Genesis 11:1-9, the famous story of the Tower of Babel, provides an etiology for the multiplicity of languages. According to the famous passage, all people shared one language in the postdiluvian world. In the land of Shinar, humankind under Nimrod’s rule decided to build a city and a tower, the latter of which would stretch up to the heavens. When God saw the tower under construction, he declared: “Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (King James Version, Genesis, 11:6).
As is the case with many biblical stories, this brief narrative seems to accomplish several goals simultaneously. First, it explains something that might otherwise be puzzling: namely, if we all descend from a shared set of progenitors (Adam and Eve, or however one might like to conceive of the beginnings of homo sapiens), then how did the diversity of languages emerge? What is the causal explanation of this familiar phenomenon? Answering such questions is the point of an etiology.
Second, it provides an implicit moral lesson. Although the bible verses themselves fail to articulate precisely what bothered God about the city and tower, biblical commentators had no problem reading between the lines and declaring that humanity was guilty of hubris. In planning and executing such a grandiose building project, such an overwhelming feat of architecture and social organization, they were setting themselves on par with the divine (this is the conclusion drawn, for instance, in the first-century commentary by Romano-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus).
Third, the story indicates a somewhat surprising comparison between God and humanity. Notice that God is concerned that nothing that humankind can imagine will be impossible for them and this is the reason God imposes the confusion of tongues. While the verses don’t claim that any single human is comparable to God with respect to efficacy (the ability to do what one wishes), God’s disapprobation of the construction suggests that God worries that as a group working together humankind more closely approximates divine potency. This is a troubling and unexpected element of the narrative. It ascribes power to humanity beyond what we might have imagined and in that regard offers the reader hope by subtly proposing that regardless of the difficulties facing us, solutions are within grasp provided mankind works in concert.
On the other hand, God doesn’t seem to want us to succeed in our ambitions—perhaps out of fear that man would go too far, perhaps out of fear of being displaced altogether. So, in one sense, this is the biblical version of Pindar’s assertion that “for mortals, mortal things are fit”; humankind must not attempt actions that approximate the divine in scope and power. In another, it demonstrates (as does God’s confrontation with Job in the eponymous book) that God does not have an entirely positive view of mankind—not only owing to its inherent weakness and sinfulness but also owing to its potential for outlandish achievement.
Finally, the myth of the Tower of Babel reveals that the crux of human achievement on a large scale lies in successful communication. It is precisely because all humankind shared a single language that they were able to undertake such an enormous task. Since God obviously felt threatened enough to do something about it, we can only assume that he foresaw that humans would satisfactorily complete that task. Moreover, all it took to defeat humankind’s ambition was to create the confusion of tongues; by thwarting our ability to communicate directly, the project was doomed to failure. One might imagine that if such a marvel of engineering were already underway then even operating with differing languages would not derail its accomplishment but Genesis attempts to convince us otherwise. Communication (and fundamentally linguistic communication) is the foundation of cooperative achievement; a break in the circuit that connects sender and recipient leads to a breakdown in social efficacy.
Taking world history into account, I’m not convinced the God of Genesis need be all that concerned. Humankind hardly needs a confusion of tongues for a breakdown in communication; such breakdowns are probably the norm rather than the exception. If we naïvely think of communication (and our quotidian beliefs, when unexamined, about communication are indeed naïve), we tend to view it along the lines of a circuit. A sender emits a message and the recipient receives the message; communication is successful when the recipient receives it in the spirit of its original intent. The naïveté is fairly obvious. Given the complexity of the contextual aspects of language (no message simply means what it says on its face but rather comes in the context of other events, ongoing conversations, implicit understandings), given the variability of the meaning of phrases and words, given the variability of modes of expression (sincerity, sarcasm, requests, demands), it is all too easy to believe you understand a message and yet to get it wrong in some significant fashion.
No matter what I say, no matter how simply the message, it is unlikely that you will truly understand it in the precise manner I meant it. My assumptions are not yours, my worldview need not be shared by you, my sense of significance will necessarily differ from your own. This isn’t, on its own, a fatal flaw in language—it is one of the ways in which language navigates the essential differences between the self and others. The problem comes when we forget to be mindful of language’s slipperiness vis-à-vis meaning—something we nearly always put to the side, because we want to believe (and often need to believe) that successful communication is the norm. That is how the trains run on time, how we are able to meet deadlines, get paid, graduate, keep apprised of the happenings in the world, etc. Slippages inherent to language are dismissed as negligible errors committed by flawed humans and not something built into communication as such. We consider ourselves expert language users; therefore, breakdowns strike us as aberrant and unexpected.
