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Tuesday
Oct142014

The Tower in Rome

It is curious that some deride allegory, and even curiouser that others abuse it; and it is perhaps most curious that we need a word for allegory when we already have the word art. The modern mind, that cesspool of rebellion and relativism, has come to regard allegory as some kind of cheap trick, oftentimes imputing its prevalence to the necessity of making the masses believe without directly telling them what it is they should believe (which has much to do with how some parents educate their offspring). After cannons and pipes blaze in equal fury at the chicanery of medieval warlocks, we are handed the modern novel steeped in insincerity and nothing more than an allegory for the relativism that exculpates its authors from any kind of moral structure. You know the kind: everything hitherto has been a dream, or a lie, or a deception based on the lie found in a dream provoked by another sort of pipe. It is in this way that modern art finds an out when they really had no business at all being in. Allegory, when used elegantly, is one of the most radiant types of story because its revelation has overcome you in measured steps; it likely contains the recognitions and reversals that have been shown to compose good tragedy; and when sublimated by a master's hand can sometimes prove the corollary that "all art is an allegory of art itself" (I paraphrase to stymie the Googling hordes). First-rate works indeed add to the mystery of art's fascination, but old-fashioned, edifying allegories also yield the sensations we crave. Which brings us to the above tale in this collection.

You will have heard this story before, but not in this sequence or consummation. First we hear the legend of an ancient city's impregnable tower; then we hear of the death of the regent; finally another ruler lays claims to the throne with different motives as his engine. In this case our ruler was once "a man of lowly origin who had raised himself up from the dust to the highest station and had become a great lord"  although I suppose one never really stops being of lowly origin. Fairy tales and fables, which are some of the most tightly plotted narratives in all of literature, will inform the next stage. The new ruler understands that he cannot truly be considered the king of far and wide until he has deciphered the enigma that stands before him in metal and stone. The final preamble to the story's main events is very much an allegory of parental duties: the king asks his minions to swear to do his will without first telling them his wishes. They hesitate and then at length relent, all the while knowing his wish: to ingress the tower's "four gates, facing each of the four sides of the world." The oddities within the tower cannot be properly described here, but each one contains a clear parallel to older and more spiritual Judaic works that will be as familiar to the readers of The Tower of Rome as the creations of this writer or these siblings are to our ears. Since all despots end up resembling one another, our despot remains nameless throughout. And he does not tarry in threatening his court of advisers and stargazers to decrypt what he has witnessed within the tower walls. They are given a month to resolve the matter, at which point they will be replaced  although dismissals in those days usually meant more than simply an end to a career.   

And it is here that we find another familiar: the soothsayer and astrologist, as grey as the clouds he reads. It is he who steps forth after a month's investigation into the meaning of the monument has predictably yielded not one conclusive piece of evidence. The stargazer is taken aside by the emperor, who still lusts after the sacred knowledge to which he feels that he alone is entitled, and asked to speak of that which cannot be spoken and relate what must be deemed ineffable. What he confesses sub rosa to his liege will recall to mind another old tale:

The tower with the four gates was built by Emperor Nimrod, and not by human hands but with the power of enchantment. When Nimrod had subjugated the entire world and had become ruler over all creatures, he said in his heart, 'I am God.' Everyone knelt and bowed before him and brought sacrifices to him. Fearing that after death another would rule the earth and would destroy the altars that had been raised for him, and would blot out the name of Nimrod from human memory, he put the entire power and might of his universal rule into his iron crown ... [and] concealed the secret of the iron crown from the stars and spirits and hid it inside a rock. He recorded the secret on a tablet, and flying to the highest peak of the Mountains of Darkness, he hewed out a hole in a stone of the mountain and placed the tablet in it, and with enchantment rolled the heaviest stone in the world upon it.

You need not be a Biblical scholar to gain the substance of this passage, but like most works literary or otherwise, it most greatly benefits the subject experts. You may wonder about the actual location of the Mountains of Darkness, what the tablet could possibly say and in what language, and what on earth or beyond a king would be doing with something so Spartan as an iron crown that could easily be a shackle. Perhaps that's why instead of opening the gates, each emperor has hung new locks upon them.

http://www.w3.org/2004/Talks/0611-sb-wsswintro/bruegel-tower-of-babel-ruins-big.jpg

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