing, but the chill strikes deep. Like that first evening years ago when the snow-covered park was aglow even though the moon remained muffled beneath layers of cloud. An atmosphere emanating from inside the earth. Weather conducive to otherwise impossible journeys, such that she is again inspired to break free and fling herself across 6,000 miles of land and ocean, over 4,300 years of time, to arrive smack in the middle of my white-washed apartment. An arresting vision in her colorful flounced robe, its tassels suspended like hundreds of tiny wings. I’m here to talk, she always begins, demanding my undivided attention.
Today she arrives with an intellectual urgency that I haven’t witnessed before; almost immediately, she begins spewing hot-takes on a range of writers. Apparently Sappho’s poetry was totally basic before it was fragmented. Believe me, there was nothing interesting in those empty spaces. Homer was likewise totally overrated: a privileged bore who went around poaching verses from more talented Assyrian merchant-singers. George Eliot reminds her of Queen Kubaba of Ur, only the latter was more original. Moses was a charlatan who modeled his birth story on my father’s autobiographical inscription. Virginia Woolf is psychologically interesting but too sentimental, whatever that means. I could go on, but there’s an unattractive streak of competitiveness in her commentary that doesn’t need to be given more space than it’s worth.
But since today she seems to know everything and everyone—and can’t seem to stop talking—why not take advantage of her outward-facing mood and deepen our discussions? Thus far, we’ve covered descriptive things: what she ate & drank, what it was like to grow up in a palace, her extensive beauty rituals, thoughts on her authoritarian father, insufferable suitors, etc. The parts where our lives intersect; where I can latch on and extemporize, almost mindlessly. But the complex metrical structures of her verses? Or more broadly: her perspective on the relationship between language and thought? The different ways in which she would have sliced and organized the world (for example, did the Sumerians really consider flying insects to be types of birds)? Fruitful terrain, full of unbeknownst possibility, so I shoot straight for the target, towards the heart of the matter. I ask her whether she’s heard of Ferdinand de Saussure, the so-called inventor of Linguistics and Semiotics—
A bumbling idiot with an absurd moustache, half-assed ideas and a fetish for binaries, she declaims, her dyed saffron lips chapped and flaking in the hazy light—but still beautiful, I assure her. I offer her my favorite chapstick, the tinted raspberry one from Germany, but she scoffs and reminds me that she’s the High Priestess and only wears organic makeup made from the finest materials. I’ll lose the little power I have if I begin slacking on my appearance now, she says wistfully. When I try to tell her that it’s her words that matter, not her pretty face, she threatens to leave me, so I shut up and keep listening.
Saussure visited Ur shortly after he died, through an exchange program—
“What? An exchange program, like you’d do in college?”
Yes. I don’t feel like explaining it all to you now, but a fair number of Great Men of Ideas & Literature have taken their post-life sojourns in Sumer. It’s funny actually, when they first arrive, they stumble around burping & dizzy & overwhelmed for a few days, before realizing that—Oh wait! Like your good friend Proust! I forgot to tell you!
“What? He is not my friend. I just happen to like his books. I hope you didn’t tell him that I knew him? He’d have no idea—”
—You can be shockingly narrow and self-interested at times, there’s no fucking difference, and I’d appreciate if you’d stop interrupting me and trying to undermine my words like you always do—
(I’m taken aback, frayed edges and fizzied thoughts; but I keep it together so as to not derail the conversation further. For context: years ago, when I first told her that I wanted to write a book about her life, she didn’t think that there was enough material, so I lent her all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past to help her understand the glorious extent to which a life can be milked and made meaningful.)
Anyway, I gave him date cakes & ice-cold beer right when he arrived, and won his heart of course the silly rascal. Who can resist me? Turtle-green eyes, ropes of topaz, a shifting sense of self—
(A rotten stench emanates from her mouth, which is what happens when she’s lying.)
“What about Saussure? I’m so curious what you think about his—”
Let me finish telling you about your friend Proust! Okay, so we had such a blast! I’d never met someone who talked so much. He walked me through every detail of his life—what a memory on that man!
