Identity and (Un)knowing

Babel in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination

The Second Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn (Shippey 1976) is an enigmatic collection of riddling wisdom cast as a debate between its two titular figures. The dialogue comes from a long tradition of Abrahamic mythology, where Solomon spars with demons that “reveal . . . the mysteries of the universe” (Menner 333). In The Second Dialogue, however, the demons are replaced with Saturn, a more fully realized and worthy adversary for Solomon. It is this substitution of Saturn for the demons of Near Eastern myth, and for Marcolf of later medieval versions (Menner 332), that acts as the unique pivot for this particular dialogue. Through the initial riddles of The Second Dialogue Saturn draws attention to the “Babylon complex” (Scheil 54) of early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, the “web of narratives and images” that Babylon and the Tower of Babel represent (37). Saturn is set up as an icon of Orientalism, and he, along with Babel, stands for the “symbolic lack” of the Anglo-Saxon nation (Powell 119), a deeply seated, communal anxiety about identity and knowledge, the absence of identity and knowledge, that pervades the text.

Given the long-standing tradition of Solomon dialogues and his position in the Biblical canon as the wisest man to have ever lived, it is not surprising that The Second Dialogue, falling under the umbrella of wisdom literature, would feature Solomon as its hero. The choice of Saturn for his opponent, however, is what makes The Second Dialogue interesting. As Solomon reveals, Saturn’s homeland is “across the river Chebor,” the land of Chaldea (87). Saturn came long ago from “the field of Shinar” (87), where it is said the Tower of Babel was built. “Nebrondes” (36), who Saturn refers to in his first response, is translated as “Nimrod,” and is said in various Latin sources to have founded the city of Babylon, the Tower of Babel, or both. Menner identifies an early conflation of the two iconic locales with each other, and their continual connection with the “giant Nimrod” who was “the first tyrant who rebelled against God” (338). Menner draws a line between this Nimrod of Abrahamic myth and Latin tradition with the Nimrod figure from ancient Babylon and his predecessor-god Bel-Marduk, whose death gave rise to humanity (344). Menner finds a frequent confusion of Bel and Nimrod, who are sometimes father and son, other times friends, and still others the same person (346). Further, Bel-Nimrod is often equated with variants of the Marcolf figure, Solomon’s traditional opponent in medieval European versions. Nimrod’s companion, the “weallende wulf” (35) of The Second Dialogue is, perhaps, a creative rendering of this Marcolf, who, in his various forms, is the same as Bel (Menner 348), an “evil spirit” (349), a “demon-idol” (350), and “Moloch . . . devourer of children” (350). Menner concludes that “Nebrondes” is in fact The Second Dialogue iteration of the Bel-Nimrod-Marculf figure, of which each constituent identity is consistently synonymous with Saturn in other contemporary sources. Saturn is speaking of himself in the third person, of Nimrod and his friend the raging wolf, distancing himself from an identity long since lost to the hazy recesses of memory and history. Saturn’s identity is fluid, his lineage murky and tangled. As a web of relations, of conflicted and compounded histories, Saturn’s identity is representative of the Anglo-Saxon perception of self, a group othering of anxiety embodied in and disassociated through myth.

As any reader of Menner’s study will find, Saturn’s background is incredibly convoluted and mysterious. Kathryn Powell, writing almost seventy years after Menner, draws attention to the highly conjectural nature of many of Menner’s conclusions. Rather than dismiss his work out of hand, however, Powell finds a line of continuity in the “fantasy of the East” that the original dialogue and Menner’s study both draw from (119). She argues that this fantasy acts as “a screen between the subject and what he is able to know of the poem” (117), and is in fact a reduplication of the “fantasy of completeness” that screens “Western philological scholarship” from the “error and lack . . . endemic to the West” (118, 119). More so than the actual East, it is the “image of the East,” the imagined East, that “remains integral” to both The Second Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn and Menner’s work (118). Menner’s explication of the Saturn-figure is as muddled as the figure was in Anglo-Saxon England. The sources available to the writer of The Second Dialogue were just as fragmented and contradictory as those available to Menner. His reconstruction of lost knowledge is indicative of Western intellectual anxiety that finds its roots in Anglo-Saxon culture. The “web of narratives and images,” the “Babylon complex” (Scheil 37, 54), that informs The Second Dialogue, and that Menner attempts to trace, is an unavoidable obstacle in any study of the text. Though Powell finds issue with Menner and other early works of criticism, she herself cannot disregard Orientalist fantasy, the “complex” of the East.

