Mumford and Merton on "Babel"

Last October, we looked at the grit and grace of Mumford & Sons' stellar sophomore album Babel - but just this week they released a new video to accompany the title track. They take a sparse and minimalist approach here, rotating a lens steadily over a bleak black and white scene where the band plays their instruments and sings their song. (Aesthetically, that's a nice change in pace from most music videos.) But with a simple and subtle camera trick that increases as the video plays, the song's title and lyrics become the centerpiece, albeit in an unexpected way.

As I watched the video, I wondered about the story of the tower of Babel, and realized that I had never read much about it at all. A quick search revealed some interesting tidbits - for instance, the epigraph (and title) of CS Lewis' That Hideous Strength references a poem about the tower; and a fourth century Biblical commentator, St. Gregory of Nyssa, insisted that a plurality of languages existed before Babel, and that the story of the tower was primarily one of discord and disharmony. 

Most interesting of all, one writer made the tower the focal point of a short play - the 20th century jazz-aficionado-turned-Trappist-monk Thomas Merton.

Merton's play (which you can read in its entirety here starting on page 310) opens with a dialogue between a Thomas and Raphael - impartial observers of the building of Babylon's great tower:

Ought we, Raphael, to join
The builders of this city?
We can quickly learn
Their language and their ambition.

No, we must stand apart.
If we learn their language
We will no longer understand
What is being said.
If we imitate their zeal
We will lose all sense of what is to be done.

They are clear-minded men
Of one purpose.

No. They only appear
To know what they are building.
They think it is a tower
That will reach heaven.
They think they speak the same
Language, that they are of one
We shall discover that they are
Only of one voice. Many minds,
Many thoughts signifying nothing.
Many words, many plans
Without purpose. Divided hearts,
Weak hands. Hearts that will be
Closed to one another. Hands
Armed against one another.
There is no agreement
There can be no tower.

Raphael seems to be onto something; after some discussion between two builders about how fantastic the tower is, there are already hints of the tower's own destruction. The Captain of the builders notes that "when the tower is built, we shall have war...taste the excitement of war." Then, a chorus chants: "Grow, Babylon, grow, Great Babylon, touch the stars. What if the Lord should see you, now?" All of this hubris and self-adoration on the part of the builders, Raphael instructs Thomas, reveals their true motives, and spells disaster:

RAPHAEL: They suppose that if they build a high tower very quickly, they will be nearly as strong as God, Whom they imagine to be only a little stronger than themselves. And if the highest part of the tower is level with the lowest part of heaven, man and God will have to discuss everything on equal terms.

THOMAS: It is therefore a religious tower, and they are men of faith.

RAPHAEL: No, it is a tower of unbelief.

THOMAS: What have they failed to believe in?

RAPHAEL: Two things: First they do not believe in themselves, and because of this they do not believe in God. Because they do not believe in themselves or in God, they cannot believe in unity. Consequently they cannot be united. There-fore they cannot finish the tower which they imagine they are building.

THOMAS: Nevertheless they are very busy with whatever they think they are doing.

RAPHAEL: That is a pretense. Activity is their substitute for faith. Instead of believing in themselves, they seek to convince themselves, by their activity, that they exist. And their activity pretends to direct itself against God, in order that they may reassure themselves that He does not exist.

THOMAS: Why so?

RAPHAEL: Because if He does not exist, then they do not have to be troubled with the problem of their own existence either. For if they admit they exist they will have to love one another, and this they find insupportable.

THOMAS: But surely they love one another! Otherwise how could they unite in a common endeavor? Surely, they are united, and their union has brought them success.

RAPHAEL: No, they have only united in their common, though hidden, desire to fail.Their ambition is only the occasion for a failure they certainly seek. But they require that this failure come upon them, as it were, out of the stars. They want to blame their ruin on fate, and still have the secret satisfaction of ruining themselves.

THOMAS: Why should they do so much work in order to fail?

RAPHAEL: Their hearts seek disaster as a relief from the tedium of an unsatisfactory existence. Ruin will at least divide them from one another. They will be able to scatter, to run away, to put barricades against one another. Since they cannot stand the pretense of unity, they must seek the open avowal of their enmity.

The tower, then, is a tower of unbelief. They are trying to make themselves like God, but do not really believe in God or themselves. Instead, the tower is a "pretense" - a flurry activity geared toward a paroxysm of self-destruction, fueled by a pride that is, at bottom, really only self-loathing, enmity, and a "secret satisfaction" at ruin.

