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The Tower of Babel: Shadow of the Interdisicplinary

Now the whole earth had one language and few words.
And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the
land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them throughly.”
And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city which the sons of men had built.
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
“Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
— Genesis 11:1-7

“Human nature, essentially changeable, unstable as the dust, can endure no restraint; if it binds itself it soon begins to tear madly at its bonds, until it rends everything asunder, the wall, the bonds, and its very self.”
— Franz Kafka,
“The Great Wall and the Tower of Babel”

What walls have we built within the threshold of Janus’ house? In our last editorial, we explored the notion of the interdisciplinary as a crossing of boundaries. What are these boundaries, these walls we have built? And what, we asked, may be the cost of shifting the foundation upon which these walls are built? The interdisciplinary project has its shadow-side.

The Genesis story of the Tower of Babel can offer us a lesson. The tower was built on pride; its construction was an effort to build a structure which could touch heaven — to be as gods. Looking upward in a grasping-reaching toward transcendence, the men who built the tower failed to heed the ground upon which they stood — the very ground which made their tower possible. The cost of such arrogance is alienation. The community who built the tower is scattered over the earth, and venturing out into the strange, they find themselves homeless. Reaching solely for the sky, community is left behind. The face-to-face encounter with the other happens on the ground beneath the sky within the horizon of a human place — within a Neighborhood in which we speak a common language. Looking up only toward the sky, we lose site of the fourfold movement of earth and sky, gods and mortals, and seek transcendence at the cost of becoming homeless.

The human place is a soulful place — a place consisting of multiplicity, richness, and ambiguity. The horizontality of communitas is exemplified in the face-to-face encounter. Thus, a more human interdisciplinary forum is a place in which each discipline may encounter one another face-to-face within the same neighborhood. When we insist upon one language, one understanding, we build our tower of Babel. Such a monstrous enterprise lacks humility, for the hegemony of the One Voice drowns out the Saying of the many. With the ego-centric attempt to construct a metaphysical language, we erect a tower which attempts to leave behind the messy, earthy, paradoxical nature of encounter.

When we look to Janus, the two-headed god, we find he speaks to the encounter of the face-to-face which arises from the same neighborhood. In this sense, Janus Head aims not for transcendence — that is, not the erection of the phallic Tower of Babel — but rather toward a deeper dwelling within the human place. Thinking from such a human place, we encounter Language anew. We discover our ground as the abyss from which Language erupts and from which each discipline finds its own Saying.

Janus is also the god of new beginnings, and as such he also contains the possibility for verdancy and youthful ambition. Janus’ love for the new betrays an element of Puer. Puer is captivated by the heights. He stands below and looks in awe at the rising Tower of Babel. The rising tower fuels his ambition for flight toward the sun. Icarus is the shadow-aspect of Puer, and the Tower of Babel is an Icarian project. Icarus is the adolescent in us who strains to break from the hearth to venture into the unknown. Yet, too hastily journeying forth into the blinding hot sun, Icarus loses the capacity for dwelling. His flight implies a love affair with death, and, like the rising Tower of Babel, Icarus’ transcendent departure toward the sky must inevitably end with a tragic fall.

Must Janus with his new beginnings suffer such a tragedy? Perhaps not. Janus’ two-faced countenance allows him both a forward and a backward glance. Janus journeys outward away from the hearth, yet he does not forget his origin. In the case of Janus, the journey is not linear; it is cyclical. Janus travels into the strange and alien territory outside of the human place of the polis, but he does so in the service of the return. Without his youthful enthusiasm, Janus would not have the courage to leave the hearth, and, failing to take the journey, he would stagnate, suffocated by his attachment to the familiar and taken-for-granted. Venturing forth, Janus is estranged but not stranded. In his estrange-ment, his dwelling place -- his origin -- becomes uncanny. He returns with boons for his community, and his dwelling place is enriched by the strange treasures he bears along with him on the festive return home. The journey outward is not in the service of an ethereal escape from the human realm; rather, Janus’ adventure into the strange is in the service of a transformation of the ground of his dwelling.