As the center of Menner’s philological discussion, Saturn is an enigma that must be solved, “error and lack” embodied. Powell takes a different approach. The problem of Saturn is not a problem of time, of texts lost to the ages; the problem is not a problem for her at all. Saturn is just a part of the “screen” of Orientalism that has persisted in Western thought from Anglo-Saxon times to the modern day. Powell treats this “screen” not as something to break through, but as a textual and cultural artifact worthy of study in itself. The screen is an imaginative space upon which readers can “project” their fantasies (Powell 117): the “web of narratives and images” is not simply a web, but that very imaginative space, a textual field. It is within this textual field that the reader locates the protean Saturn, and importantly, it is a field that The Second Dialogue locates Saturn within as well: the “field of Shinar” (87). If Saturn represents the Other, his home, the field of Shinar, represents the textual-imaginative field of Anglo-Saxon, and by extension Western, Orientalism. The field of Shinar is where, according to tradition, the Tower of Babel was built. Menner’s extrapolations revolve around Babel, the Tower serving as a touchstone for his work. The connections he makes between Saturn, Bel, Nimrod, and Marculf all run through the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel looms at the center of the Orientalist imagination, a veritable monolith of Western anxiety. If the fantasy of the East is an imaginative space that, through The Second Dialogue, can, in fact, be located in the geographical (albeit mythical) East, then the Tower of Babel that menaces that space—the field of Shinar, the field of the text—represents and focuses the textual-imaginative field of Anglo-Saxon England.

The monolithic Eastern Other is a conglomeration of “subsidiary allusions” (Scheil 37), an “Orientalist conflation” (Major 301). As seen with Saturn, Western Orientalism is quick to conflate its symbolic content. Babel, Shinar, Babylon, along with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the nations of the Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians (Scheil 37) serve the same purpose in the Western mind: a temporal and geographical screen, the textual-imaginative field, upon which fantasies and fears alike are projected. As the locus of the field, Babel is singularly important in The Second Dialogue. Babel—or Babylon, its alter ego by tradition—stands in Western thought for “unmatched power,” “deadly exoticism,” “Eastern sensuality,” and “learning and cultural achievement” (Scheil 40, 42, 43). Solomon echoes this conception in his first speech: “I know that the Chaldeans were so boastful of their skill in war, so proud of their wealth, so arrogant in their glories . . .” (Shippey 87). There is a certain respect accorded the Chaldean civilization, as is accorded Saturn. Solomon continues, however: “. . . that they were sent a warning” (87). Respect for a mighty civilization is mixed with “the irony that all things, even the mightiest, pass away” (Scheil 42). Babel is marked as the “place where eastern confusion and error began” (Major 306). As Solomon’s following riddle hints, the “warning” to the Chaldeans came in the form of complete destruction. Shinar is rendered a “country which cannot be trodden by any man’s foot” (87). Once the glorious center of human achievement, the field is left a barren waste, the haunt of monsters. Present in the Anglo-Saxon consciousness, it is forever beyond: “all Western endeavors are seemingly belated when compared to Babylon” (Scheil 44). But in its presence, Babylon is also always past, “already fallen or diminished even as it is introduced” (44). The monolith of Babel transcends time, transcends the individual English life, as an emblem of both glory and hubris. Standing in the midst of Shinar, the midst of the textual-imaginative field, it stands in the midst of the reader’s mind, a reminder to be wary of the knowledge one seeks to attain.

It is around this locus of knowledge, upon the field of the Other, that Solomon spars with Saturn. After the Babel riddle, Solomon and Saturn turn to a discussion of books. Saturn starts, describing them as a “dumb creature” that is “extremely wise” with seven tongues like branching “buds” (89). Solomon has no trouble with the riddle, and goes on to praise books for how they “strengthen the steadfast intention” and “cheer the heart” (89). Saturn, however, is more concerned with their consumption than their application. “The man who has a taste of what books can do will be bold,” he says (89, my emphasis). Earlier, it is said of Saturn that he has “the keys of some books in which learning was locked” (87). Whereas Solomon’s wisdom is “something to be pursued, struggled for” (Harbus 100), Saturn’s is something to be eaten and locked away. Harbus argues that The Second Dialogue presents a wisdom that is “not self-sustaining,” that “requires application and development,” and is “generated through probing exchange with other wise people” (101). Solomon’s wisdom is a practice, a study; Saturn’s wisdom is lust and greed. Saturn, as the representative of Babel, demonstrates the wrong way to pursue wisdom. Indeed, by the end of the dialogue, Harbus notes Saturn’s “developing appreciation” of Solomon’s true wisdom (101). This sliding, however, from untruth to truth, “suggest[s] that meaning is not stable, but rather is an indefinable phenomenon, open to individual interpretation and change” (Harbus 101). Truth could just as easily slide into untruth. Solomon’s didacticism is directed at the reader, a reminder to not fall prey to the same tastes and habits that condemned the Chaldeans to destruction.