This is all very abstract, and clearly applies on a grander scale than simply the tower's builders - but Merton isn't finished. Soon, their Leader makes a strange declaration about words being the steel "instruments of war" meant to divide, and a desire for the "one word" that "strikes at the heart of creation, and dissolves it into its original nothingness." In short order, chaos ensues - winds blow, the tower nods, fear spreads, and finally, the tower falls. Thomas suggests that this is Babylon's end, but Raphael again corrects him. "No, it is Babylon's beginning!"

There is a second scene which is a kind of trial meant to determine who is guilty for the destruction of the tower and the "dishonor" of Babylon. A professor is called, who insists that "words create reality as fast as they are eaten by it, and they destroy reality as fast as they themselves come back to life." Words, then, are the key suspects! They call up three forms of language - Truth, Propaganda, and Falsehood.

First comes Truth, who lives "in things as they are, in minds that see things as they are, in wills that conform to things as they are." They accuse him of destroying the tower, and he tells it like it is: "You are your own enemies. You destroyed your own Tower." A philosopher (a postmodern one, we gather) jumps to Truth's defense, insisting that there is no Truth - Truth is not to blame because Truth does not exist.

Next comes Propaganda, who compares people to "zombies," and blames the destruction of the Tower on the following groups: "the religious warmongers, the clergy, the freemasons, the Pope, the millionaires, the Elders of Zion, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Jesuits, and the Legion of Mary." The Leader praises him, saying, "go forth and form the minds of the young." (Merton is being very subtle here.)

Next comes Falsehood, who proclaims:

The Tower has never been destroyed. Just as I am immortal, the Tower is indestructible. The Tower is a spiritual reality and so am I. The Tower is everywhere. What you call the fall of the Tower was only its beginning, its passage into a new, more active phase of existence. The Tower is not a building but an influence, a mentality, an invisible power. The Tower stands, and I am the King who lives on the summit of the Tower. And because I am everywhere, everywhere is the Tower of Babel.

The Leader just about kneels in adoration of Falsehood's obvious lies, calling it "divine and omnipresent Majesty." The chorus returns to its chant - "grow, Babylon, grow!" - and the last witness, Silence, is dismissed. "Useless!" the leader shouts. "Throw him out! Let silence be crucified!"

With Merton's short play in mind, the song and video for Mumford & Sons' "Babel" takes on fresh meaning. We watch the band members, each in his own world, and each literally divided against himself, wailing on their instruments, as Mumford sings:

Cause I know that time has numbered my days
And I'll go along with everything you say
But I'll ride home laughing, look at me now
The walls of my town, they come crumbling down...
Cause I'll know my weakness, know my voice
And I'll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
But I'll be born without a mask
Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride,
I stretched my arms into the sky
I cry Babel! Babel! Look at me now
Then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down
You ask where will we stand in the winds that will howl,
As all we see will slip into the cloud
So come down from your mountain and stand where we've been,
You know our breath is weak and our body thin
Press my nose up, to the glass around your heart
I should've known I was weaker from the start,
You'll build your walls and I will play my bloody part
To tear them down

Thomas Merton transforms the story of the tower of Babel into a universal. In his play we see not just one people in one place with one tower, but the entire messy edifice of human pride and selfishness since the fall of man: entire nations and peoples climbing high under a sham pretense of unity, love, and progress, but secretly prone to discord, vanity, and a frisson of pleasure from destruction; speaking eloquently about faith in humanity and in God, but really not believing in God, others, or even themselves at all; scorning truth, leveraging propaganda, and worshiping falsehoods; and building a tower to nowhere that has always, and will always, come crumbling down.

Mumford & Sons, on the other hand, transform the story into the most particular of settings: the human heart. In the video we see each person multiplying into various facets and attitudes, sometimes both present at once. Yet the story they sing is the same: every human heart has its Babel, made of walls and masks, a farce of greed and pride, that comes crumbling down; it makes the breath and body weak and thin, reducing the singer to silence and humility by some sacred, howling wind.

One gives us the universal, one the particular; but both might best be summed up by a line from Proverbs, a truth that is not only a well-attested historical, anthropological, and psychological fact, but also the first law of spiritual physics:

Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall.