Testimony, témoignage, martyrion 2: Babel

Part 2 of a series. Part one is here.

Communication towers… Radio towers on Mount Bromo by Matthew Klein. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A letter written to the bishop of Rome in 381 explains why human beings speak different languages. In the beginning, says the letter, all human beings spoke Hebrew and this was the language of creation, the language that Adam and Eve spoke and the original tongue in which things were named. Through this common language, the letter says, human beings were able to organise themselves so that they could build the tower at Babel. In so doing, they caused offence to God who scattered human beings across the earth and rent the fabric of human language.

Like other writers from Late Antiquity, this author was attuned to the complex ways in which language shapes human experience of the world. Ordered language showed that one understood one’s place in the complex structure of Roman society, which itself was an coherent image of the cosmic order of the universe. The tower constituted an offence (offensa) against God and the transgression of humanity’s allotted place in the cosmic order. This transgression was punished through the disordering of human language. For this letter writer, language is both the means by which humans communicate and the source of their alienation from each other. So begins the story of human diversity.

In 1958 there was a ten-day conference at Cérisy to review the influence of Arnold Toynbee on the writing of history. Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History was tremendously popular in the 1950s and 1960s. This work analysed the development of a number of different civilisations, tracing their common patterns of growth and collapse. Coherent and repeating patterns could be traced in the seemingly disordered abundance of human life. Presided over by Raymond Aron, the attendees at this conference included Toynbee himself as well as other grandees. The themes of the conference were decadence, the future of the West, civilisation and religion, and so on. Debate was fierce.

I plan to get around to dealing with this conference in a bit more detail, but a note caught my eye recently. One of the delegates at the conference was Henri Marrou, who writes the following reflection in his journal:

Two days at Cérisy with Toynbee, Aron: I am more and more walled in by my timidity, my deafness grows, my incapacity to understand and to speak languages. I learn nothing more, I am content with the vague feeling of having my basic position approved.

There is a symmetry in this note. Marrou’s shyness, his timidité, is eased in the approval he finds in others, however vague. I’m reading Eve Sedgwick on shame at the moment and thinking about the nature of shame as something experienced in how others react to you. There is a shame here, revealed in the very vagueness of Marrou’s desire for approval and in the suspension of learning. Shame emerges as human communication is interrupted and refused.

When I read this note from Marrou I remembered the letter on Babel and how late ancient people understood the constitution of the human self as a social process conducted through language. Marrou wrote extensively on Augustine, and it was Augustine’s facility with language that he returned to again and again. De Magistro is cited particularly often, with its long discussion of the nature of communication, the human capacity to learn from others, and the underlying coherence of humanity with God. In late ancient society the correct response to an offence – an interruption in the social order – is to shame the offender. In this context, tearing human language apart is God’s appropriate response and humanity’s shame.

For our letter writer, Jerome, there would therefore always be something shameful about crossing linguistic boundaries. For Marrou, shame came not from the abundant diversity  after Babel, but from the collapse of communication in the face of the other.

Or maybe I’ve got this back to front. Perhaps the feeling Marrou expresses in the above note is more than anxiety about failing hearing; if it was, for example, a single occurrence of a general shame that struck Marrou around language and its failures. If that were the case then his constant return to De Magistro, his consistent framing of his activism in linguistic terms (as a speaking up, shouting, crying out), even the notes that others make about his particularly good qualities as a teacher, all of these would be “productions of meaning and being, in relation to the affect shame”, as Sedgwick puts it. This shame around language would then be the origin of the performance of coherence and academic integrity that was so much a part of Marrou’s writing and his life.


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