The difficulties are compounded, of course, when we attempt to communicate with someone who speaks a different language altogether. This is the crux of the film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), directed Robert M. Young and starring (and produced by) Edward James Olmos. This film is one of the progenitors of modern Chicano cinema and there are many angles by which we might approach it. In an interview contained in the new Criterion Collection edition of the film, Olmos makes rather large claims for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez—it is the first film with a Chicano as protagonist, it is the only western declared to be “historically accurate” by the American Historical Association. But one of the most striking aspects of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is that it does not provide subtitles despite that the script contains large sections in English and in Spanish. The choice was deliberate—not only to avoid marginalizing Spanish (since presumably it would be the subtitled language), but also to reinforce the mutual linguistic understanding that serves as the focal point of the film’s plot.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is set in Texas in 1901. The region, then as now, was home to whites and Mexicans and at that time there was still an uneasy tension of mutual distrust between the two groups. The central moment in the film (one returned to both on screen and in conversation throughout its running time) is the confrontation between Gregorio Cortez (Olmos) and Sheriff Morris (Timothy Scott). Morris believes that Cortez stole a horse. Cortez and his brother Romaldo (Pepe Serna) speak no English; Morris speaks no Spanish. Morris, however, brought along an interpreter, Boone Choate (Tom Bower). Choate is self-assured in his translations (he claims to “talk Mexican”, having been “around them most of [his] life), and indeed does an adequate, if rather clumsy job at first.
Morris had heard from another Mexican that Cortez had recently traded a horse with him and uses that information as an entry point into an informal interrogation. The initial breakdown (and the one that the film emphasizes once the mistake is realized—after the bloodshed and just before the trial) occurs over words related to “horse”. The sheriff wants to know if Cortez had recently traded a horse (as he knew from his source) but Cortez denies it. He says he has not traded a caballo. Morris insists that another person vouches for the fact that he had traded a horse and Choate adds that the other man “has no reason to lie.” Cortez declares he is being misunderstood. No cambiamos un caballo, era una yegua. Yegua means mare. Cortez, therefore, is simply saying that he did not trade a (male) horse (caballo) but that he did trade a mare (yegua). He even laughs at the point of confusion.
Clearly Choate does not understand what was just said; but the expression on his face exudes a misplaced confidence in his abilities to comprehend Spanish and his insight as a sidekick to an interrogation. “They ain’t gonna tell you nothing,” he insists to the sheriff. Morris, believing that Cortez is refusing to cooperate, tells Choate to inform him that he is under arrest. Cortez protests: Por qué? No hemos hecho nada. No nos puede arrestar por nada. “Why? We did nothing and you can’t arrest us for nothing.”
Here Choate makes the fatal mistake and I find it curious that the film never discusses this point. The lawyer at the end is solely concerned with the misunderstanding of yegua. But it is Choate’s mistranslation of Cortez’s protest that leads to the tragic confrontation. Choate translates the objection as a statement of defiance. He smirks at Morris and sneers: “He says no man can arrest him.” This is a far cry from the intention behind Cortez’s actual statement, which was merely a declaration on behalf of justice. One ought not to be (cannot be—no puede) arrested when one has done nothing wrong. Choate tells Morris that Cortez’s plea for justice is really a proclamation of resistance, of subversion of the law, and open disobedience toward authority. Those in a position of authority often cannot countenance such blatant insubordination. Morris pulls a gun; Cortez pulls his. The camera turns away just long enough to obscure who fired the first shot but it hardly matters. No one needed to die. Or rather, death is derived from a fairly simple case of the confusion of tongues.
The moment is worth considered reflection. Language, as Jacques Lacan asserts, is the domain of the symbolic order. It is a system whereby one signifier (a word, a phrase, etc.) refers not to a signified (the thing meant) but rather to another signifier. According to Lacan, the signified itself lurks obscured beneath this sea of signification. Language is not constituted by the speaker but rather constitutive of the speaker; that is, we do not form and construct language, it forms us. Lacan relates the symbolic order of language to Freud’s concern with the need for repetition (what he terms the “death drive”) that derives from the inability to recapture or to compensate for a lost object to which the subject was attached. This makes language the site of absence; it marks out the space of a lack, the uncanny home to the irretrievable connection to the adored object. Language thus has a disciplinary function; it forces us into a social mode of being that transcends the decisions of any given societal actor (no one “creates” language anew, we are born into it and adapt to it).
By attempting to force Cortez into the language of authority, by misapprehending his attempt to clarify the legality of his apprehension, Morris attempts to subordinate Cortez to the symbolic order of the law that language both represents and underwrites. The implicit designation of Spanish as illegitimate in matters legal and thus as degenerate reinforces racialized assumptions of the legal status and social role of Mexicans in Texas. The role of truth slips away almost entirely (like the signified that recedes beneath the roiling surface activity of signifiers). What matters at this moment is Morris’s need to bring Cortez under the sway of language as he (representative of the law) utters it. Morris isn’t facing another human being, by these lights, but rather he’s facing a resistance toward the smooth functioning of linguistic logic, the logic of force and order and—ultimately—white supremacy.
