H C T
Peter De Graeve
24 october 2009
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
And they said, "Come, 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."
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built.
And the LORD said, "Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do.
Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) is the mythical-religious expression of an old dream, that of the oneness of humankind. Yet it is also a nightmare that haunts—the same—hopelessly confused, scattered and divided humankind. Which of these two versions is the most close to reality: the dream or the nightmare? That question is hard to answer. A safe answer would be that there is “something real” about both dream and nightmare, as if they were the two sides of a coin. There is oneness and there is division. The world is one and the world is many. From this perspective, the core of the myth about the Tower of Babel consists of a truly philosophical issue: the problem of the oneness or manyness of our experiences.
There is a lot that is strange about this mythical Tower—not in the least the “mythicism” itself. Probably we no longer understand the controversy evoked in bygone days by the idea of a “tower that reaches unto heaven”. Today we live and
work in buildings that are doubtlessly many times higher than the Biblical model. It is no coincidence these are called “skyscrapers”. Almost routinely we construct “towers that reach unto heaven”. No one seems to bother. Not even the Lord.
The third Fall
The myth of the Tower of Babel is as it were the third version of the fall of humankind. It is the most credible version, and also the must human one—and therefore the most interesting one as well. (The fact itself that God needed three attempts to settle scores with humankind, is food for thought.)
The first reckoning is of course in the Garden of Eden. This is the story of the equally “mythical” Fall of Adam and Eve, a story in which the protagonists are: an apple, a reptile, a woman (Genesis 3). The second reckoning is the Flood. A further-reaching punishment, that destroys almost all humankind. Only Noah and his family are spared (Genesis 6-10). Then, right after the account of Noah’s descendants, follows the myth of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
It is as if God is torn by doubts about humankind. No less than three times he feels forced to destroy his work before he is really sure that it “was good”. It looks as if the Highest Artist—to reintroduce one of the more traditional theological concepts—embarks with more daring and conviction on the job of undoing his work than on the original job of creation. Had he planned things too hurriedly? Had divine providence not foreseen to do a perfect job? Or did God, once having started the job of creating, reluctantly had to experience what it means to be an artist—and what “nasty” consequences there can be? Are, in other words, Providence and creativity incompatible? A radically artistic analysis of the Biblical creation narrative still has to be written...
The third version of the Fall is the most interesting, precisely because in an unfathomably deep manner, it addresses these questions. To start with, there is an explicit longing among mythic, prehistoric humans: a longing for oneness. In the words of the early humans: “Come, 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." The city is a place of oneness, of living together, and the tower is the visible sign of this union. A recognizable landmark. The traditional function of the tower—belfry, church tower, minaret or today’s skyscrapers, which create the characteristic skyline at the horizon—was also present in the layout of the city of Babel. Among other things, it is this longing that God opposes. That is, of course, odd: God does not seem to long for the oneness of humankind. He does not want people to live together, he wants them divided among themselves. The division is effected by thwarting a second human longing—the longing to build, construct, create, compose. God descends from heaven as a sort of “critic”, as an “inspector”. He want to see for himself the work in progress of building the city and the tower, how people are coping. (In the famous painting by Breugel, it would be easy to view the King from the East who visits the construction site as (a double of) of God. It is as if the Lord is dissatisfied with or jealous of human creativity and on the spot decides to make things undone.
It could be argued that in the myth of the Tower of Babel the “moral” and the “artistic” God (i.e. God’s moral and artistic self-image) come in conflict with each other. A jealous God disapproves of human creativity. He is no longer furious at the evil in humankind—which he was in the first two stories about the Fall. Now he rages against the technical ingenuity of humankind, against people’s inventiveness and against the human longing to use technique and creation to achieve unity. All of these reasons seem “good”, i.e. morally acceptable. But in the third story God’s actions have taken an evil turn. In the myth of the Tower of Babel, the conflict between the moral and artistic God is so strong, that reconciliation between the two self-images seems no longer possible. The jealousy of the artistic God means the end—the fall—of divine goodness itself. God’s destruction is no longer based on a moral principle. God himself falls prey to evil. Is that also the reason why he ends the understanding between people (he takes away their “one language”). We could summarize the events thus: “People had one language and they agreed to build one city with one tower. I will destroy what unites them, to begin with the language.” (Isn’t it odd that in this story there is a sort of reversal of Saint John’s gospel: In the beginning was the destruction of the Word.”)
