The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World was divided into two parts of approximately equal length, “The Myth of Paradise” and “The Myth of Babel.” The first concentrated on the discoveries of the explorers, beginning with Columbus and continuing on through Raleigh. It was Stillman’s contention that the first men to visit America believed they had accidentally found paradise, a second Garden of Eden. In the narrative of his third voyage, for example, Columbus wrote: “For I believe that the earthly Paradise lies here, which no one can enter except by God’s leave.” As for the people of this land, Peter Martyr would write as early as 1505: “They seem to live in that golden world of which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently, without enforcement of laws, without quarrelling, judges, or libels, content only to satisfy nature.” Or, as the ever-present Montaigne would write more than half a century later: “In my opinion, what we actually see in these nations not only surpasses all the pictures which the poets have drawn of the Golden Age, and all their inventions representing the then happy state of mankind, but also the conception and desire of philosophy itself.” From the very beginning, according to Stillman, the discovery of the New World was the quickening impulse of utopian thought, the spark that gave hope to the perfectibility of human life-from Thomas More’s book of 1516 to Gerónimo de Mendieta’s prophecy, some years later, that America would become an ideal theocratic state, a veritable City of God.
There was, however, an opposite point of view. If some saw the Indians as living in prelapsarian innocence, there were others who judged them to be savage beasts, devils in the form of men. The discovery of cannibals in the Caribbean did nothing to assuage this opinion. The Spaniards used it as a justification to exploit the natives mercilessly for their own mercantile ends. For if you do not consider the man before you to be human, there are few restraints of conscience on your behaviour towards him. It was not until 1537, with the papal bull of Paul III, that the Indians were declared to be true men possessing souls. The debate nevertheless went on for several hundred years, culminating on the one hand in the “noble savage” of Locke and Rousseau – which laid the theoretical foundations of democracy in an independent America-and, on the other hand, in the campaign to exterminate the Indians, in the undying belief that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
The second part of the book began with a new examination of the fall. Relying heavily on Milton and his account in Paradise Lost – as representing the orthodox Puritan position – Stillman claimed that it was only after the fall that human life as we know it came into being. For if there was no evil in the Garden, neither was there any good. As Milton himself put it in the Areopagitica, “It was out of the rind of one apple tasted that good and evil leapt forth into the world, like two twins cleaving together.” Stillman’s gloss on this sentence was exceedingly thorough. Alert to the possibility of puns and wordplay throughout, he showed how the word “taste” was actually a reference to the Latin word “sapere,” which means both “to taste” and “to know” and therefore contains a subliminal reference to the tree of knowledge: the source of the apple whose taste brought forth knowledge into the world, which is to say, good and evil. Stillman also dwelled on the paradox of the word “cleave,” which means both “to join together” and “to break apart,” thus embodying two equal and opposite significations, which in turn embodies a view of language that Stillman found to be present in all of Milton’s work. In Paradise Lost, for example, each key word has two meanings-one before the fall and one after the fall. To illustrate his point, Stillman isolated several of those words – sinister, serpentine, delicious – and showed how their prelapsarian use was free of moral connotations, whereas their use after the fall was shaded, ambiguous, informed by a knowledge of evil. Adam’s one task in the Garden had been to invent language, to give each creature and thing its name. In that state of innocence, his tongue had gone straight to the quick of the world. His words had not been merely appended to the things he saw, they had revealed their essences, had literally brought them to life. A thing and its name were interchangeable. After the fall, this was no longer true. Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God. The story of the Garden, therefore, records not only the fall of man, but the fall of language.
Later in the Book of Genesis there is another story about language. According to Stillman, the Tower of Babel episode was an exact recapitulation of what happened in the Garden-only expanded, made general in its significance for all mankind. The story takes on special meaning when its placement in the book is considered: chapter eleven of Genesis, verses one through nine. This is the very last incident of prehistory in the Bible. After that, the Old Testament is exclusively a chronicle of the Hebrews. In other words, the Tower of Babel stands as the last image before the true beginning of the world.
Stillman’s commentaries went on for many pages. He began with a historical survey of the various exegetical traditions concerning the story, elaborated on the numerous misreadings that had grown up around it, and ended with a lengthy catalogue of legends from the Haggadah (a compendium of rabbinical interpretations not connected with legal matters). It was generally accepted, wrote Stillman, that the Tower had been built in the year 1996 after the creation, a scant 340 years after the Flood, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” God’s punishment, came as a response to this desire, which contradicted a command that had appeared earlier in Genesis: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.” By destroying the Tower, therefore, God condemned man to obey this injunction. Another reading, however, saw the Tower as a challenge against God. Nimrod, the first ruler of all the world, was designated as the Tower’s architect: Babel was to be a shrine that symbolized the universality of his power. This was the Promethean view of the story, and it hinged on the phrases “whose top may reach unto heaven” and “let us make a name.” The building of the Tower became the obsessive, overriding passion of mankind, more important finally than life itself Bricks became more precious than people. Women laborers did not even stop to give birth to their children; they secured the newborn in their aprons and went right on working. Apparently, there were three different groups involved in the construction: those who wanted to dwell in heaven, those who wanted to wage war against God, and those who wanted to worship idols. At the same time, they were united in their efforts – “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” – and the latent power of a united mankind outraged God. “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” This speech is a conscious echo of the words God spoke on expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden: “Behold, the man is become one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever – Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden…” Still another reading held that the story was intended merely as a way of explaining the diversity of peoples and languages. For if all men were descended from Noah and his sons, how was it possible to account for the vast differences among cultures? Another, similar reading contended that the story was an explanation of the existence of paganism and idolatry – for until this story all men are presented, as being monotheistic in their beliefs. As for the Tower itself, legend had it that one third of the structure sank into the ground, one third was destroyed by fire, and one third was left standing. God attacked it in two ways in order to convince man that the destruction was a divine punishment and not the result of chance. Still, the part left standing was so high that a palm tree seen from the top of it appeared no larger than a grasshopper. It was also said that a person could walk for three days in the shadow of the Tower without ever leaving it. Finally – and Stillman dwelled upon this at great length – whoever looked upon the ruins of the Tower was believed to forget everything he knew.