How is it that we are still able to enjoy works of art, especially literary works, produced hundreds and in some cases thousands of years ago? We can still enjoy, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer or Beowulf, despite their having been produced in ancient societies with values and attitudes profoundly different to our own? Does this suggest they uphold certain values or beliefs which are of timeless and enduring importance to human beings?

An excellent question. One can imagine two very different types ofenjoyment that would lead to two very different answers to yourquestion. We might enjoy something because it is familiar, and thusserves to comfort or even reinforce our sense of who we are, and thevalue of who we are. (If I had a choice, I would call this the 'pizzaand beer' theory, after my personal paradigm of what is familiar andenjoyable.) This line of thinking would lend itself to theposition you express in your last question: human productions, evenfrom long ago or far away, rest on a baseline of distinctly humanbeliefs, values or modes of thought that make them in some way'familiar' and thus enjoyable.

On the other hand, it also seems reasonable to argue thatsomething alien to me can be enjoyed precisely because it is alien,new, different, or challenging. This suggests that Gilgamesh isenjoyable because it is unfamiliar and continues to resistassimilation into the familiar.

These two modes of enjoyment have a certain dependency upon oneanother. What is familiar tends to be found enjoyable as a refugefrom the alien, as a 'home-coming'; in order for the alien tocontinually resist assimilation I have to be constantly trying tobring it into the range of what is familiar to me. Familiar and alienare not just static states of consciousness, but are part of amovement back and forth, a dialectic.

I've never thought of this issue in terms of 'enjoyment' before.I've always looked at it from the point of view of understanding: howis it that Gilgamesh can be read at all and make sense to me? The twoquestions are formally similar, since both suggest this dialecticbetween the familiar and the alien. Accordingly, partly under theinfluence of Hegel, this dialectic has often been considered centralto the nature of interpretation and especially our relationship withcultural artefacts and specifically art. Accordingly, it is oftenargued (and this is one of the key arguments behind a liberal artseducation) that part of the purpose of the study of foreign culturesor history is to enlarge my sense of the familiar, to make me a morecomplete person with a richer sense of my self and my world.

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