By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benét

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By the Waters of Babylon Analysis

The appeal of Benet's 1937 world is that its message is stark and simple: technological civilization is superior to one that lives closer to the earth. Because of the many unquestioned assumptions Benet makes about what is valuable, his story teaches us more about the blind spots of a particular moment in time—the 1930s—than it does about the "universal" themes it is trying to transmit.

For this reason, the story is anachronistic. This means it reflects its own time period but seems outdated in our own. This is valuable because it gives us food for thought and reflection. Ironically, some of the very assumptions Benet makes are precisely what could destroy a technological society like our own, especially an arrogant blindness to our own weaknesses.

Benet's story rests on the simple assumption expressed above: technological civilization is unquestionably superior to indigenous culture. The youthful narrator looks with a wonder, awe, and unquestioned desire at the splendors of the Dead Places. He craves what that civilization had—hot and cold running water, beautiful, realistic paintings, great buildings, soft chairs, canned food—with the deepest admiration. He perceives all of this as vastly superior to his own culture.

This awe-struck admiration of technological culture can seem naive, if not embarrassingly cringe worthy, to the modern reader. It reflects what we might call a colonial mindset, the idea that native people around the world are inferior (we might think of Rudyard Kipling's poetry) and unadulteratedly eager to acquire what we have. It is not a two-way street: "our" culture is depicted as having all the advantages that any native would desire to possess at all costs and yet nothing to offer us back.

Today, a similar story would almost undoubtedly contain debate within the so-called "primitive" culture about the merits of changing to become like the "superior" culture. Would the indigenous culture really want to take on the characteristics of a civilization that destroyed itself? Would it wish to abandon its own, very different, values? How could it move forward with greater wisdom and without the hubris that leads to self-destruction?

These kinds of questions were raised very sharply after Benet's death, in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by World War II. "Civilization" was not looking so "civilized" after that: a continent in ruins, a holocaust, and the explosion of two nuclear bombs has to this day caused a great deal of soul searching that Benet's world was still largely blind to, even after the vast destruction of World War I. But there is every reason for us to bring that soul searching to our reading...

(The entire section is 658 words.)