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From Rage and the Word, an Excerpt
by John David Ebert
The desert gave birth to civilization.
Mesopotamia and Egypt both came into being in hot, dry desert climates alive with palm fronds, braying donkeys and the squeaking of shadufs drawing up water from wells. Camels, Bedouins, veils and dust: mud brick buildings, red granite cliffs, turquoise skies and crescent-shaped boats going up and down rivers and waterways. Canals splayed across the land like dendrites in a primitive nervous system shooting strips of water across muddy fields to nourish thin and spindly shafts of grain. Heat, flies and dusty pink horizons. Groves of date palms and tamarisk trees the only shelter from a burning disc in the heavens that settles at dusk to a glowing coal where the sky meets the earth.
Such is the world from out of which High Civilization emerged: mathematics and writing, astronomy and sculpture, monumental architecture and cylinder seals, gods and theogonies. A world of mental striations as topologically convoluted as a farmer’s network of fields interlaced by canals and ditches. A world of cracked plaster walls and crumbling roofs; of frayed reedwork boats and threadbare linen clothing; of cows, sheep and goats.
This is the world of the first great cities. But take note: it is also the world that gave birth to the three great monotheisms, founded by Moses, Jesus and Mohammed: all religions favored by the desert, and all inimical—utterly—to life in cities. The three monotheisms bear the hatred of cities within them like striations in woodgrain: the Bedouin’s antipathy to life in cities, for they were all born, these gods—this God—out in the red granite cliffs beneath sagging palm fronds where lizards dart across rocks. As the French theoretician Regis Debray put it: “The city closes man in on himself; the desert opens him up to the Other. The polytheist prefers the vegetal, embellishments and valleys; his despiser prefers the mineral, abrupt canyons, limestone cliffs limned with geological phantasmagoria.”[i]
The desert is the home of monotheism, as Ernst Renan once put it.
And monotheism is a type of religiosity that is inherently, and structurally, opposed to life in cities, for it is a religion of nomads and camel drivers; of goat-herders and men living in tents, like the prehistoric Jacob wandering with his sons across the desertscapes of Palestine. The 10th Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” may actually be an injunction to the nomad to keep his eyes on the grainy, shimmering horizons and the arcing wave-shaped, wind-blown dunes and away from the cities of the plain, nestled and secure within the mental wombs of their ancient protective gods.
And, just as in chaos theory, in which large effects ultimately result from very small initial conditions, so the monotheistic shepherd’s antipathy to cities will later become the general incommensurability of the Abrahamic worldview with science. The Scientific Civilization, also built by the West, is a civilization that comes out of life in cities, that is to say, the Medieval world of walled cities, towns and hamlets whose capitalistic metabolism nourished the very conditions out of which the scientific mentality could grow and thrive; the Monotheistic Society, though, is a world rooted in the horizontal life of nomads, goats, donkeys, camels and tents. Hence, in the Book of Genesis, Cain (whose name means “smith”) is cursed from the very beginning: nothing good, this text says, can come from technology or the worldview that leads to life in cities. Cain’s son Enoch is the builder of the world’s very first city, and his descendant Tubal-cain becomes the world’s first master of metallurgy. It is thus no coincidence that the Bible portrays Cain as the one who introduces murder into the world, for the Abrahamic vision thereby equates technology with cities, corruption and death. The city builder who, unlike the nomad, is locked into place and is therefore constrained to move vertically, can only ever give birth to his Towers of Babel, those impious and hubristic ladders to the heavens which confer on the city builder his heaven-storming arrogance.
Cain is the farmer; Abel the shepherd. But the excess produce of the farmer will require huge silos and storage buildings within which to store the grain, and soon, this will lead to the necessity for protective enclosures such as walls, armies and temples. One of the very first cities, in fact, the Samarran site of Tell es Sawwan (circa. 6000 BC), was nothing more than a collection of seven large storage silos for grain which, in later levels of the site, gave birth to a walled compound, one of the world’s first walled settlements, in fact. Gilgamesh was later regarded as a builder of walls, but the animal man Enkidu, on the other hand, climbs his way up from the deserts to the inside of the protective womb of Uruk itself: he was precisely the sort of dusty fellow that Gilgamesh had built his walls to keep out. However, Gilgamesh’s partnership with this proto-Martu was prophetic of the future of Near Eastern religion, which would unfold, not from the life of the city dweller, as in the days of the ancients, but from the dwellers in tents who had, from time immemorial, circled the cities as roving satellites. Gilgamesh was, in a sense, the lord of civilization’s past (hence, the true significance of his role as keeper of the dead, for the dead are merely bits of fossilized Past); while the future belonged to the Enkidus who claimed the world of cliffs and valleys, steppes and plains as their home.
The world’s most ancient deity of writing, the Sumerian goddess Nisaba, also happened to be the goddess of grain, for writing was originally invented in Sumer as a means of keeping track of economic flows going in and out of the temples: grain to this god and its priesthood; barley for that man and his fieldwork, etc. Thus, writing, like the first walls, and the farmer’s act of reaping and threshing and storing his grain, is part of the new womb-world of enclosures that the first cities brought into being.
But it is precisely such enclosures that the monotheistic shepherd blows apart: the Tower of Babel must be stopped by introducing foreign languages to break down its lines of communication so that it can no longer be built; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah must be flattened by divine wrath for their incubation of bizarre and polymorphic forms of sexuality; the earliest cities themselves wrecked by a gigantic Flood, which washes them away like so much ruined silt and debris from the river’s ebb tide.
The monotheistic nomad, and his invisible God, wants nothing of enclosures, which recall too much of the womb and the Great Mother. He wants only open, endless vistas shimmering from one muddy horizon to the next; wants only the freedom to move about unconstrained and wander from one desert spring to the next; wishes only to follow the ancient desert trails of his Bedouin forebears who have tracked the endless, featureless wastes of the desert scrub before him.
For our blackboard, then, another formula: Bondage vs. Freedom; arborescence vs. mobility; submission to a king vs. the shattering visions of the Prophets.
Part Two: The Three Great Monotheisms
[i] Regis Debray, God: an Itinerary (London: Verso Books, 2004), 39.