“Raphel mai amecche zabi almi”
– Dante, Inferno, XXXI, 67
Like its subject painting by Bruegel, Juan Benet’s The Construction of the Tower of Babel is deceptive: both nearness and distance modify the scene. His essay is written in an almost archaic manner which slowly betrays its inner strangeness by a number of ploys lifted from the fantastic and inserted as if they were technical observations from a trade journal. Detours and excursions branch off like the chambers of the Tower itself, following the various implications of its architects and its immortal Destroyer, while tracking its painter with a microscope secretly fixed on the present. After reading it, you get the impression that you’ve just passed the night with a slightly mad engineer in at the top of a suspension bridge.
Bruegel’s painting hangs in Vienna, the city of Harry Lime. The first thing you realize upon closer inspection is that the Tower is still being built, and not in ruins as one first supposed. This confusion is mainly due to the large chasm in the upper center of the tower which superficially resembles tumbledown masonry when seen from a distance. Moving away from the painting, we feel the jarring sense of a camera rack focus in the eye as the details become clearer: the king and his entourage standing off to the left corner going over the plans, the visible scaffold etc. Benet describes the Tower as if it were a real construction in order to show Bruegel’s intimate understanding of architectural and engineering principles (Benet was an engineer himself and wrote several of his best-known novels during long shifts at work; he later ran his own firm). This kind of endless breaking down of information gives a hint of near-parody – and it is by no means certain that it is not – as well as the madness of vertiginous detail found in late Middle Ages works such as Van Eyck’s Annunciation (1434-36). And like Robbe-Grillet and Duras, or the films of Straub or Ackerman, Benet works in the quiet of a conspiratorial obsession rather than in the morose fixations of the ‘personal’. Both conspiracy and confessional were also manifest in the author’s life: Benet’s father was assassinated by Spanish Republicans; his brother joined them, and Juan himself pissed off Franco enough to do a few days in jail in 1955.
But the first impression that the Tower is in ruin turns out to be correct as well, in an equally literal way. Benet notes that the cut-away view of the edifice is painted in visceral colors, closely resembling the anatomy pictures popular in the Flemish and North German painting of the time. The anthropomorphic tower is a corpse to be studied and Bruegel’s painting is suitably bright, sharp, almost totally without shadow. Even the vast amphitheater, partially visible in the open wound of the Tower, resembles a great university operating chamber (as the author notes, this is the first painting which truly takes a building as its primary subject, displacing the Ptolemaic human). Thus, the painting can be said to depict both the construction and the post-catastrophe of the Tower simultaneously. The Tower of Babel concerns time, as well as language and the fantasies of architecture.
The next thing Benet makes you see is banal: the Tower is not in any Biblical desert or on the ‘oriental’ banks of the Euphrates, but on a seaport which might be Antwerp or Genoa. The setting is a rather odd choice – even given the trend for Biblical scenes being shifted to contemporary Europe – but it does make sense if Bruegel meant the Tower to be taken as a symbol for commerce, and not for the disruption of languages or the perfection of a lost epoch. He painted it in 1563, at the dawn of the Capitalist era, when the language of credit, goods, and early joint-stock incorporation was the new lingua franca – far from Solomon’s ring, which merely translated the voices of demons and birds; far from King Nimrod. Time was being modified by powerful new banking and insurance systems, by new trade routes, technological innovations in shipping, increasing urbanization. Time is the obsession of a world of ever-quicker transactions, the analytical recognition of mortality in representation (Calvinism in both art and business), and the preoccupation of anatomists, humanists, astronomers and the scholars of the law.