The inability to communicate truthfully and accurately runs like a red thread through the course of the film. By refusing to provide subtitles for the Spanish, the film forces English-speaking viewers into the same position of not quite understanding as experienced by many of the characters. But even in the English statements, confusion abounds. The same scenes are separately narrated by different characters so that what was deadly assault in one account was self-defense in another. No narrator is reliable; each is concerned with his own integrity, his own view of himself. Choate considers himself a skilled interpreter and a brave man who would have saved Morris if he only had a gun and will now do his best to avenge Morris’s death. Others recognize the confusion of various encounters with Cortez—often too late. The Texas Rangers, under threat of being disbanded, insist that they are chasing the “Cortez gang”, despite the fact that Cortez is fleeing the law unaccompanied. A reporter named Blakely (Bruce McGill) covers the story and interviews several of Cortez’s pursuers. He insists that the “people” have a right to the story. But all we get are stories, varied and mutually contradictory, slanted and prejudicial. We might have a right to those stories but we clearly have no right to the Truth insofar as that remains unattainable.
Cortez sees himself as the victim of not only misunderstanding but the casual racism of Texas’s white establishment that automatically brands him a thief and a second-class citizen. The film clearly sides with Cortez despite the intimation that no account adequately substitutes for the truth, the latter ever receding from our grasp, inaccessible to our understanding insofar as even Truth itself cannot complete the circuit of communication because the recipient of the message cannot help but bend that message to deep-seated preconceptions of what it ought to mean.
The judge grants Cortez a translator at the trial (this seems to have been one of the first times in US history when that concession was made) but even this fails to complete the circuit of communication. By this point, emotions were too raw, anger too overriding. The explanations of the lawyer, the insistence that this all derived from a deadly and pointless mistranslation, couldn’t withstand the assumption of the guilt of the other.
Indeed, in the entire film there is only one moment that might be seen as an act of successful communication. During Cortez’s flight, he alights upon a cowboy (William Sanderson) sitting alone at a campfire, cooking his dinner. Cortez warily approaches, too exhausted to resist detainment should this man also be in pursuit of him. The cowboy claims to be sick of his own company, having been alone so long. He invites Cortez to sit, to warm himself by the fire, to rest his weary body, and to partake of the cowboy’s meal. He speaks no Spanish; Cortez speaks no English. The situation has the potential to run parallel to the encounter with Morris and yet that’s not how things go—in large part because the cowboy has no pretension toward being in a position of power whereby Cortez would have to subordinate himself. The cowboy treats Cortez as a welcome guest, a comrade. He rambles on about past loves, his loneliness, the trials and tribulations of life, his mediocre but acceptable ability to cook. He declares that he is happy to have someone to talk to even though he fully realizes that his companion doesn’t understand a word.
The film seems to posit that this is the successful act of communication insofar as both men recognize the other not as an enemy but as a friend (a temporary friend, perhaps, but a friend nonetheless). They also recognize the ultimate futility of linguistic communication, or perhaps they recognize the incomplete nature of such communication, that language, given to misprision, is never sufficient in communicating with another person. It requires the supplement of the desire to comprehend—not just the message being sent but also, and more importantly, the humanity and vulnerability of the other.
Communication relies upon something deeper than language, a feeling of compatibility with the other that must first be in place before language can have any efficacy at all. This, the film suggests, is the problem with language—legal, contractual, prejudicial, etc. It pretends to be self-sufficient and complete. Moreover, it insists upon that self-sufficiency and punishes those who find it lacking in clarity. We glory in the ambiguity of language until we find opportunity to enforce a rigid understanding of its legal weight that falls in our favor. Language that insists on its imperviousness to misinterpretation is the language that enforces inequality, the language that seeks the disadvantage of the other in order to perpetuate the privilege of the self.
If we want communication to work, if we want to reap the benefits of cooperation envisioned in the tale of the Tower of Babel, then we must seek to respect difference between the self and the other while also pursuing those ways in which we remain the same. We must seek parity; we must seek mutual acceptance and the connectivity that breaks through division, the connectivity that foments union, that cures loneliness, the connectivity that comes with love. If we want to achieve worthwhile projects, successful communication is essential. Meanwhile, I don’t think God has much cause for alarm.
Criterion Collection has released a new blu-ray edition of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. The disc comes with several extras, including a new interview with Edward James Olmos, a new interview with Chon A. Noriega, the author of Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, and a cast-and-crew panel from 2016 including Olmos, the director Robert M. Young, the producer Moctesuma Esparza, the director of photography Reynaldo Villalobos, and several of the actors.