Give me a life lived in red. Energy, action, strength, desire. That last shown by Bilhana Kavi in his prison cell facing execution at dawn in India a millennium ago, pouring out his ardor for his forbidden lover the Princess Yaminipurnatilaka:
My thought is clinging as to a lost learning
Slipped down out of the minds of men,
Labouring to bring her back into my soul.
Even now I see her again,
the gold-tinted king’s daughter,
weary from bearing her own heavy breasts—
voluptuous burden of full blooming breasts
they tremble as I drink her mouth like a madman.
Death sends me the flickering of powdery lids
Over wild eyes and the pity of her slim body
All broken up with the weariness of joy;
The little red flowers of her breasts to be my comfort
Moving above scarves….
[from translations of the Caurapañcāśikā
by E.P. Mathers, B. Miller and G.C. Schwebell]
The condemned poet, the story runs, wrote 50 fervid stanzas that night creating the almost unbearably beautiful cry of sustained erotic passion called by one of its translators “Black Marigolds.”
Still, I hope never to become immune to chaste beauty. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, endures as perhaps the finest film ever made. Nearly every black-and-white frame constitutes a chiseled masterpiece. Joan’s passing facial expressions weave a film-long skein of sun and shade, hope, confusion, new hope, and gathering dread. The relentless recasting of Joan’s heard voices into heresy lays a cold hand on the heart. If, as Aristotle held, feelings of pity and fear make for tragedy, one pities the tragic Maid of Orlean and fears for her throughout this faithful near-documentary of her meticulously recorded 15th-century trial. Renee Maria Falconet’s performance has been called the greatest in film history.
Nevertheless, my favorite color is not the blue of the celestial vault from which God spoke to Joan but, as signaled at the outset, red. It was red in my childhood and it’s red again at 70, and I think it will be red from here. It was blue for a time. A time ending in a “double depression,” as the therapists call it, which is when a run-of-the-mill grinding and disabling depression combines with “an incident”—meaning that the depressed party tries to kill himself—as at a virginal 21 I tried. No, I don’t want to return to blue, whether the blue of the empyrean or the ice at a glacier’s edge. I’m not interested in renouncing Earth’s sanguine energies for a higher ecstasy. Perhaps, unlike Joan, I’m not worthy of blue. In any case I’ve been happier with red.
And more than Joan, I admire Shamhat. I suspect the Sumerian temple prostitute rendered King Gilgamesh more profound service than Joan did Charles VII. One day, Shamhat was taken out to meet the wild man Enkidu, gigantic and hairy, living and mating with wild animals, meanwhile sabotaging the traps of a hunter in the area. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “Shamhat looked at the primitive man, the murderous youth from the depths of open country. She did not pull away… She spread open her garments, and he lay upon her… for six days and seven nights Enkidu was aroused and poured himself into Shamhat….” Afterwards Shamhat tells him: “You have become wise, Enkidu, you have become like a god. Why should you roam open country with wild beasts? Come, let me take you into… the pure house [Gilgamesh’s palace]….” Thus Enkidu, the nomad, settles in the polis.
There remained a third inducement (I take Shamhat’s continued company and her “like a god” flattery to be the first two): Enkidu discovers beer. Inexperienced though he is with this novelty as well, once again he knows what to do in the flickering light of a shepherd’s hut:
He drank the beer,
Seven whole jars,
Relaxed, felt joyful.
His heart rejoiced,
His face beamed,
He smeared himself with … [text missing]
His body was hairy.
He anointed himself with oil
And became like any man,
Put on clothes.
Just as this second experience was concluding in Enkidu’s intriguing new life—and before he put on those clothes (no doubt well into the following afternoon)—let’s speculate about his thinking. He’s just had sex with a woman for the first time, an epochal orgy at that. Then, like so many other 18-year-old Everyboys gone off to college, he promptly gets totaled at his first beer bash. Is it not therefore reasonable to assume, as we watch Enkidu sitting, blasted and blissful, on the dirt floor of the shepherd’s hut, that he thought, just before toppling over, “Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Shamhat’s offering me more of us? And all the beer I can drink? What am I, stupid? Civilization? I’m in!” For her part, Shamhat brings to mind the American madam Nell Kimball 20 centuries later who would tell a courtroom, “Prostitution, a public nuisance? I call it a public service.” So it proved in the Mesopotamia of 1800 BCE. Enkidu became King Gilgamesh’s boon companion and crucial ally.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first great work of literature, evokes in me all the rich life of the body I survived to experience. It awakens my deep gratitude for all the saving women whose multifaceted love I needed so desperately. Not least the gifts of their rosy bodies complementing their sturdy and supportive hearts.
That’s why it’s ruddy red for me.