This warning is the dialogue’s clearest marker of textual anxiety. Meaning is fluid: Saturn’s identity, the geographical-temporal space of Shinar, even wisdom itself. There is not one “wisdom” but many; the purpose of wisdom literature is to determine the right wisdom to pursue. In the “shattering of language” that took place at the Tower of Babel, humanity was afflicted with a “failure of memory” and “isolation from a shared past” (Liuzza 4). The ruin of Babel, like the ruins throughout England, stands for the ultimate unknowability of the past, the opaqueness of the screen that obscures all wisdom. The Second Dialogue, in its pursuit of wisdom, sets itself before the field of Shinar, the source of “memory and forgetting, belatedness and transitoriness” (Liuzza 8). As Powell argues, only the screen itself can be apprehended, only the fantasy can be known. The fantasy of the East is erected in the Anglo-Saxon imagination as protection: it “neutralizes the threat presented by a lack of knowledge by displacing that lack into a foreign space and by associating it with a pagan people” (Powell 130). This displacement, the hiding of the Other behind the screen, behind the textual-imaginative field “shores up the identity of the English kingdom as comparatively unified and secure” (Powell 135). But, as must be recognized, the “two distinct views held by Solomon and Saturn . . . can both be understood as characteristically Anglo-Saxon views” (Powell 126). “Saturn’s consumption of books but lack of wisdom and inability to use his knowledge productively,” Powell argues, “is reminiscent of the ninth-century decline of learning and waning of religious communities about which Alfred writes in his preface” (128). Solomon’s lesson attempts to counter the “error and lack” that is “endemic” to the particular culture of Anglo-Saxon England (Powell 119). The Other is a threat from within, not without. By externalizing their anxiety and projecting it on the imaginative screen of the East the Anglo-Saxons distance themselves from their own shortcomings. The Tower of Babel, in its temporal transcendence, links the Anglo-Saxon present with the ancient Eastern past, a conduit for transference. Saturn stands in for the Anglo-Saxon people as recipient of divine wrath. The field of Shinar, the field of the text, is the space in which the gap is mediated: Anglo-Saxon versus Chaldean, Solomon versus Saturn, wisdom versus foolishness. But in mediation, the field threatens to collapse upon itself, a “dis-membering rather than a re-membering” (Liuzza 16). The Anglo-Saxons were once pagans like the Chaldeans. Solomon built a tower of his own. How can one really know that the wisdom they pursue is true? The “wreckage of social cohesion” is a real fear for the Anglo-Saxons, the “crisis of Babel” a crisis of identity that cannot be “undone” by textuality, only “mitigated” (Liuzza 4, 24). Textuality promises meaning, cohesion, even salvation, through wisdom, but also threatens judgment and destruction. The risk of textual, and thus social, dismemberment is real, but it is a necessary risk the Anglo-Saxons must take. Only by walking amongst the ruins can they hope to build anew.

Works Cited

Harbus, Antonina. “The Situation of Wisdom in Solomon and Saturn II.Neophilologica 75.2 (2003): 97-103. PDF.

Liuzza, R. M. “The Tower of Babel: The Wanderer and the Ruins of History.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 36.1 (2003): 1-35. PDF.

Major, Tristan. “Saturn’s First Riddle in Solomon and Saturn II: An Orientalist Conflation.” Neophilologus 96 (2012): 301-313. PDF.

Menner, Robert J. “Nimrod and the Wolf in the Old English “Solomon and Saturn.”” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 37.3 (1938): 332-354. PDF.

Powell, Kathryn. “Orientalist Fantasy in the Poetic Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn.” Anglo-Saxon England 34 (2005): 117-143. PDF.

Scheil, Andrew P. “Babylon and Anglo-Saxon England.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 36.1 (2003): 37-58. PDF.

“The Second Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn.” Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English. Trans. T. A. Shippey. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer Ltd., 1976. 87-103. Print.

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