(The smell is now overwhelming; waterlogged corpses festering in the sun. Remember that she’s the most elemental of women—made from the oldest & purest of things—and has spent most of her life trapped beneath layers of sand, with no way to externalize her angst or express her suffocation. No running loops to tire her body, no venue at which to dance into the early morning, no chocolate to inhale when sad. Her emotions therefore become physical immediately. Meaning that she literally turns green with envy; translucent & airborne with joy; becomes positively rancid with deception—)
I was compelled to turn myself inside-out for him; shared the most embarrassing things—things I’d never deign to tell you—like that time when I went around giving blowjobs to all the High Priests when I first got to Ur, having a high time, a blast one could say the power I had! the electric feeling of withholding your lips for a second and watching them squirm!—ha!—all was fine & dandy until that moment when the cards flipped and one of them—a blonde flabby one with a fat dimpled chin—sprayed windex in my eyes & nearly blinded me I ran out of his quarters with jellied legs couldn’t walk I was so liquid & boneless but maybe the worst part was that he wasn’t even chasing me I was imagining him chasing me I was imagining someone loving me enough to chase me — anyway, Proust was so moved by my stories, he told me he’d write a book about me —
(Ha! An attempt to make me jealous by pretending she’s replacing me with Proust. Her antics are as obvious as they always are. After I got engaged, she refused to visit me for weeks—it is a complicated relationship to say the least. Most recently, she tried to convince me to divorce my husband; you’d be able to spend all your time writing about me. But listen: she has the right to deflect, go off course, confuse me and refuse to cooperate sometimes. I just don’t want her to leave—)
Tatiana I can’t tell you how good it felt to blab into the moonlight, blow out the cobwebs, squeeze tubes of toothpaste clean, yap loudly and freely to a thoughtful unthreatening man who just wanted to cuddle & hang out—& WASN’T TRYING TO GET ANYTHING OUT OF MY LIFE; JUST WANTED TO LISTEN AND ABSORB—
(Water is now water-falling down her pointy shoulders, puddles appear beneath her raw porous feet—this is how I know she’s started to tell the truth. In other words: she feels used, which isn’t wrong.)
Harps begin thrumming in the distance, a sign that she must hurry back to her temple to pour the morning libations. She tells me she’ll be back in an hour, so I wait, on edge but confident she’ll return. I know how much she hates her life, and how much she enjoys having an audience. I’m the only person in the world willing to listen to her, at least for now.
She reappears five hours later frothing at the mouth, with fallen curls & beer stains splattered over a red woolen shawl. I express sympathy, ask her if she wants an apple cider donut (sugar tends to cheer her up) but she ignores me and continues her rant as if she never left in the first place—
Proust is one of the few visitors who wanted to stay in Ur indefinitely—enjoyed the remoteness. My critical take, if you ever let me become a critic: he’s more lapcat than human. Supporting evidence: his delicate whiskers; his purring neverending paragraphs; his naps in my inner quarters; his sense of time fluid and feline. He’s good to me: promised to take me to the south of France one day. Sure, he hisses & bites at times, but don’t we all?
(I glare. She can tell I’m losing my patience, and a biographer can only sustain interest for so long. I gesture towards the donuts again, and this time she snatches one & begins chewing with relish. I keep glaring.)
Okay—I get it, I know you want to talk about Saussure. Unlike Proust, he arrived in the form of a whistling puff of hot air, spewing vowels into a sandstorm by the lofty gates. As the High Priestess, of course my diviners alerted me to the strange howling wind activity. A demonic mirage or a visitor? I had no idea which, but I was so gripped by his piercing vowel-cries—I knew the creature must be someone with a unique phonetic perspective, and you know how much I love foreign singers—so I let him through. For days, I sat perched by my window observing him flitting about the city, trying to decide whether I should drown him in the Euphrates, or invite him to meet with me. I was conflicted. All he did was stomp around boasting that he’d invented Linguistics. Have you ever heard of Linguistics?
(I’m too embarrassed to tell her that’s what I studied in college, so I’m silent, absorbed; confused but intrigued—)
Anyway, he clearly did interesting work related to a subject dear to my heart—signs, what teems beneath the surface—something I’d only studied in isolation. As you know, the scribes back home can be awfully rigid in their thinking, but the more I observed Saussure, I saw that he was much worse. All my biases about 19th century Swiss men were confirmed. He wasn’t interested in conversation. He’d target poor befuddled fishermen on their commute to the marshes and begin lecturing them at will—the gall!—on how “language is psychological” / on how there are two main ways to analyze language: historically, and at any single moment. He had the ugliest words for his ideas, and it was disgraceful to hear him go on and on as if he knew more than the Sumerians, the ones who pioneered the field of semantics, who think so deeply about language and meaning that its study is a type of divination, a way to access encoded messages from the gods—
She tells me that residents still joke about how a fisherman decided to mess with him and yelled back MY GRANDPA INVENTED WRITING YOU ASSHOLE before running away, and Saussure nearly imploded with excitement and trundled through the deepest marshes looking for this man, emerging hours later soaking wet, battered by the elements, covered head to toe in bug bites.
I ask her why they were so rude to him. Everyone could tell that Saussure never bothered to read the local literature before arriving yet knew the 19th century archeological reports on Ur by heart, and would intone insulting things like “a wasteland of sand” while gazing towards our highly developed city, full of three-story homes and paved streets. GO HOME, the scribal students would scream on their way to the tablet-house. WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. I’m the world’s most quoted linguist, he’d blubber on.