For Europe, the serious study of language was still centuries away. The Bible was being contentiously translated into the vernacular by Luther and Tyndale in Bruegel’s era (the great earlier translation projects had occurred in the Islamic and Buddhist-Hindu worlds). The real Occidental passion for language waited until the 19th Century, when it accompanied the empires like an eccentric, babbling camp-follower. Computers are only the latest product of this binary colonial apparatus: ursprach (programming code), the one-zero sum (Clausewitz’s idea of total military victory), linear progressive time (which has been unable or unwilling to shake off the Final Judgment), syntax verses super-phonemes (Chomsky vs. the eugenicists), and so on. In order for the West to be truly interested in foreign tongues, it had to invade them. In order to invade them, it had to be interested in them. In order to be interested in them, it had to find itself somewhere within them. And nowhere was this more obvious than in the inchoate expressions of the colonized which pointed, however distorted and despicable their primeval form, toward the masters’ sophistication and birthright.
Benet notes that other paintings using the Tower as metaphor were absorbed with religious heresy and secret societies (Valckenborch, Athonisz, Kircher, and of course, Anonymous). Language was a Masonic tongue, a potential code against the Church and its organs of power, disguised in mute handshakes, used as a cipher against surveillance and betrayal. But according to Benet, Bruegel cares very little for this: he is interested in the material construction of the Tower (it was imaged and recreated ‘intact’ digitally, according to the ratios implicit in the details – a rather bizarre Borgesian act which Benet notes approvingly) Yet in the last pages of the essay, Benet comes to refute this theory. He adopts an almost Protestant tone when he calls the Reformation an idealized resistance against the Church’s linguistic hegemony. The collapse of Latin in the 16th Century, in the face of the vernacular translations of Scripture, was only the latest manifestation of the tower of Babel’s collapse (perhaps the end of computer language will be the next).The linguistic angle to the Babel story which was initially ignored – against the trend of centuries of interpretation – returns at the end of the book in a conspicuously straightforward reflection on the demise of the clerical/administrative language of the European past.
Or does is he really talking about Franco-Catholic power? Benet’s book was published in 1970, a particularly bad year for the Caudillo’s enemies[i]. Franco, a ruthless Spanish-language puritan, proscribed Catalan and other ‘dialects’ in order to genocide cultures he considered unruly. Reactionary Catholicism was established as the official state religion; Franco himself appointed its bishops and retained veto power down to the parish. It is this cyclic unfolding of ideas modified by twists, turns and active revisions, and perhaps by a necessary circumspection, which forms Juan Benet’s surgical method. He starts as if he were a docent in the night gallery and ends up returning to the paining, but in a modified position which slyly implies a secular prophecy. It also appears as if this process of thought takes place only the theater of the author’s mind, a common practice under regimes such as the Generalissimo’s. Heretical aside: State censorship produces excellent art and writing – most artists chose to ignore the graveyards.
Adrian Nathan West’s translation is admirably lucid and burrows around the austere cladding of Benet’s text with a perfectly on-key, poetic detachment. Another superb short essay is also included in this brief book, On the Necessity of Treason, which maliciously extends logic in order to identify the contradictions of orthodox power. Franco hovers again over Benet’s quietly revolutionary analysis of the strategy of tensions used by the State when it deals with national traitors – in this case, Lord Haw-Haw, AKA William Joyce, that odd Irish-Anglo-American Nazi propagandist executed in England after the war. Even when it kills the traitor, the state recognizes the contradictory forces it must marshal when it speaks of a ‘freedom’ implicit in both the individual will and the general rule of law. Here, it cements its complete authority:
“Far from reaching his goal, the traitor, upon failing, provokes a reinforcement of tribal bonds, and the state by his punishment, obtains a double benefit: the guarantee that its offer is the best available (i.e., the political system proclaimed by the state) and an extension of the credit ceded to it by its citizens. In this way, no matter how great the havoc he wrecks, the traitor is generally welcome within the order of the state.”
[i] It might be worth comparing Benet to his countryman – and fellow anti-fascist – Pere Portabella, especially his great film Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970), ostensibly a ‘documentary’ on the making of a B-grade Dracula flick but actually an essay on the artifice of Franco’s Spain, the nightmare of official narrative, and language made mute: http://grasshopperfilm.com/transmissions-portabella/