In “Theorizing, Journeying, Dwelling,” Bernd Jager writes:

The journey cut off from the sphere of dwelling becomes aimless wandering, it deteriorates into mere distraction or even chaos or fugue. The journey requires a place of origin as the very background against which the figures of a new world can emerge...To be without origin, to be homeless is to be blind. On the other hand, the sphere of dwelling cannot maintain its vitality without the renewal made possible by the path. A community without outlook atrophies, becomes decadent and incestuous. Incest is primarily the refusal of the path; it therefore is a refusal of the future and a suicidal attempt to live entirely in the past. The sphere of dwelling, insofar as it is not moribund is interpenetrated by journeying (249).

Janus is a theorist in the original Greek sense of theoria, which, as Jager shows, includes the idea of a journey. From the sixth century B.C., The Theognis depicts the theoretician as the official representative of the polis who visits the Delphian oracle. Here, the theorist is described “as a recipient of the divine message and as a faithful transmitter of that message back to the people” (236). The poet, then, is a theoretician in the truest, most original sense of the word.

The poet is the dwelling-venturer who discovers the Divine not by rising above materiality, but rather by a deepening of experience. Allen Tate makes the distinction between the angelic imagination and the symbolic imagination. While the angelic imagination “tries to disintegrate or to circumvent the image in the illusory pursuit of essence,” the symbolic imagination “conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the natural to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity” (427). The symbolic imagination begins within the human place, and through the soul-making of de-literalizing the image, the poet works to show the traces of the Divine in the concrete description of the mundane. The poet who imagines symbolically cultivates the dwelling-place of the human, and she does not mistake herself for a god. Instead, she discovers the gods in the round dance of the fourfold — Earth, Sky, Gods, Mortals — as this movement is gathered by things. With the imaginative description of the thing, the poet both witnesses and participates in the dance, and she finds herself within a deeper, richer, more human place. The angelic imagination, however, is the mode of understanding that fueled the foolish Babel project. Tate writes:

When human beings undertake this ambitious program, divine love becomes so rarefied that it loses its human paradigm, and is dissolved in the worship of intellectual power, the surrogate of divinity that worships itself. It professes to know nature as essence at the same time that it has become alienated from nature in the rejection of its material forms (429).

Thus, if we are to avoid the catastrophes of the Babel project, we must cultivate our human place with the symbolic rather than the angelic mind. The angelic mind is an Icarian mind which, leaving behind the (h)earth, finds itself homeless.

Janus’ journey is not Icarian flight, nor is it a vertical transcendence. Janus’ venture is a horizontal outward movement beyond the threshold of the familiar for the sake of the eventual homecoming. Yet, for the dwelling-venturer, home is no longer the merely familiar. Recall Marlowe in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Returning home from his excursion into the dark and savage recesses of the Congo, his London home becomes alien. He resents the pedestrians who walk the streets, content with their naive absorption in the merely familiar when he has seen “the horror, the horror...” At home, Marlowe is estranged. With the transformation of the ground of one’s dwelling, the ground is no longer mere ground, but reveals its nature as abyss, as unground. At home, Marlowe is no longer at-home.

The journey outward is not linear, but cyclical. Yet such an eternal re-currence is not mere eternal recurrent of the same, but rather, as Gilles Deleuze interprets Nietzsche, the eternal recurrence of the new. Dorothy’s return from Oz is not a return to the same Kansas. She finds herself in a new Kansas, perhaps as strange as the Oz she left behind. Her home has been irrevocably changed, its reality shifted, by the knowledge she has gained during her adventure.

