On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

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In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

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The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

Our lives are often shaped by unplanned events.  We have big dreams – I wanna be a fire fighter when I grow up! – but then the unexpected happens and our whole course shifts – my counselor helped me get through a hard year, and now I want to do the same for others.

Undergraduates seem particularly susceptible to this sort of sudden swerve.  Perched on the cusp of adulthood, everything feel momentous… and many are in a position, for the first time in their lives, to make their resolutions stick.  In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, an undergraduate inadvertently attends a review session for the certified public accountant exam and decides that this is the heroic career he was destined to pursue.

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This dude is probably not prepared to make decisions that will reverberate for the rest of his life… and yet. Anyway, this is me, freshman year of college.

19537_27p1pIn Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a slapdash decision changes a life:

You were only supposed to take four classes, but when I found out they didn’t charge extra for five, I signed up for beginning Russian.

This logic made me smile – at my university, too, students were supposed to enroll in three or four classes each quarter, but a fifth was free as long as you gathered a sheet full of signatures (as was a sixth, as long as you didn’t insist on receiving a grade or credits toward graduation).

Indeed, being a cheapskate steered the course of my own life, too.  Like the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot, I chose my class schedule with an eye for value, enrolling in as many classes as possible, always choosing the highest numbered course from each subject I was interested in (having mistakenly assumed that bigger # in catalog = more learning).  Worse, a woman I was attempting to woo liked studying with me, so during my sophomore year I signed up for all her classes in addition to my own; at the end of that year, I’d completed all the requirements for a chemistry degree.

Toward the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I figured why not do more school?  I applied for graduate school… in chemistry, because that was my undergraduate degree.  All despite never liking chemistry.  My plan, before I’d arrived on campus, was to study mathematics, economics, and philosophy.

Whoops.

But the woman I had a crush on sophomore year did briefly date me.

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This dude? Still not prepared… and yet. This is me, first year of graduate school.

Back in the world of Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist soon develops a similar life-altering crush on a student in her haphazardly-selected Russian class:

On Thursday, I got to Russian conversation class early.  Only Ivan was there.  He was reading a novel with a foreign title and a familiar cover: the illustration showed two hands tossing a bowler hat in the air.

          “Is that The Unbearable Lightness of being?” I asked.

          He lowered the book.  “How did you know?”

          “It has the same cover in English.”

          “Oh.  I thought maybe you knew how to read Hungarian.”  He asked if I had liked the book in English.  I wondered whether to lie.

          “No,” I said.  “Maybe I should read it again.”

          “Uh-huh,” Ivan said.  “So that’s how it works for you?”

          “How what works?”

          “You read a book and don’t like it, and then you read it again?”

UNBEARAB.gifI can understand why someone – especially a female character – might not like Kundera’s book.  Yes, it depicts the way an out-of-control state can derail someone’s life… but so much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being depicts an entitled protagonist behaving rakishly toward women.  I happen to like this book, but only because Kundera, by revealing events out of sequence, includes a transcendentally beautiful description of where love comes from.

Midway through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a sad passage included several seemingly unimportant details:

Three years after moving to Paris, [Sabina] received a letter from Prague.  It was from Tomas [her former paramour]’s son.  Somehow or other he had found out about her and got hold of her address, and now he was writing to her as his father’s “closest friend.”  He informed her of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza [Tomas’s wife, whom he’s treated shabbily through most of the book].  For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver on a collective farm [because, despite his successful medical career, the new regime would not let him practice].  From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.  The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline.  Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp.  The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition.

We live.  We die.  This passage would seem a tragedy – an ill-maintained vehicle was the death of them (from the final pages: [Tereza] recalled a recent talk with the chairman of the collective farm.  He had told her that Tomas’s pickup was in miserable condition.  He said it as a joke, not a complaint, but she could tell he was concerned.  “Tomas knows the insides of the body better than the insides of an engine,” he said with a laugh.  He then confessed that he had made several visits to the authorities to request permission for Tomas to resume his medical practice, if only locally.  He had learned that the police would never grant it.).

And yet – a stray line, which I thought unimportant when I read this passage, suddenly blossoms into romance in the book’s final chapter: From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.

Four pages from the end:

          “Seeing you in that dress makes me want to dance,” the young man [whose dislocated shoulder Tomas had just reset] said to Tereza.  And turning to Tomas, he asked, “Would you let me dance with her?”

          “Let’s all go and dance,” said Tereza.

          “Would you come along?” the young man asked Tomas.

          “Where do you plan to go?” asked Tomas.

          The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

This moment – brought coincidentally about, because who could know that this young man would dislocate his shoulder?  That he would want to dance?  That he would know a nearby bar where they could dance and drink and spend the night? – is special.  Finally, after years of marriage, this is the beginning of Tomas and Teresa’s honesty with one another, their happiness and their love.  Which we, the readers, know because of that stray line earlier.  Kundera lets us watch the first night Tomas and Teresa go dancing together, after coyly embedding the knowledge that they would repeat this experience through the rest of their lives.

          “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

          “Surgery was your mission,” she said.

          “Missions are stupid, Tereza.  I have no mission.  No one has.  And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

So, yes, I liked The Unbearable Likeness of Being… but only for this moment, this sudden twist that Kundera enacts inside a reader’s brain.  Without this – considering only the plot, for instance, or the characters – the book wasn’t for me.

But I can understand why the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot considers lying.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being is very popular – especially at Harvard, where she was attending college.  During my sophomore year, someone published a list of most-purchased book titles at various collegiate bookstores.  The woman I was wooing felt extremely dejected after she saw this list.  She’d chosen to attend Northwestern instead of Harvard because the former had admitted her for a 7-year combined undergraduate & medical degree.  The list made her think she’d chosen wrong – that Harvard was the place for cultured human beings, and Northwestern appropriate only for over-earnest Midwestern strivers.

The most-sold book at Harvard’s bookstore?  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  At Northwestern’s?  An organic chemistry textbook.

s-l225.jpgI have to admit – I contributed to this problem.  I bought a copy of that organic chemistry textbook.  I took the class my freshman year, when I foolishly bought texts for every class I was taking and stumbled back to my dorm crestfallen after forking over $450.  I was so appalled that I resolved to never buy another textbook… which I stayed true to until I bought a text for the grad-level microeconomics series my junior year.

When I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’d borrowed it from the library.

In Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist one day decides to write an email to Ivan from Russian class.  This first email spawns a long correspondence: an electronic simulacrum of romance.

Batuman’s style resembles that of Tao Lin’s Taipei (which in turn resembles Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises).  We are drawn into a privileged world through the sheer accumulation of detail regarding the characters’ day-to-day lives.  In Lin’s and Hemingway’s novels, the characters take drugs and muck up their romantic lives – in Batuman’s, they skip class, teach the less fortunate, and muck up their romantic lives.

All brought on by what?  The sudden realization that a fifth class would be free.  When we look back, it becomes glaringly clear: such small decisions set our paths!