I forgot to tell you the most important part. Once the puff of air had dissipated, it was revealed Saussure was actually a horse, one of the first horses to arrive in Mesopotamia in fact, cantering in from cloudy Eastern mountains, changing the course of history—
(It’s past midnight, and I’m exhausted, possibly losing it. As a rule, I turn off all electric lights when she’s here—she doesn’t like how they bring out her wrinkles—so the room is lit by flattering sleepy candlelight, which isn’t making things any easier. She is a smooth shadow by the window, a lovely reflection of a woman—)
After Saussure was through with his bragging, he was an enormous help to my father’s campaign in Ethiopia. Of course he was obsessed with me. Snuck glances into my red linen throne. Wore blinders, but was still blinded by me of course. I couldn’t have been less interested after hearing him blab on about his Theories—as a rule, I don’t like self-important horses with facial hair, I like them clean-shaven & soft-spoken & much younger—
Of course he was in love with her. I could have guessed as much: a poetical girl caught between the two earliest known languages, the daughter of the emperor. An intriguing sign of her time. She tells me that when he got back from Ethiopia, he arrived at her temple carrying the traditional Sumerian marriage offerings—a giant basket of the most delectable ripe fruits—and she tricked him into handing over the food, then slammed the door in his face.
I told no one about the gifts, and binged on his offerings all night, ate 10 apples, 20 pomegranates, 15 bunches of grapes. I had to abstain from temple duties the next day I was so sick—
“Did you ever tell him your thoughts on his Theories?”
Listen: it wasn’t worth my time. Anyone could see they were wrong, even a teenage girl trapped in a brick temple in the smelliest city of the known world.
(This is the kind of third-person comment that typically punctuates our discussions, indicates that she needs rest, but I selfishly persist because we’ve gotten nowhere.)
Okay, so Saussure believed that a sign consists of a Signifier (a word or sound) and the Signified (a concept). Sure, that’s all fine and obvious, but his idea that the relationship between the Signifier and the Signified is ARBITRARY! is one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. Not only that: it’s downright heretical. HERETICAL. —
You should really have learned this by now, but I’ll try and explain. As you know, the Sumerian script evolved from a pictographic system, meaning that the sign for water originally looked like waves, barley looked like an ear of barley—you get the point. So originally, it was a script not of words, but of Things. Overtime, the script became more complex—signs took on phonetic values, which formed words—but as the script grew more abstract, the deep-seated sense that these words embodied the essence of Things only became more pronounced. I don’t usually like paraphrasing assyriologists, but Bottero did say it best: a name is an inseparable emanation from the Thing. To receive a name and to exist are one and the same. So Saussure is flat out wrong: the Signifier is intrinsically linked to the Signified.
“So translation into another language isn’t possible?”
Absolutely not—like the Greeks, we don’t believe in translation.
“But what about translating between Akkadian and Sumerian? Isn’t that essential”
Everyone is bilingual; we use the systems synonymously.
(As is the case when stretched beyond her limits, her fragmentation begins to come through viscerally—words now flung like the shards of her tablets:)
Form IS conte[ ] /
WORDS ARE [ ] LIVERS: there to be slashed open [ ] examined, every mark is communication from [ ] Gods /
Why else would I have risked my life to [ ] verses? If I’d believed that words were stale [ ] meaningless disposable [ ] things, I would have been a Queen /
[ ] aren’t libation vessels, can’t be emptied out and repl[ ]ed with [ ] /
A moustachioed man from the future [ ] city and tells [ ] that my words don’t mean anything?— /
“Hold on—Saussure didn’t meant to say that your words were meaningless. For him, language is devoid of spirituality. For you, it’s infused with so much.”
Sometim[ ] you s[ ]eak to [ ] like [ ] I’m an idio[ ], she rasps.
She rips apart another donut (her third one since she began fragmenting) and stares out my window. In a frighteningly measured voice, she tells me to go away, sked[ ]dle. I know she finds fragmentation humiliating, so understand why she drags herself to my front door; but as usual, her feet crack off before she’s able to escape. I’ve learned to sit back and whisper reassuring words (“You’ll come back soon.” “I’ll miss you.”). Intervening and trying to save her is dangerous; my eye was once pierced by her exploding earrings. I have no idea if fragmenting is painful. It’s a reverse metamorphosis, a butterfly breaking down into its grayed flaking parts. I know I should look away out of respect, but I can’t.
Tatiana Dubin is an MFA candidate at Columbia University and is writing a speculative biography of history’s earliest known author, the ancient Mesopotamian poet Enheduanna (c. 2300 BCE). Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mitos Magazín, Solar Journal, and Cake Zine, and is forthcoming in The New York Review of Books and Epoch Press.