“Human nature, essentially changeable, unstable as the dust, can endure no restraint,” writes Kafka (42). The Puer spirit “tears madly at the bonds,” and embarks on his becoming in his confrontation with the strange. This is a period of chaos, the necessary turning away from the sphere of dwelling in the direction of change. Celtic legend speaks of the journey to the sacred mountain of Cader Idris. The traveler there may discover one of three different fates: She may die, she may go mad, or she may become a poet-visionary. She cannot stay the same. Upon her trek to Cader Idris, the venturer may denounce the comforts of home and seek the purity of the clear light of the sun which shines brightest at the peak. This is the seeking of a purity which leaves behind the carnal body — in short, this is death to the world. Or the traveler may too eagerly scale her way to the top of the mountain and lose site of home. For her, there is no returning. Lost in the strange and alien, the venturer becomes mad. Finally, there is the venturer who does not seek the pure essence of the peak, but rather goes forth upon the mountain so that she may bring back boons for her people in the valley below. She carefully tracks her steps, marking her path, and, once beholding the spectacle of the mysterious Cader Idris, she returns home with poetic visions which renew the soul of her community. The two-faced Janus, both looking forward and facing backward, is like the poet-visionary who keeps track of the origins from whence she came, and, doing so, her return is assured. In the spirit of Janus, Janus Head seeks to be the dwelling- venturer, who travels outward and returns with the treasures of the alien such that the ground of our dwelling may be transformed and ever-renewed.

It is imperative that Janus Head continue to renew and invigorate — with the most critical eye — the meaning and ground of our mission. This newest issue of Janus Head is truly a milestone. This issue marks the completion of the third in the trilogy of Volume I. Over the past year, we have had the extreme pleasure of taking a vision and making it a reality. The Janus Head project continues to take on a life of its own, continually unfolding into what is becoming its own identity. As editors, we play the role of nursemaid, nurturing and caring for this entity which, on its own terms, is maturing into what at times we are almost entirely unable to predict. While we have provided this journal with the home and the care necessary to mature into a vibrant being, we have taken great pains also to allow the journal its own, let us say, individuation process, whereby it can explore pathways which may open to places previously unexplored. Of course, it always returns to the hearth, to its creators, to be refueled and sent off once again into the world. And, like proud parents, we delight in the creative and imaginative play in which it engages itself when we set it free from our desire to willfully navigate its movements. With the support and backing we have given this journal, we hope that it will return home, again and again, with the gifts of ventures into strange lands.

In the beginning, we decided the editorial would be the space wherein we could articulate our hopes and dreams for our developing project. We also envisioned the editorial as a place in which Janus Head could find a reflective moment and continue to seek its own meaning and ground in the very process of its unfolding. This reflective moment must also be a critical moment, and, keeping to this promise, we have explored and will continue to explore the potential shadows of our project. After all, Janus Head is not simply one, unified entity, but rather an entity which is comprised of many caring hands which together give form to what might be called a body — a body which is also a community working together on a common project with a common vision and purpose. While such vision and purpose shares the ground out of that which the Janus Head project blossoms, this very ground includes the possibility of a constant and persistent reflection upon and re-articulation of that ground as unground. In this sense, we can justifiably understand the Janus Head project as a movement. Upon such a shifting, transformative ground, no Tower of Babel could ever stand.

In a way, the interdisciplinary project can be seen as a remedy working to re-establish an understanding among voices that was lost in the divine punishment at Babel. But perhaps the “understanding” was never lost; humans did not comprehend in the first place that their desire to reach the heavens, to be as a god, was hubris. The punishment, then, not only arrested their intention, but it proved corrective as well. God struck down the outrageous brick falsity and forged strange tongues in the people. Consequently, instead of building the tower to heaven, they began, through the gift of their different languages, to build different cultures, replete with various arts, traditions, ways of understanding. In this other felix culpa, the realization of humanity’s variety and difference, and the knowledge that language is always a movement towards other, becomes apparent and communion can be created. The interdisciplinary study, a possible culmination of the Babel story, engages different voices, takes note of the framework from which they speak, and cherishes their resonance. The danger, of course, is the age-old temptation to declare this path as the only one, to believe that we have unveiled mystery, to stop seeking. When our language becomes absolute, when it works to define and ceases to explore, its terms begin to lose their coherence, and words forget meaning; we cannot understand one another. Allen Tate, in his essay “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” illustrates well the responsibility for language with which we are entrusted:

… the true province of the man of letters is nothing less (as it is nothing more) than culture itself. The state is the mere operation of society, but culture is the way society lives, the material medium through which men receive the one lost truth which perpetually must be recovered: the truth of what Jacques Maritain calls the “supra-temporal destiny” of man. It is the duty of the man of letters to supervise the culture of language, to which the rest of culture is subordinate, and to warn us when our language is ceasing to forward the ends proper to man. The end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time (16).