Reaching for Heaven
In the usual interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel, God reprimands humankind for its overconfidence. The myth, of course, also refers to the idea of hubris. Humankind must be punished because in its conceitedness it thought it could construct a tower that “reaches unto heaven”. God’s kingdom of heaven and the human reach for heaven are quite clearly opposed—there is a line, a heavenly line—a skyline—that divides the divine kingdom (the Kingdom of God) and what is within human range—what humans can reach for. But the hubris motif does not suffice to disentangle the myth. The human longing to become one in one specific location (the city)—which can be interpreted as a longing to “live in peace”—and the longing to make this place of oneness and peacefulness visible in a tangible symbol (the tower), i.e. through an artistic action, in a creation of “bricks and slime”, can be viewed as a reference to and an echo of the original oneness of the Garden of Eden. This first oneness and the first peace was spoilt by humankind. Humans were therefore expelled from the Garden by the moral God. The first punishment was repeated in the ruthless Flood God sent humankind, as people had resumed their life of sin. (A mimesis as it were of sin, which at the same time is the sin of mimesis; in this instance, too, the artistic history of the Bible still has to be written, or at least rewritten, copied once more...). As opposed to the original Fall, there is the story of Babel. In this instance expulsion and flood as it were coincide. Humankind is chased from the city of Babel, like they were chased from the Garden of Eden previously. They are then scattered over the earth, divided: humankind itself has become a flood. It floods the earth, as once the waves had done. This, too, is peculiar. Has God really managed to punish humankind? Or has made a great mistake with his scheme to punish people? For after Babel, humans have conquered the entire earth.
From this brief—all too superficial—intellectual exercise concerning the three versions of the Fall of humankind as related in the Old Testament, it can be deduced that the Tower of Babel was exceptionally significant with regard to the mythological-religious consciousness of humans. Concepts such as “creation”, “nature”, “garden”, “good”, “innocence” and “ethics” that belong to the first version of the Fall, are replaced by “art”, “culture”, “urbanism”, “architecture”, “language”, “transfer of knowledge” in the third, “Babylonian” version. In a certain sense, even the issue of globalization appears in this version, no matter how primitive its guise. The entire transfer is symbolized by the Tower. Only in and through (the image of) the Tower, humans have become “real humans”. Thanks to the Tower, humans have truly been separated from God—they have become distinct from God. Thanks to the Tower, Humankind has found/invented its own kingdom, its own realm: the realm of the human artistic range. Here, the human creation is distinct from the divine Creation. As we have mentioned earlier, in the end it is God who in the creative process is defeated by humankind. For the divine logic of creation and destruction, recreation and, once more, destruction, turns out to be all too human a labour. In the end, God has to pass when it comes the most human of all pursuits: art, handicraft, the urge to construct things, tinkering with things... In that sense the stories of the Fall—culminating in the climax of the Tower of Babel—tell us about God’s self-alienation, about His (first) incarnation in humankind...
Heaven, City, Tower. The original strength/tension of the early humans seems defined by this triangle—a tension that also seems to dominate the human skills (art, technique, creative urge). It is a tension between creation and destruction, which is at the origin of the earlier mentioned tension between oneness and division. In its turn the relation between creation and destruction is defined by the tension between slowness (the artistic process) and haste (destruction). Slowness has to do with the crooked path, zigzagging, strolling, deviation, i.e. of course a deviation from the perfect, “divine” control (as Rony Delrue would call it). Haste, on the contrary, invariably represents the straight road, the vanishing point, the impact of a bolt of lightening. The primordial artist—a concept which I use in this instance as synonymous with mythical, prehistorical humankind—has to do with the oneness of Heaven, City and Tower. Like the people from Babel, the primordial artist longs for a oneness of heaven and earth. This can never be or represent the oneness—it is a oneness. Of course this reminds us of Heidegger’s idea of “an” origin of art: heaven and earth, gods and mortals. Yet this oneness is not effected, or at least not directly, as Heidegger supposed, in the temple. The oneness had already been achieved in the Tower. Oneness creates itself and (re)discovers its origin in the Tower, in the image or the idea of the Tower, in the plan of a tower. Primordial art dreams of the oneness of Heaven, City and Tower. A secret formula of the primordial human dream: H C T.
