Chicago, Babylon

Zaheer Kazmi in The Brooklyn Rail:

Kazmi-web1The Sears Tower in Chicago, renamed the Willis Tower in 2009, was once renowned for being the tallest skyscraper in the world, outstripping even the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in its bid to reach the heavens. It too stands fantastically high—an awesome testament to human ingenuity, American power, and hubris.

In his musical homage to Illinois, the American songwriter, Sufjan Stevens, weaves together a collection of allusive, often dark and beautiful vignettes about the Prairie State subtly suffused with a spirit of Biblical mysticism. In the haunting song, “The Seer’s Tower,” evoking images of the Tower of Babel, Stevens intones ominously about the “tower above the earth […] built for Emmanuel.”

Seven miles above the earth,
There is Emmanuel of mothers.
With his sword, with his robe,
He comes dividing man from brothers.

Like God’s fateful decision to alienate the living from one another at Babel by creating intractable differences between them, the earthly arrival of the son of God, foretold in the prophecy of Emmanuel, also presaged division and conflict in the city of man. Once God is among us, a sacred unity is broken. Between the believers and the damned, the harbingers of divine truth leave only violence in their wake.

The play on the words, “Seer/Sear,” in the title of Stevens’s song conjures up prophetic visions and the violence they portend as much as the God’s eye view of the city from the top of the Chicago landmark.

More here.