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What are you reading, Prof. Rajewsky?

Nikolaus Rajewsky is deputy director of the MDC and director of the Berlin Institute of Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) at the MDC in Berlin-Mitte. He researches right down to the level of single cells how and why genes are switched on or off in healthy and diseased cells. Nikolaus Rajewsky recommends humankind’s oldest written myth – the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as a text by Walter Benjamin (philosopher, writer, cultural critic; born 1892 in Berlin, died 1940 in Portbou, Spain) – together with a picture by Paul Klee ("Angelus Novus", painted in 1920).

“Find the cornerstone and under it is the copper box that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.”

Prof. Nikolaus Rajewsky, Director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) at the MDC

“Gilgamesh” dates back from about 3700 years ago. The clay tablets were found in 1853. It is the oldest written epic that we know of. It contains clearly part of the Iliad (which we think was created 1000 years later on) and the bible (for example the description of the great flood, the surviving ship on the mountain, followed by the sending forth of the dove). It is an epic about mortality, love, friendship, and catastrophes. It is disturbing, strange, far away and yet very close. It truly puts everything we experience into a perspective of gigantic depth. Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Gilgamesh is stupendous. I consider it to be among the greatest things than can happen to a person… It is the epic of the fear of death”. Indeed, the Mesopotomians were not fans of the afterlife- the dead were believed to sit miserably in pitch darkness “dressed in feathered garment like birds”.

I think life is about how to move forward. I think of a painting by Paul Klee “Angelus Novus”

And I think about what Walter Benjamin, who possessed this painting, wrote about it:

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

 I think about Gilgamesh and countless catastrophes that happened since then and now. And I think that Gilgamesh would have fought hard, together with his friend Enkidu, to turn the Angel around and fly, together, face forward, into the future.