Benét builds the central narrative of “By the Waters of Babylon” around John’s coming-of-age and his quest for new knowledge, which takes him east to The Place of the Gods, a mysterious, long-abandoned city that members of his tribe are forbidden from visiting.
Benét presents the desire for knowledge as a key aspect of human nature and the driving force behind the development of human society. Further, Benét presents knowledge as something that feeds on itself, and drives those who seek it ever onward. John’s pursuit of knowledge leads him to learn about the Dead Places, travel east to the Ou-dis-san river, enter the Place of the Gods, and discover the dead god in an abandoned apartment building. As John reaches new “levels” of knowledge with each step of his journey, he learns enough to recognize that there is even more to know, which pushes him ever further in his quest.
Benét also shows how knowledge can diminish fear and the power of superstition. John tells us that when he first went with his father (who is a priest) to search for metal in the Dead Places, he was afraid. Yet later, when John knows and understands the Dead Places, he no longer fears them. On his journey, John boasts of his certainty and lack of fear, but when he reaches the Place of the Gods, he feels afraid. The knowledge that he has already acquired no longer diminishes his fear because he is now facing a place he knows almost nothing about.
However, Benét’s story also makes clear that knowledge is no simple thing. Knowledge offers progress but also, because of the progress it offers, it can lead to both personal and societal dangers. On the personal level, John’s father encourages him to heed his visions and make the journey to the Place of the Gods, but also warns John that the dream could “eat him up.” The warning implies that the pursuit of knowledge could become an obsession that overwhelms John, or that the knowledge itself could be something that John is unprepared for or unable to face. On the societal level, the story reveals that the Place of the Gods is actually New York, indicating that the society of the “gods” is our own modern society. John realizes that, ultimately, this modern society was destroyed by its own vast knowledge and power.
When John returns from his quest and wants to tell all of his tribe that the “gods” in newyork were in fact humans, his father convinces him not to, telling him, “If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth.” John’s father theorizes that newyork was destroyed because the gods “ate knowledge too fast”—perhaps a reference to the famous Biblical story of Adam and Eve, who were punished for seeking forbidden knowledge and literally “eating” it in the form of a fruit. Here, then, John’s father expands on his earlier warning that “knowledge” could consume John, and argues that knowledge gained too quickly can “eat up” an entire society. Though John believes that he has returned safely to his tribe (that is, without being consumed) and plans to use his knowledge to “rebuild” human civilization, the story leaves it unclear if he, or his society, will have the wisdom to use their growing knowledge in ways that avoid the mistakes of their ancestors. Benét presents knowledge as a double-edged sword, and by refusing to resolve tension between its simultaneous benefits and dangers, his story warns readers, and society, to use their knowledge well.
The Pursuit of Knowledge ThemeTracker
The Pursuit of Knowledge Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon
I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings—it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind—it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.
We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the tree, we have not forgotten the old writings, though they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me—I wished to know more.
“This is a very strong dream,” he said. “It may eat you up. […] It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. [...] If your dreams do not eat you up, you may be a great priest. If they eat you, you are still my son. Now go on your journey.”
If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.
He had sat at his window, watching his city die—then he himself had died. But it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit—and you could see from the face that his spirit had not been lost. I knew that, if I touched him, he would fall into dust—and yet, there was something unconquered in the face.
That is all of my story, for then I knew he was a man—I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons.
He said, “Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our father forbade the Dead Places.” He was right—it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.
And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Licoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man’s face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.