Communion and understanding are achieved through imagination and love. The two work hand in hand and there is a wonderful paradox presented in the manifestation of their work. We love: there is a compassion, a recognition of something similar in the beloved. The act of imagination implies always a seeking, rather than a defining; a continual testimony of the otherness of the other. Much of the poetry in this issue touches upon these themes. The art of poetry does not categorize or offer the total answer, but draws connections, creates metaphors and symbol (the physical pointing to a greater meaning) and engages us to think. These poems are an invitation, and in the inviting we are welcomed in to the possibilities offered us by language.

The poems of Hayan Charara and Carol V. Davis chronicle an intimate imagining of the other’s soul. Davis offers us the cultural and academic dance within the space existing between the Russian teacher and American student in “The Violin Teacher Comes for a Lesson.” Charara’s two poems, “Thinking American” and “Immigration and Naturalization,” are reflections on a society whose motions and words are mechanical and cannot include the other’s story, cannot engender love. They are precisely the warning to a language/culture “ceasing to forward the ends proper to man.” Each author’s poems conjure the worlds that exist in our relations with another; they illustrate awareness and appreciation of the diverse languages and ideas we speak. Therein these multi-plicities, the common ground-- the communion-- can be sought.

James Hoggard’s poems, understood as illustrations of Edward Hopper’s paintings, give us a glimpse into the many layers of experience art grants to us. Allen Tate states, in the same essay, “works of literature, from the short lyric to the long epic, are the recurrent discovery of the human communion as experience, in a definite place and at a definite time” (11). In the multi-faceted layers of experience of Hoggard’s poems, reality is expounded upon; we are treated to a number of minds, voices-- the voices of the painter, his subjects, the author, his speakers, and our own-- engaged in an embellished dialogue.

In a similar vein, David Vest extends to the reader a phenomenological ethos at the end of his poem, “Becoming One of the Dead”:

Eye, balking in your sleep, make this your study.
The while a winding fly tests new terrain
See something useful. Gather prosody

Stressing all that makes your faint concern
Seem not less than his. Echo the strain.
Under heaven let this vision burn.

Meaning here is realized in the motions of a seemingly insignificant fly, but the point is well driven; we are asked to imagine beyond the boundaries of our egos, and hold what we find with respect.

In our responsibility to language, there is a cyclical motion, a double guardianship. We must maintain the integrity of language, perceive its modes; it, in turn, sustains, transforms, houses us. Peter Junker’s poem leaves us with the lines, “I had to/ break camp soon and leave to live a new life/ watched by my words coming down Pine Mountain.” Language echoes our being; it completes us. In The Ritual Process, Victor Turner notes the spiritual rites of tribal peoples, "...speech is not merely communication, but also power and wisdom. The wisdom (mana) that is imparted in sacred liminality is not just an aggregation of words and sentences; it has ontological value, it refashions the very being of the neophyte" (103). Our words "watch" us; they are the powerful vehicles through which we cross thresholds, and through which, with care, we can imagine, we can love.

Without care and love, imagination can all too easily shift into the mode of the angelic mind, and, in turn, language can become alienating. Mary Anne Franks’ essay, “Remote Locutions” is a cautionary tale which warns of the angelic aspirations of transcendence in Cyberspace. As Franks makes clear, the utopian dream of Cyberspace hinges on “the freeing of the concept of humanity from corporeality.” The angelic mind in Cyberspace threatens to alienate us further from the concrete; that is, the cyber-utopian project mistakes angelic “essence” for the concrete and loses sight of the ground of its own possibility. Not surprisingly, the language of the internet chat rooms, Franks discovers, consists of a strange double-speak by which the “real” is confounded by the “unreal” as the multiplying mediation of media becomes mistaken for immediacy. Such knots will not be easy to untie once they are well-established.

