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  • Heritage CareFrom the Tower of Babel to the Ivory Tower
  • David Lowenthal (bio)

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Figure 1.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Tower of Babel. Brueghel’s famous depiction of the Tower of Babel during construction, 1563. Oil painting. (Corbis)

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All the earth had the same language and the same words. Each said to his neighbors, “let us build a city and make a name for ourselves.” YHWH said, “Look, it is one people, and one language for all of them. Let us go down and confuse their speech there, so that each will not understand the language of his neighbor.”

—Babel Recension1

Globalization is an enduring utopian ideal. But it is in immemorial conflict with heritage and identity. Hence ecumenical hopes are perennially dashed. We long to return to the God-given Edenic unity of the earliest days, when “the whole earth was of one language, and of one tongue.” What shattered this unity after the Flood was, in essence, a hunger for heritage, the desire to forge an identity that would immortalize the memory of human accomplishments. The Tower of Babel elevated human pride to heaven itself, “to make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” incoherent and forgotten (Genesis 11.1, 4).

Babylon’s memorialist counterparts today are the potentates and plutocrats whose names and deeds are inscribed on countless public edifices and sites of remembrance. But like the impious Babylonians who vied with divine creation, modern quests for immortality founder against the reality of merely transient renown. “The iniquity of oblivion,” warned Sir Thomas Browne, “deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.”2 Far from being eternal, fame is closely calibrated, as donor Leon Levy learned when promised that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art would preserve his name on the new Greek and Roman Court “in perpetuity.” “How long is that?” he asked director Philippe de Montebello. “For you, fifty years.” Levy’s $20 million upped the temporal ante to seventy-five years.3

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16.18). Just as an angry God scattered men abroad and left them incommunicable, so time effaces the most perdurable memorial identities. Shelley’s Ozymandias (1817) limned the sorry remnants of Rameses’ imperial hubris:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, [End Page 131] And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command Tell that the sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The ruins of the Tower of Babel similarly attested the dispersal that sundered tribe from tribe, both in space and in language. Mankind was condemned to a babbling confusion that bred lasting internecine misunderstanding and strife. Each tongue’s speakers spawned discordant distinctive identities out of half-remembered, half-invented legends. And these separate identities then hardened and reified into factional and divisive heritages.

The Genesis story reflects certain prehistoric actualities. Periodic Paleolithic and Neolithic migratory waves out of Africa to the ends of the habitable globe sundered any original Ur-linguistic unity. Communication among far-flung hunter-gatherer bands dwindled more and more over time. Reinforced by physical segregation, the confusion of tongues gave rise to manifold incommensurate and often hostile local, tribal, and national cultures. To ensure cohesion and solidarity, each group crafted its own exceptionalist narrative of origins, history, and destiny—a heritage, like their language, necessarily opaque to outsiders. When men on the move came into contact, ruthless competition for land, for goods, and for women exacerbated differences between “us” and “them.” Insider identity, defined by opposition to alien others, was certified by collective tribal and national memories, first through oral tradition...


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