Heaven itself condemns the plan, and thus also the human longing for oneness. It does so with a haste and straightness that betray a certain anxiety when it comes to the confrontation with all things earthly and human. (Couldn’t this destructive panic be likened to the restlessness that comes over the artist when faced with questions about the autonomy of the work of art—or at least about its autonomous meaning?) Anyway, it is obvious that since the time of the mythical Tower, the oneness of Heaven and Earth has been devised on Earth/departing from the Earth and no longer from Heaven. It is equally obvious that since then the earthly artistic vision has prevailed over the heavenly one. No matter how often in times to come, during the entire history of art and philosophy, the heavenly vision will try to prevail over the earthly one—in the writings of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Ficino, Lomazzo, Zuccari, Bellori—the earthly creativity will overrun the heavenly straightness. Time and again, the crooked earthly art will cause the vertical heavenly theory to stray from the straight path.
Then there is the oeuvre of the artist Ronny Delrue. Delrue’s oeuvre, too, attests to a return to—or should we say: return from?—the “primordial” instinct of this earthly, primordially human, and thus, in a certain sense, “paleohypnotic” art. Delrue’s artistic musings about a tower that is immersed in the landscape, providing in its turn the landscape with a beacon, a symbol, causing the same landscape to become (once more) a real land/scape—these archaic musings are anchored in the topicality of the ancient myth of Babel. In this tower, the Tower re-dreams itself. In this dream Heaven already feels itself at one with the earth, departing from the earthly, i.e. from the crooked, the meandering, the staggering, the uncertain, that which is beyond control. The tower in the landscape is emblematic of the human artistic activity. It leaves behind a trail creativity in the skies, in heaven. It constructs the city and the concept of humankind upwardly. (“Humankind” is a concept that is born in and with the city. The tower creates heaven. In that sense the mythical-religious consciousness reaches its terminus: earth creates heaven. This endpoint is not the theological conclusion of an age-old debate between either Church Fathers and the sons of the world, or between the Church as Mother and us, mortals, daughters of the earth. It is neither the zenith nor the nadir of the “onto-theology”. Rather, it is the point at which the mythic-religious logic that dominates the Biblical stories turns into artistic freedom. At the same time, Delrue’s tower surrounds itself and its virtual city with a ring of landscape features: the hole of the stone quarry or clay pit, or, who knows, of a prehistoric site. A Paleoperformance. The hole will fill with water. But it could as well be filled with earth or fire. Or air, for we read on one of the drawings: “Air tower”! In the latter case, it is obvious that the tower fills the air, not the other way round. It is the Earth that fills and fulfils Heaven, makes it one, creates,...
The tower is the symbol of this union and fulfilment—but it is a material symbol, a realization, a materialization, not the materialization. There is therefore nothing utopian about this tower. For the tower has a location. It “takes place”. And it has a place in two senses. Ithas a place. And it has a place. The act of designing and building a tower (and a city) roots humans in earthly reality, guides them away from the utopia of heavenly destination, or at least away from the human orientation towards something “yonder”, away from the human obsession with the realms of Heaven. Through the tower, people get a sense of the real. Their real selves, their vital relationship. In the tower the utopian collapses under its own weight—a “lightweight” or “weight of air”. On the other hand, there is nothing “heterotopian” about the tower. The tower, which only has a place because it has place, never exists in a relationship with all other imaginable places. It exists in the oneness of Heaven and Earth and only there. Only in the oneness realized and represented there, does the tower exist as place, “does it take place”. Only there the action of taking place is possible, only there “‘something” can take place. There – Something – Place. Earth – Heaven – Tower. (Heavenly city. Urban tower. Earthly heaven.) It is only the tower that is the primordial, the early artistic symbol of “taking placing”—of the Taking Place of humankind on earth. Each tower is a oneness. And the earth can harbour plenty of oneness. The scattering is therefore no punishment, but a way to organize or create oneness. The act of being scattered was therefore from the start an altogether human idea, which was actually stolen by God (like in ancient times, in a different mythic universe, there was a story of how humans stole the fire from heaven.) The act of being scattered and of swarming out, the erratic search for a place, the creation of a place through the founding of a city and the construction of a tower—all of these are examples of an essentially human creativity.
