Today’s offering is my take on the iconic Just-So story of the building of the Tower of Babel. And, okay, I changed the ending a bit. In the Biblical original, the tower actually did get built, partly (according to Josephus) as a place of refuge in case God forgot Himself and sent down another murderous deluge. Which would constitute a gross underestimate of God’s capacity for new and exciting ways to make the human race miserable. Anyway, God saw the tower as dangerous because it showed humans they could accomplish great things if they worked together towards common goals, and He cleverly divided and conquered them by making their speech mutually unintelligible.
According to fundamentalists, this was the origin of linguistic diversity, though historical linguists beg to differ. In my story, the humans never get as far as building the tower, and they achieve mutual unintelligibility all on their own.
TOWER OF BABBLE
Having disposed of all minor items on the agenda, the Urban Development Committee of the Council of Patriarchs prepared to turn its attention to the main business of the day. Askael the Scribe went to the door of the tent to call in the consultants, and held the flap open for them as they trooped in with their arms full of tablets, parchments and clay models. Then he squatted down again amid his own pile of tablets and consulted the minutes of the previous meeting.
“At the last meeting,” he intoned, “it was proposed to examine at the following meeting, that is to say, this meeting, the shortlisted designs for the Tower Scheme, as selected by the Design Assessment Subcommittee. Proposal carried by a vote of four to none, six abstentions.”
“Thank you, Askael,” said Father Peleg, who at a mere two hundred and twenty years of age was the eldest non-senile Patriarch present, and was therefore chairing the proceedings. “Let’s have a look at those designs, then. All in favour?”
A chorus of mumbles, and two snores.
“Carried, with two abstentions,” said Father Peleg. “Write that down, Askael. And wake up Father Shem and Father Arphaxad.”
At Askael’s signal, a clay model was carried forward and deposited in front of the row of Patriarchs. It was square in plan, and rather more austere than any of them had expected: a plain steep-sided pyramid with no openings at all. The Patriarchs stared at it with some puzzlement.
“Interesting,” said Father Peleg.
“I don’t like it much, though,” said Father Reu. “It’s not exactly inspiring. Whose design is it?”
The scribe consulted his tablets. “Bashkol and Sons. Bashkol, are you here?”
Bashkol was wild-bearded and flashing of eye, and he moved forward truculently to a defensive position beside his pyramid. He glared at the tablet of notes in his hand.
“This,” he began fiercely, “is the shape of the future – clean dignified lines, minimalist and stark, thoroughly postdiluvian, uncluttered by exterior details that would diminish the strong visual impact. On the technical side, our studies show that this design is maximally stable for structures on a monumental scale, given that structures under stress tend naturally to collapse towards this basic form. The – “
“Just a minute,” said Father Peleg. “I didn’t catch all that, but I know one thing – we want a structure that will stand, not one that will collapse.”
“That’s not what I said,” Bashkol protested. “I meant it’s a very stable structural form – you build this one, Patriarch, and it will last for thousands of years.”
“Well,” said Father Peleg, “I’ll grant you it would last, but I ask myself – do we want something like that cluttering up the landscape for thousands of years?”
Father Reu coughed for attention. “I don’t think it looks tall enough.”
“True,” said Father Peleg, “we’re looking to build a tower that will reach as high as the heavens, and that one looks too – too – “
“Stubby,” said Father Reu.
“Stubby,” agreed Father Peleg.
“What was that,” interrupted Father Arphaxad tremulously, “about the whole thing collapsing?”
“He said it would collapse like that after a few thousand years,” Father Eber said helpfully.
“No, that’s not what I – “
“I thought it was something about a stable,” said Father Salah.
“Oh, are we building a stable?” quavered Father Shem. “That’s nice.”
Bashkol, glowering, snatched up his model and cradled it in front of him. “I should have known,” he said bitterly, “that this was too innovative for you lot. I’ll take my ideas elsewhere, thank you very much, where they might be better appreciated.” He stomped out.
“Inno-what?” repeated Father Peleg wonderingly. “Inno-what? Askael?”
The scribe glanced up from his minutes. “Not sure, Patriarch. Something to do with inns, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Ah, yes,” said Father Peleg. He scratched his beard. “What was that rubbish about stables, then? Well, we don’t want an inn, either. Please record that, Askael.”
