- Babylon under Western Eyes: A Study of Allusion and Myth by Andrew Scheil
After reading Andrew Scheil’s Babylon under Western Eyes, there can be no doubt that mythic Babylon has withstood the test of time as an influential cultural reference with its roots in “the deepest past.” Readers will be surprised by the frequency and range of allusions covered in this substantial and elegant book. Previous studies have articulated the key roles that individual Biblical stories about Babylon played in the formation of enduring mythologies and ideologies: the “Tower of Babel” story is cited as a standard etiology for the beginnings of human discord as well as multilingualism, multiculturalism, and urbanism. The “Curse of Ham” has likewise played its role in discourses about race and empire and as justification for slavery and colonialism. Scheil’s book weaves together these strands and introduces new ones not yet fully considered. The overlapping genealogies of mythologies relating to Babylon comprise what Scheil refers to as “the Babylon matter”—a term that designates the growing and morphing aggregate of stories and interpretations that trail the Biblical Babylon. Scheil delivers on his promise to survey “both canonical and ‘fringe’ authors,” mix “high culture and low culture,” and move “across different media—film, visual arts, literature, to create many ‘vertiginous pairings’” (p. 14). In the process, these pairings challenge and disrupt standard teleologies associated with periodization.
The first part of the book, entitled “Babylon as Political Metaphor,” explores how Babylon came to serve as the quintessential paradigm for the rise and fall of cultures, nations, and cities from antiquity to the present day. In chapter 1, Scheil considers how the earliest classical sources (such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Strabo, Pliny, and Lucan) memorialized Babylon as “the original empire” (p. 27) and celebrated its immensity, opulence, and supreme urban and technological achievements. Old Testament authors complemented and expanded upon these topoi by turning Babylon into the paramount sign of human will in opposition to the Divine. Scheil deftly surveys the various Biblical accounts of Israel’s first national trauma associated with the Siege of Jerusalem (including the Destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE) and the resultant seventy-year Babylonian Captivity. Cumulatively, these accounts expand the “matter of Babylon” to include new emphasis on the mechanisms of “servitude and dissent, exile and restoration, polemic and prophecy” (p. 30). While there are precious few accounts of the actual Siege and Captivity in the Old Testament (a textual rupture that likely reflects the immensity of this national trauma), the “rhetorically baroque” (p. 29) metaphoric mode is pervasive. This category includes the elaborate prophecies of the Hebrew prophets (especially Jeremiah), lamentations and psalms (especially Psalm 136/7), and apocalyptic writings (Daniel). Scheil argues that the proleptic nature of prophecy and eschatology render Babylon an immanently adaptable political figure in the Bible. Thus, in the New Testament, the Babylonian Captivity serves as a type for the destruction of the Second Temple, just as the Fall of Babylon becomes an archetype for the fall of subsequent empires culminating in Rome (see Revelations with the figure of the whore of Babylon).
Chapter 2 turns to the political Babylon in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages in the era of Christianity. Scheil begins with Augustine’s monumental De civitate Dei, written just after the collapse of the Roman empire, which “adapts and transforms the incipient metaphoric and mimetic capacities of Babylon by making the city a trans-historical metaphor” (p. 54). Augustine does this by establishing Jerusalem and Babylon as avatars for his heavenly City of God and the earthly [End Page 263] City of Man, respectively. Like Babylon in the Bible, Augustine’s “Earthly City” is representative of tyranny and conquest, self-love, alienation from God, and excessive concern with terrestrial matters. Although Augustine’s schema was catalyzed by current events, his larger concern was to show how Babylon and Jerusalem might “refer metaphorically to two types of human communities, each defined by a...