While the utopian vision of the internet serves as a modern equivalent to the Tower of Babel, the Puer root of this vision runs deep in the Western world. The archetypal compliment to Puer is Senex, and a culture too captivated by Puer must retire, abolish Senex from view. Alan Pope’s essay, “The Elderly in Modern Society,” explores the historical shifts in the meaning of growing old in Western culture. As Pope’s paper demonstrates, modern culture views the aging process through the lens of the Puer archetype, and the cost is a denigration of Senex. We lose wisdom, history, and the capacity to meditate on our finitude as mortal beings. In a world held captive by the image of Babel, the aging body must be hidden away from view, for such deterioration reminds us of the inevitability of death and decay; the Puer project is determined to transcend all earthly limitations. With the vertical linear trajectory of Puer, there is no room for the cyclical nature of time; thus, Puer forgets that his past and his origin, represented by the Elder, is also his future — the place of preparation for his inevitable return to Earth.

Frank Edler’s essay, “Alfred Baeumler on Holderlin and the Greeks,” reminds us of the shadow-side of venerating our heroes of the past. Edler explores Baeumler’s connection to Heidegger, both of whom similarly draw upon Nietzsche and Holderlin’s turn back to the Greeks to unearth “real possibilities in our own nature.” Baeumler's thought represents the most hideous and dark aspects of the mythologization of the past by engaging in an anti-rationalism which venerates the heroic ego as represented by the figure of Hitler. Baeumler perverts the symbolic imagination in the service of the Nazi will-to-power. While Baeumler pays lip service to the ‘unconscious,’ his unconscious takes the form of “a pre-logical logos rooted in what has already been laid down in the biology of the [Arian] race and is an expression of it.” His ‘unconscious’ is a sinister rationalization of the egoic totalization of Other as radically Other, and, as such, the unconscious as radically Other is raped, murdered, and left for dead. Edler’s excellent scholarship alerts us to the absolute necessity for rigor in the face of the ‘unconscious,’ and, more important, it shows with shocking clarity the potential evil of a project which lacks the ethical imperative of a constant and painstaking criticism -- in the service of the Other -- of one’s project.

Heidegger’s silence on the issue of the holocaust is one of the deepest wounds at the core of the continental philosophical tradition. Silence is not enough. Caley Orr’s “In Defense of Humanism” provides a possible alternative to the potential paralysis at the end of metaphysics with the emergence of post-structuralism. The call of the Other found in ethics already implies the pull toward action. “One has faith in this world (what Lacan calls the Real),” asserts Orr, “because one must in order to act and interact.” In turn, Orr proposes a New Humanism, influenced by William James’ methodology of pragmatism, which promotes the testing of the pragmatic consequences of action.

As Brian Donohue explores in his “An Examination of Moral Action and Aesthetic Judgment in Kant’s Critical Philosophy,” Kant “derived the defining feature of our humanity on the basis of our capacity for moral action.” Indeed, following the logical conclusion of Kant’s argument, the human being who fails in the performance of his or her moral duties is somewhat less than human. Donohue contributes to the continuing clarification of one of the fathers of the continental tradition by a close reading of Kant’s account of moral action in The Critique of Pure Reason in light of his theory of aesthetic judgments as found in The Critique of Judgment.

In our last editorial, we ended with the question: “What is it?" What is this journey on which we are embarking? Elizabeth Mesa-Gaido's sculptures featured on the cover and within the issue are synchronous with these very questions. Her sculpture, Establishing Identity, is composed of a hall, emblazoned with a variety of colorful tiles, leading to a heavy, bronze doorway. The implication here, taken in the context of our questions, is plain: the founding of identity must always be a seeking, a tunneling, a crossing of thresholds, an opening of the door. As we continue the Janus Head project, the question of its identity and mission must be a constant asking, engaging many voices. To believe that we have found the final answer at any stage, in any context, is to build again that Tower.

Brent Dean Robbins
Claire Cowan-Barbetti
Victor Barbetti


Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Jager, Bernd. “Theorizing, Journeying, Dwelling.” Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology. Eds. A.Giorgi et. al. Vol. 2. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1975.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Eds. Nahum Norbert Glatzer and John Updike. New York: Schocken, 1995.
Tate, Allen. “The Man of Letters in the Modern World.” Collected Essays. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959.
Tate, Allen. “The Symbolic Imagination.” Collected Essays. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Gruyter, 1969.