Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's Dark Moment of Optimism

By the Waters of Babylon
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Stephen Vincent Benét also wrote a post-apocalyptic short story, "By the Waters of Babylon (1937)," which I excerpt here, though I add a spoiler alert, for the two paragraphs below are the story's conclusion, in which a son tells his father what he has learned from his journey into manhood and priesthood:
I told and he listened. After that, I wished to tell all the people but he showed me otherwise. He said, "Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places." He was right - it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

Nevertheless, we make a beginning. it is not for the metal alone we go to the Dead Places now - there are the books and the writings. They are hard to learn. And the magic tools are broken - but we can look at them and wonder. At least, we make a beginning. And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods - the place newyork - not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others - the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.
The narrator has earlier explained that fire from the sky and a poisonous mist had destroyed the 'ancients' and their world. Much time has passed, and only a priestly class keeps some knowledge alive. The narrator, a young priest, tells of disobeying the law not to go east, but his discoveries convinced him that men must rebuild. His father, who listens to the tale, cautions him about revealing too much too soon, and the son sees the wisdom in his father's words. Note the subtle reference to the Tree of Knowledge in the words of the son: "in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast."

Oddly enough, even this dark story offers an example of Benét's 'Americanism.' The optimism that men can rebuild civilization is spoken by an 'American' . . . or, anyway, by a descendant of Americans. The title itself - "By the Waters of Babylon" (although a re-titling by Benét) - reminds the reader of the biblical line that follows, "we sat down and wept, for we remembered Zion," and just as Zion was rebuilt in the Old Testament, the New Zion known as "America" - the Shining City on a Hill, the Light unto the Nations - would be rebuilt.

Even in his darkest vision, Benét's "can-do optimism" is so very American.

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