Askael hesitated for a moment, then wrote, Design for inn/stable complex, tendered by Bashkol and Sons, withdrawn after discussion. Then he shuffled through the box that held his correspondence files.
“The other shortlisted design,” he said, “is by Amzezel and Brethren, Creative Consultants. Is Amzezel present?”
“Here, my fathers!”
A vision of sorts swept forward, clad in flashy raiment. He set down in front of the Patriarchs a clay model that, no doubt about it, was beautiful. Starting from a broad circular base, it rose as tier upon tier of frothing arches, light and lacy, spiralling upwards and culminating in a gallery like an open flower.
“Nice,” said Father Peleg.
Amzezel included the entire Urban Development Committee in a graceful wave of his arm, ending with a gesture like the hand of God coming down from the clouds, to rest with approval upon his confection of arches.
“Here, Patriarchs,” he said grandly, “is a tower worthy of touching the heavens.”
The Patriarchs nodded their long white beards with open appreciation. “Go on,” said Father Peleg.
Amzezel spread his hands. “But doesn’t it speak for itself, my fathers? Doesn’t it sing? Isn’t it a harmony, a duet, a melodious dialogue between Earth and Heaven, mediated by the children of clay and fire from which you will build it?”
There was a moment of silence.
“I thought we were going to use bricks,” whispered Father Eber to Father Peleg. Amzezel heard that.
“Yes, my fathers, bricks, that is of course what I was referring to, but the bricks are symbolic of ourselves, for what are we but the children of clay and fire?”
“Eh?” said Father Reu.
“And note also the symbolism of the dominant motif, Patriarchs, the rich substratum of metaphor underlying the simple circle – the great wheel of the sky, the majestic sweep of the horizon, the medallion cycle of seasons, the apple, the disc of the moon, the navel – “
“Oh, come on,” said Father Reu, “I don’t see how apples and belly buttons come into this.”
“As symbols, Patriarch.”
“Oh, right, symbols. I don’t know what he’s on about,” Father Reu grumbled.
Smiling, Amzezel opened his mouth to elucidate, but Father Peleg interrupted. “One moment, my son. I think Almor from the Works Department has something to say.”
Almor the Elamite had been waving his hand frantically for attention for some time. Now he strode to the front of the tent and frowned down at Amzezel’s beautiful clay model. “What about all them arches?” he said.
“Yes,” said Amzezel dreamily, “the arches. We’re especially excited about the arches. Ten thousand open mouths extolling the greatness of Creation, derived from the repertoire of the primitive vernacular, the cave mouth, the primeval wellspring, the wide-swelling womb…”
“Leaving all that aside,” said Almor, “I’d like to know if you plan to corbel all them arches, or what?”
“Eh?” said Amzezel.
“What are you saying, Almor?” said Father Peleg, leaning forward.
“Patriarch, I’m saying we haven’t got the technology to build all them arches and still stay within budget. Corbelling’s cheapest, but it won’t give you that nice smooth parabolic shape. Reinforced lintels might do the job, but we’d have to get ’em specially prefabricated, and that’ll cost you a lot of extra shekels right there. Stone’s no good, too dense and heavy, you’re talking about a hell of a dead load by halfway up the tower even if you use brick for the main structure, and anyway masons don’t come cheap these days.”
“If I understand you correctly,” said Father Peleg after a pause, “you’re saying that this design would cost more than we hope to spend. Is that what you’re saying?”
“More or less, Patriarch – though I can see other headaches as well, with the batter ratio and the subsoil settlement parameters, and the damping dynamics will be a nightmare, especially…” Almor stopped short, and his eyes grew distant. He whipped a large potsherd out of a fold of his robe and spent a few moments scribbling calculations on it with a stick of charcoal taken from behind his ear. Then he shook his head. “As I thought,” he said, “that cantilevered bit at the top is going to be a bugger.”
“Troglodyte,” sniffed Amzezel.
“Shall we return,” said Father Peleg dazedly, “to the question of finance?”
“Yes,” said Father Reu, “good idea, I understood that part. Where’s Elaz?” Father Reu was also looking dazed. He leaned over again, this time to waken Father Shem and Father Eber.
Elaz, the chief accountant attached to the Urban Development Committee, moved forward with a grim face. “With all respect, Patriarchs, I would require an itemized estimate from my colleague in the Works Department before I could even begin to calculate the probable deficit in capital funds.”
All eyes turned to Almor the Elamite, who shrugged and said, “I need to go over Amzezel’s specs before I can make an estimate.”
Amzezel looked offended. “I am an artist,” he said loftily, “Specks mean nothing to me.”
“Ha. You don’t even know what they are,” said Almor.
Amzezel elevated his nose and turned away, sweeping his cloak up over his shoulder.
This silence was long, tense and baffled.
“As I understand it,” ventured Father Jobab, the youngest of the Patriarchs, “we need to raise more shekels if we want to use Amzezel’s design, but we don’t know how many.”
“Good, Jobab, good, now we’re getting somewhere,” said Father Peleg.
A voice came from the back of the tent. “Patriarchs, if I may just say a few words?”
Father Peleg inclined his ear towards Askael the Scribe, who whispered, “That’s Shophar the Reuite, in charge of Public Relations.”
Shophar came forward confidently at Father Peleg’s nod. “You have a problem here, gentlemen, and I believe I’m the man to help you. Let’s just throw this one on the altar and see if it burns.”
Askael hesitated and wrote, Shophar the Reuite proposes burnt offering. He looked up again without much hope.
Shophar strode back and forth, waving his hands. “Hear me out, gentlemen. The problem is cash flow – but that’s no problem really, all we have to do is make the Tower Scheme pay for itself. How, you ask me? Well, first off, we privatize the whole project, float the stock on the open market – “
“You mean, like a cattle barge?” asked Father Reu.
“No, not exactly like a cattle barge,” said Shophar, thrown off balance.
The scribe sighed, his stylus poised. Those Patriarchs who were awake exchanged confused glances, but by then Shophar had recovered.
“Anyway, then we rent out space in the Tower’s lowermost two levels to accommodate a covered market – “
“You said an open market,” protested Father Peleg.
“ – and we turn the gallery at the top into a restaurant,” finished Shophar in triumph.
Everybody seemed to understand that, judging by the shocked silence. Then a chorus of outrage broke out. Askael caught what words he could among the babble of angry voices.
“…live load factors are already impossible…”
“…defiling the purity of the symbolism…”
“…itemized estimate of the outlet’s running costs…”
“…compression stress fractures…”
The Patriarchs sat troubled at the head of the tent, as more and more of the consultants got drawn into the debate, and the debate became louder and hotter, escalating by degrees into something that looked remarkably like a riot. Several of the older Patriarchs half-woke, or at least shifted in their sleep. Askael, in despair, threw down his stylus and covered his ears.
After a while, Father Peleg beckoned to Askael and all those Patriarchs who were conscious. They brought their heads closer to his.
“Remind me, Reu. Why did we want to build this tower in the first place?”
“To touch the heavens,” replied Father Reu.
“Why did we want to do that?”
“I can’t remember. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Well,” said Father Peleg, as he watched some fine earnest punches being thrown near the back of the tent, “I have grave doubts about it now. And I can’t understand what these idiots are saying.”
“They can’t understand each other, either,” said Father Reu. “You’d think they were speaking different languages.”
They shook their heads as the fisticuffs in the rear corner spread through the roiling mob of consultants. The first rumbles of a thunderstorm broke out overhead and reverberated through the thick woollen walls of the tent. The disputants only raised their voices higher.
“Well, this is just silly,” said Father Peleg at last. “I’m ready to cancel the whole damn Tower Scheme. What do you say?”
Several voices said “aye.” Father Peleg glanced around the rest of the committee, counting heads. “Carried by six votes to none, with four abstentions. Write that down, Askael.”
It was futile to try restoring order, or even to adjourn the meeting formally. Askael’s voice was not strong enough. Above them, the thunder rumbled and rolled.
“Sounds to me,” said Father Peleg to Father Reu, “as if God’s getting a good belly laugh out of this.”
“We might as well go home,” said Father Reu.
Grimly, dodging the tablets and torn parchments and bits of broken clay model that were now being hurled about the tent, the younger Patriarchs roused their sleeping colleagues and led them out, taking special care with Father Shem, who for some reason got very excited when it rained.