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16.12.14, Scheil, Babylon under Western Eyes

The Medieval Review

16.12.14, Scheil, Babylon under Western Eyes

In Babylon Under Western Eyes: A Study of Allusion and Myth, Andrew Scheil presents a wide-ranging literary analysis of the idea of Babylon, one of the fundamental archetypes of cultural and historical thought. Since antiquity, Babylon has played an astonishing variety of roles, usually helping to define what the West is not or else to criticize where Western leaders have gone wrong. Indeed such a prominent player in the symbolic imagination is Babylon that it is all but impossible to write anything like comprehensive account. Scheil, therefore, does not aim for an exhaustive, chronological presentation, but instead sketches a genealogy, a "partial and not exhaustive" (12) outline of a myth, with an emphasis on how it undergoes displacement, adaptation, and transformation according to different eras, authors, and audiences.

To compose this genealogy, Scheil divides his book into three overlapping parts. In the first, he examines Babylon as a political metaphor. It enters channels of Western memory and speculation through two main sources: Antiquity and the Bible. Classical writers remembered Babylon primarily for its grandeur, its awesome power, and its ultimate ruin. The Babylon of the Old Testament preserves and intensifies these themes. Particularly because of the story of Israel's Babylonian captivity, it became a symbol of tyranny. It also served as a symbol not just for political decay but for utter destruction, both because its king, Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed Jerusalem, and because so many of the Hebrew prophets looked forward to Babylon's eventual destruction. As an entity both historical and apocalyptic, Babylon thus offered lessons about the present world even as it pointed inexorably toward the ultimate destruction of all earthly order. Such was the image of Babylon that Augustine of Hippo inherited and used to shape his theological vision in The City of God and that his contemporary Orosius used in crafting his celebratory history of Rome and its Christianiziation, both discussed in chapter 2 of Scheil's book. The presentation of Augustine's and Orosius's distinct visions is refreshingly handled. Scheil avoids the usual historical simplification--that Orosius failed to understand Augustine's theology. Rather, whereas Augustine used Babylon as a way to comprehend the workings of salvation, Orosius used it as a way to address real-world problems of government. Augustine used it in opposition to Heaven; Orosius, in opposition to earthly order. Or as Scheil neatly frames the distinction, "For Augustine, it is difficult to speak of Babylon without Jerusalem; for Orosius, it is difficult to speak of Babylon without Rome" (63).

The remainder of chapter 2 and all of chapter 3 takes a reader on an increasingly varied and at times frenetic tour of other instances of Western engagement with the political Babylon, beginning with the Old English poem Daniel and the biblical exegeses of the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, leaping forward six centuries to the age of Dante and Petrarch (and the allegorical Babylonian captivity of the papacy), pausing at the writings of Protestant writers like Luther, Milton, Donne, and then concluding in the modern era with the Left Behind novels. The further removed one becomes from the sophisticated analyses of Augustine and Orosius, based on Scheil's examples and arguments, the more Babylon becomes simply half of a binary equation, not a window onto a flawed soul or polity but rather a synonym for sinfulness and evil.

In the book's second part, Scheil discusses Babylon as a "degenerate archetype," a source for Western legends about cursed races and a crucial element in the invention of modern systematic racism, too. It is an idea whose genealogy stretches back to the pre-Babylonian passages of the Bible. Specifically, the offspring of Cain became associated with sexual degeneracy. After Cain's female descendants slept with the more virtuous lineage of Seth, they gave birth to a race of giants, whose wickedness led God to smite the word with the Great Flood. This antediluvian evil manages to survive its apparent destruction, however, when Noah cursed his son Ham (or more precisely, in Genesis, Ham's son Canaan). Thus was a new execrable race of humanity born. Tradition held that Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel, was one of these descendants of Ham. A belief in the genetically transmitted sinfulness of Cain and Ham would, along with climate-based theories of race, serves as fundamental elements in premodern racial thought. In what is likely to be one of the book's more controversial arguments, this premodern thought then became displaced into a post-medieval context and functioned as a constitutive element of modern pseudoscientific racial discourse. Beginning with Walter Raleigh, Scheil suggests--convincingly, I think--that the Babylonian myth preconditioned European explorers to view newly discovered cultures as "leftover remnants of Babylon's cursed and scattered founders" (163). The book musters a variety of ideas, characters, and stories from modern culture--running from phrenology to the Morlocks of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine to the cannibal cavemen of the cult horror film The Descent--as examples of how this ancient racial discourse was transformed and adapted. It is a dazzling presentation of modern exotica, but toward the end of part 2, it does seem that a few of the branches of the genealogy have fallen a bit far from the Babylonian tree.

The book's third part, on Babylon as a "sublime topos," returns to Babylon as an essentially urban concept, with a particular emphasis on the theme of ruins. Chapter 6, aptly titled "City of Ruins," offers a fascinating juxtaposition between the popular and often stylish archaeological field reports from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about locations such as Nineveh and the works of pulp fiction that they helped to inspire, with a special emphasis on H. P. Lovecraft. The final chapter offers a similar cultural overview, beginning with medieval texts such as The Wonders of the East and the Alexander Romance and ending with the television series Babylon 5. The conclusions to this section, essentially placing Babylon firmly within the tradition of Western Orientalist discourse, are not as surprising or original as in the first two parts, but Scheil does succeed in striking a lovely balance between Babylon as a symbol of terror and of beauty.

In a book as sweeping as this one, a reader will inevitably have quibbles about what the author chose to discuss or to omit. In the latter category, in any examination of Babylon as a political symbol, it is an unfortunate oversight not to mention Otto of Freising, usually regarded as the source of the first fully realized theory of east-to-west Translatio imperii. But on the whole, in the medieval sections of the book, Scheil has done a tremendous job of winnowing a near-endless supply of material down to essential cultural grains. The modern branches of the Babylonian genealogy will delight some readers and vex others. (I will confess, not being an aficionado of Lovecraft, to being more or less ambivalent about those passages. But given the particular topic of Babylon, I would have loved for Scheil to focus his analytical gaze on the urban surrealist fantasy of China Miéville.) The historical Babylon also receives only a few disappointingly brief cameos. But these are small complaints to what is an ambitious, often challenging, and almost always entertaining and engaging monograph. Scheil's genealogical method and his emphasis on the phenomenon of cultural displacement highlights the pervasiveness of the Babylonian myth in the Western consciousness. It is essential reading as well for the growing number of medievalists looking for models of how to integrate pop culture, and not just "medievalisms," into their scholarship.