We sat down and wept by the waters Of Babel, and thought of the day When our foe, in the hue of his slaughters, Made Salem’s high places his prey; And ye, oh her desolate daughters! Were scattered all weeping away. "By The Rivers of Babylon, We Sat Down and Wept"George Gordon, Lord Byron
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one song of ZionPsalm 137, KJV
I can remember the first time I saw the original Planet of the Apes movie with Charlton Heston. The final scene where he found the Statue of Liberty crumpled in the sand always stayed with me. Not long after that, I was introduced to a short story in my literature textbook called “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benet, which seems to be a precursor of sorts.
In this short story, a boy named John comes of age and discovers a ruined New York City—a place his people call the Place of the Gods. Only he finds that the “gods” were human beings and that fire and reigned down from the sky and destroyed them and their civilization.
This short story was a precursor that was 31 years earlier than the Planet of the Apes and a good eight years before the first nuclear test in the world.
When I decided on dystopic fiction for August, therefore, I almost immediately knew I would cover this short story. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre in its own right, strictly speaking, but much of the post-apocalyptic fiction of the 20th century has gone hand-in-hand with dystopic fiction.
Only, I find post-apocalyptic fiction slightly more hopeful.
The Great Burning and the Place of the Gods
To Carthage, then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
The Waste LandT. S. Eliot
John comes from a tribe he refers to as the Hill People. These differ from the Forest People because the Forest People do not have the same technology as the Hill people do. He says that women of the Hill People can spin wool, for instance, and there is more plentiful food.
Society has devolved in John’s time. Humans no longer live in civilizations, but have become tribal once more. They fear iron and only priests can touch it. They think iron is poisonous to anyone who is not a priest. According to their legends, everything ended with “the Great Burning when the fire fell out of the sky.”
John takes his coming-of-age journey and does what his tribe forbids them to do: he goes east into the Place of the Gods and crosses the Great River. He discovers New York City in ruins—the bridges, towers, and landmarks he describes are unmistakable in that regard. For instance, he described Grand Central Station as a great temple in the middle of the city.
While he’s there, he has a vision where he sees what happened:
Stephen Vincent Benet
Then I saw their fate come upon them, and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked the streets of their city. I have been in fights with the Forest People—I have seen men die. But this was not like that. When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned.“By the Waters of Babylon”
These are references to weapons used in World War I—mustard gas in particular. Nuclear power, remember, did not exist yet. But it is eerily similar, isn’t it? John even says that the poison was still in the ground for many years afterward. Much in the same way nuclear disasters poison the ground.
He takes the knowledge home to the Hill People and vows that they will rebuild.
Benet’s Literary Influences
By the waters of Lemen I sat down and wept…
The Waste LandT. S. Eliot
Clear, placid Leman! thy contrasted lake,
With the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing
Which warns me, with its stillness to forsake
Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring
Childe Harold’s PilgrimageGeorge Gordon, Lord Byron
Benet’s title “By the Waters of Babylon” can have several literary references, depending on where you look. The most common association is Psalm 137—which was written during the Jewish captivity in Babylon. But Byron was inspired by that psalm too. As was T. S. Eliot. All three contribute to the dystopic theme.
Psalm 137 refers to the fall of Jerusalem when the Jews were captured and carried off to Babylon. Solomon’s Temple fell, and they practically wiped the tiny Kingdom of Israel off the map. Babylonian exile, therefore, is the type of exile where not only society is conquered but destroyed and displaced. It isn’t just exile from home, it’s an exile from a home that no longer exists.
This is not unlike Aeneas’ wanderings in the Roman epic, but it’s a concept that didn’t really take shape until Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Bryon was socially exiled from England for his many indiscretions, and in his wanderings, he saw a Europe that was largely displaced from the Napoleonic Wars.
Likewise, T. S. Eliot’s fevered verses in The Waste Land reflect another kind of exile—a lost generation who had seen horrors and couldn’t face the new world that those horrors had left behind. Eliot’s reference to the Psalm blends with a reference to his nervous breakdown next to Lake Leman in Switzerland. A lake Byron had also visited in his exile.
These associations come together in Benet’s short story. John discovers the truth about human history when he goes to the Place of the Gods and discovers that the gods were men. He too stopped by waters and contemplated his fate. But unlike the Jews in the psalm or like Byron and Eliot by Lake Leman, John isn’t aware of his exile until after he’s completed his journey.
Exile and Dystopia
For John in Benet’s story, exile wasn’t even something he knew existed. He knew he had to go on his journey and follow the signs which led him to the Place of the Gods. From there, he knew he was the one to bring back the old learning and help rebuild what was lost. He recognized that the way things were was not the way they should be.
Benet, of course, gives us somewhat of a happy ending. The exile is about to end. John is going to help people learn and love exploration again. And his father, the old priest, is behind his decision on that. There is no totalitarian government to overthrow. There’s just the recognition that they can return to the Place of the Gods and rebuild.
The way they lived ensured survival, but it was tribal. It wasn’t a free society. It was a dystopia. A beneficent one from the few details Benet gives us, but a dystopia nonetheless.
Which brings us to the question in the title: is exile a type of dystopia?
I think that largely depends on your point of view. Personally, I think dystopian societies—tyrannies—are a type of exile. It’s an exile from what makes civilized and free societies work and we have thousands of years of political theory to support this same hypothesis from countless different societies.
And a society where people cannot make their own choices free from intimidation or threats is not one anyone wants to live in. Ukraine isn’t fighting a war because they want to be less free. They are fighting a war because they remember all too well what happened the last time another power controlled them. Genocide.
Dystopian societies are a type of exile just by their very existence. Because they exile people from basic human rights. In the West, we now have centuries of theory to back up what makes up basic human rights: the right to live, the right to make your own decisions, and the right to pursue what makes your life worth living. Dystopian societies rob people of all of that.
Leaving Babylon’s Waters
Benet actually gives us a snapshot of how to leave Babylon’s waters and it goes back to the point I made in the first post on dystopic fiction this month. The individual has to stand up and be counted once more, but they must do so for the right reasons and in the right way.
John, of course, does so within his own moral and cultural bounds—which is something I think we shouldn’t overlook lightly. When someone is genuine and holds not only to their principles but their beliefs, then they are much more likely to succeed.
John thinks he will meet his death, but he doesn’t run from it or hide behind the rules. He goes bravely to meet whatever awaits him and not so he can somehow glorify himself.
This is important. Because ending a dystopia carries with it the risk of just establishing another one. Which means the quality of the individual matters.
Individuality for the sake of individuality isn’t going to help anything or anyone. We have enough of that today as it is, and it hasn’t helped anything or anyone. The attitude of being different for its own sake never has.
Individuals must have honor, courage, commitment, and a moral compass. They stand out because of their quality—not because of their manufactured uniqueness.
John doesn’t just go to the Place of the Gods because he wants to. It’s not some blind desire he follows. He follows his beliefs and convictions to their natural end without malice, without envy, and without trying to rob anyone else of their choice.
And that brings us to next week…
The “first” dystopian novel is simply entitled We. It’s a society of a hive mind, clear glass houses, and where even walking down the street is done in time and synchronization with everyone else.
This was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satire on Leninist Russia—written from behind the Iron Curtain. Interestingly enough, a Ukrainian, Gregory Zilboorg, did the first translation into English. That same translation is available on Project Gutenberg. Of course, Penguin Classics has an up-to-date translation available, and it’s the one I will be using.
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