We can’t therefore argue that in Delrue’s oeuvre “a tower has found its place.” Actually, we have to say that in his oeuvre “the tower takes place”. In that sense, every artistic oeuvre is also a city. Neither a “solar city” nor a “Civitas Dei”, but a city of people, and as such a heaven of people . The artistic oeuvre is like an earth that is a people’s heaven. The oeuvre is the place where the primordial human being—the artist— has arrived. Even though this arrival is never definite. It is always temporary and the artist is never a settler—he or she is always a wanderer. (In fact, he or she is not even a “nomad”, not yet a nomad.) The oeuvre is the place where the artist finds temporary accommodation, it is his or her accidental shelter that protects against the straight heavenly line, against the heavenly ray, the falling star. The tower as a primordial image of art, of humankind. Humankind itself as body and tower. Heaven City Tower: Humankind.
Body and tower ? That is precisely what the Spanish philosopher Juan Benet claims, referring to this other tower that is famous in the history of art, Pieter Breugel’s Tower of Babel. “The analogy between the tower and the still warm body is particularly striking as an art concept. I have, for that matter, no intention to introduce a symbol or emblem, nor do I want to resort to a more or less secret code or a familiar sign. We could see the tower as an allegory of a decaying society. Let us namely assume that we could really consider society as a finite whole, composed of people that interrelate in a certain manner. If that were the case, it would be very appropriate to represent it as a body that is made of more or less the same matter as humans—namely flesh—and having the same form of the first thing made by humans when they come together to compose a society: the building.” Though the first “civilized” work of art, i.e. the building, the tower, is not the first work of art as such—as far as archeological data provide insight in this matter, that must have been the cave painting—this sort of reasoning seems to break new ground for a possible “reversal of all architectural values”...
As the title of an earlier exhibition and the film with the same title indicated, Delrue himself mentions as the raison d’être of this tower the fact that “it touches the earth and the sky” (Touching the Earth and the Sky). To make the film, the artist used four towers, which in the film merge into a single tower. The viewer, unaware of the multiplicity of the imagery, imagines himself or herself to be a guest (or a prisoner, an exile?) in this one tower. The viewer is propelled upwards, to an immeasurable height, floating in an undefinable space. The viewer ends up as a cloud walker. For the tower touches both heaven and earth. It is close to heaven, and it is close to earth. In the tower, the earthly gets near the heavenly, and heaven gets near the earth. The work of art precisely shows how they touch. The tower is the interface between heaven and earth, the intermediate formpar excellence and thus: world. It is no coincidence that when Hamlet utters these famous words to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, he is on the platform of a watchtower. The work of art shows us the surface where things between heaven and earth touch. The work of art is therefore the city of images, of examples. Stadt der Bildung (City of Culture), we could say in the language of the Bauhaus—a stimulating pleonasm: art as “the city of building”, the place where the act of building is built. In this respect, art functions as the touchstone of heaven and earth. For the art of his tower, for his “presentation” of that which is between heaven and earth, for building his building, the artist Ronny Delrue, too, only needed to some “bricks and slime”, as we read in Genesis 11: 4. A bit of clay, piled up, that’s all there is between heaven and earth...
Under the apparent crudeness and frailty of this tower hides the hardest and highest dream of humankind, as a mythic treasure in a derelict donjon—the oldest and richest vision. It is the dream to realize the oneness of heaven and earth in art, between human being and human being. The dream of art is art. And the dream of humankind is humankind. “Touch art and humankind”, could be the first command of the artistic reinterpretation of the mythic-religious consciousness. “Touch art and humankind.” Or: “Touch finally art and humankind.”
Between humankind and art, too, there are more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy.