Ishmael: Part Eleven



The drizzle continued, and when I arrived at noon the next day there wasn't even anyone around to bribe. I had picked up two blankets for Ishmael at an Army-Navy store—and one for myself to keep him in countenance. He accepted them with gruff thanks but seemed glad enough to put them to use. We sat for a while wallowing in our misery, then he reluctantly began.

"Shortly before my departure—I don't remember what occasioned the question—you asked me when we were going to get to the story enacted by the Leavers."

"Yes, that's right."

"Why are you interested in knowing that story?"

The question nonplussed me. "Why wouldn't I be interested in knowing it?"

"I'm asking what the point is, in your mind. You know that Abel is all but dead."

"Well . . . yes."

"Then why learn the story he was enacting?"

"Again, why not learn it?"

Ishmael shook his head. "I don't care to proceed on that basis. The fact that I can't give you reasons for not learning something doesn't supply me with a reason for teaching it."

He was clearly in a bad mood. I couldn't blame him, but I couldn't much sympathize either, since it was he who had insisted on having it this way.

He said: "Is it just a matter of curiosity for you?"

"No, I wouldn't say that. You said in the beginning that two stories have been enacted here. I now know one of them. It seems natural that I'd want to know the other one."

"Natural . . ." he said, as if it wasn't a word he much liked. "I wish you could come up with something that has a bit more heft. Something that would give me the feeling I wasn't the only one here who was supposed to be using his brain."

"I'm afraid I don't see what you're getting at."

"I know you don't, and that's what irks me. You've become a passive listener here, turning your brain off when you sit down and turning it on when you get up to leave."

"I don't think that's true."

"Then tell me why it isn't just a waste of time for you to learn a story that is now all but extinguished."

"Well, I don't consider it a waste of time."

"That's not good enough. The fact that something is not a waste of time does not inspire me to do it."

I shrugged helplessly.

He shook his head, totally disgusted. "You really do think that learning this would be pointless. That's obvious."

"It's not obvious to me."

"Then you think it has a point?"

"Well . . . yes."

"What point?"

"God . . . I want to learn it, that's the point."

"No. I won't proceed on that basis. I want to proceed, but not if all I'm doing is satisfying your curiosity. Go away and come back when you can give me some authentic reason for going on."

"What would an authentic reason sound like? Give me an example."

"All right. Why bother to learn what story is being enacted here by the people of your own culture?"

"Because enacting that story is destroying the world."

"True. But why bother learning it?"

"Because that's obviously something that should be known."

"Known by whom?"

"By everyone."

"Why? That's what I keep coming back to. Why, why, why? Why should your people know what story they're enacting as they destroy the world?"

"So they can stop enacting it. So they can see that they're not just blundering as they do what they do. So they can see that they're involved in a megalomaniac fantasy—a fantasy as insane as the Thousand Year Reich."

"That's what makes the story worth knowing?"


"I'm glad to hear it. Now go away and come back when you can explain what makes the other story worth knowing."

"I don't need to go away. I can explain it now."

"Go ahead."

"People can't just give up a story. That's what the kids tried to do in the sixties and seventies. They tried to stop living like Takers, but there was no other way for them to live. They failed because you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in."

Ishmael nodded. "And if there is such a story, people should hear about it?"

"Yes, they should."

"Do you think they want to hear about it?"

"I don't know. I don't think you can start wanting something till you know it exists."

"Very true."


"And what do you suppose this story is about?"

"I have no idea."

"Do you suppose it's about hunting and gathering?"

"I don't know."

"Be honest. Haven't you been expecting some noble paean to the mysteries of the Great Hunt?"

"I'm not aware of expecting anything like that."

"Well, you should at least know that it's about the meaning of the world, about divine intentions in the world, and about the destiny of man."


"As I've said half a dozen times, man became man enacting this story. You should remember that."

"Yes, I do."

"How did man become man?"

I examined that one for booby traps and gave it back. "I'm not sure what the question means," I said. "Or rather I'm not sure what kind of answer you want. Obviously you don't want me to say that man became man by evolving."

"That would just mean that he became man by becoming man, wouldn't it?"


"So the question is still there waiting to be answered: How did man become man?"

"I suppose it's one of those very obvious things."

"Yes. If I gave you the answer, you'd say, `Oh. Well of course, but so what?' "

I shrugged, defeated.

"We'll have to approach it obliquely then—but keep it in mind as a question that needs answering."



"According to Mother Culture, what kind of event was your agricultural revolution?"

"What kind of event . . . I'd say that, according to Mother Culture, it was a technological event."

"No implication of deeper human resonances, cultural or religious?"

"No. The first farmers were just neolithic technocrats. That's the way it's always seemed."

"But after our look at chapters three and four of Genesis, you see there was a great deal more to it than Mother Culture teaches."


"Was and is a great deal more to it, of course, since the revolution is still in progress. Adam is still chewing the fruit of that forbidden tree, and wherever Abel can still be found, Cain is there too, hunting him down, knife in hand."

"That's right."

"There's another indication that the revolution goes deeper than mere technology. Mother Culture teaches that, before the revolution, human life was devoid of meaning, was stupid, empty, and worthless. Prerevolutionary life was ugly. Detestable."


"You believe that yourself, don't you?"

"Yes, I suppose I do."

"Certainly most of you believe it, wouldn't you say?"


"Who would be the exceptions?"

"I don't know. I suppose . . . anthropologists."

"People who actually have some knowledge of that life."


"But Mother Culture teaches that that life was unspeakably miserable."

"That's right."

"Can you imagine any circumstances in which you yourself would trade your life for that sort of life?"

"No. Frankly, I can't imagine why anyone would, given the choice."

"The Leavers would. Throughout history, the only way the Takers have found to tear them away from that life is by brute force, by wholesale slaughter. In most cases, they found it easiest just to exterminate them."

"True. But Mother Culture has something to say about that. What she says is that the Leavers just didn't know what they were missing. They didn't understand the benefits of the agricultural life, and that's why they clung to the hunting-gathering life so tenaciously."

Ishmael smiled his sneakiest smile. "Among the Indians of this country, who would you say were the fiercest and most resolute opponents of the Takers?"

"Well . . . I'd say the Plains Indians."

"I think most of you would agree with that. But before the introduction of horses by the Spanish, the Plains Indians had been agriculturalists for centuries. As soon as horses became readily available, they abandoned agriculture and resumed the hunting-gathering life."

"I didn't know that."

"Well, now you do. Did the Plains Indians understand the benefits of the agricultural life?"

"I guess they must have."

"What does Mother Culture say?"

I thought about that for a while, then laughed. "She says they didn't really understand. If they had, they would never have gone back to hunting and gathering."

"Because that's a detestable life."

"That's right."

"You can begin to see how thoroughly effective Mother Culture's teachings are on this issue."

"True. But what I don't see is where this gets us."

"We're on our way to discovering what lies at the very root of your fear and loathing of the Leaver life. We're on our way to discovering why you feel you must carry the revolution forward even if it destroys you and the entire world. We're on our way to discovering what your revolution was a revolution against."

"Ah," I said.

"And when we've done all that, I'm sure you'll be able to tell me what story was being enacted here by the Leavers during the first three million years of human life and is still being enacted by them wherever they survive today."


Having spoken of survival, Ishmael shuddered and sank down into his blankets with a kind of moaning sigh. For a minute he seemed to lose himself in the tireless drumming of rain on the canvas overhead, then he cleared his throat and went on.

"Let's try this," he said. "Why was the revolution necessary?"

"It was necessary if man was to get somewhere."

"You mean if man was to have central heating and universities and opera houses and spaceships."

"That's right."

Ishmael nodded. "That sort of answer would have been acceptable when we began our work together, but I want you to go deeper than that now."

"Okay. But I don't know what you mean by deeper."

"You know very well that for hundreds of millions of you, things like central heating, universities, opera houses, and spaceships belong to a remote and unattainable world. Hundreds of millions of you live in conditions that most people in this country can only guess at. Even in this country, millions are homeless or live in squalor and despair in slums, in prisons, in public institutions that are little better than prisons. For these people, your facile justification for the agricultural revolution would be completely meaningless."


"But though they don't enjoy the fruits of your revolution, would they turn their backs on it? Would they trade their misery and despair for the sort of life that was lived in prerevolutionary times?"

"Again, I'd have to say no."

"This is my impression as well. Takers believe in their revolution, even when they enjoy none of its benefits. There are no grumblers, no dissidents, no counterrevolutionaries. They all believe profoundly that, however bad things are now, they're still infinitely preferable to what came before."

"Yes, I'd say so."

"Today I want you to get to the root of this extraordinary belief. When you've done that, you'll have a completely different understanding of your revolution and of the Leaver life as well."

"Okay. But how do I do that?"

"By listening to Mother Culture. She's been whispering in your ear throughout your life, and what you've heard is no different from what your parents and grandparents heard, from what people all over the world hear daily. In other words, what I'm looking for is buried in your mind just as it's buried in all your minds. Today I want you to unearth it. Mother Culture has taught you to have a horror of the life you put behind you with your revolution, and I want you to trace this horror to its roots."

"Okay," I said. "It's true that we have something amounting to a horror of that life, but the trouble is, this just doesn't seem particularly mysterious to me."

"It doesn't? Why?"

"I don't know. It's a life that leads nowhere."

"No more of these superficial answers. Dig."

With a sigh, I scrunched down inside my blanket and proceeded to dig. "This is interesting," I said a few minutes later. "I was sitting here thinking about the way our ancestors lived, and a very specific image popped into my head fully formed."

Ishmael waited for me to go on.

"It has a sort of dreamlike quality to it. Or nightmarish. A man is scrabbling along a ridge at twilight. In this world it's always twilight. The man is short, thin, dark, and naked. He's running in a half crouch, looking for tracks. He's hunting, and he's desperate. Night is falling and he's got nothing to eat.

"He's running and running and running, as if he were on a treadmill. It is a treadmill, because tomorrow at twilight he'll be there running still—or running again. But there's more than hunger and desperation driving him. He's terrified as well. Behind him on the ridge, just out of sight, his enemies are in pursuit to tear him to pieces—the lions, the wolves, the tigers. And so he has to stay on that treadmill forever, forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.

"The ridge, of course, represents the knife-edge of survival. The man lives on the knife-edge of survival and has to struggle perpetually to keep from falling off. Actually it's as though the ridge and the sky are in motion instead of him. He's running in place, trapped, going nowhere."

"In other words, hunter-gatherers lead a very grim life."


"And why is it grim?"

"Because it's a struggle just to stay alive."

"But in fact it isn't anything of the kind. I'm sure you know that, in another compartment of your mind. Hunter-gatherers no more live on the knife-edge of survival than wolves or lions or sparrows or rabbits. Man was as well adapted to life on this planet as any other species, and the idea that he lived on the knife-edge of survival is simply biological nonsense. As an omnivore, his dietary range is immense. Thousands of species will go hungry before he does. His intelligence and dexterity enable him to live comfortably in conditions that would utterly defeat any other primate.

"Far from scrabbling endlessly and desperately for food, hunter-gatherers are among the best-fed people on earth, and they manage this with only two or three hours a day of what you would call work—which makes them among the most leisured people on earth as well. In his book on stone age economics, Marshall Sahlins described them as `the original affluent society.' And incidentally, predation of man is practically nonexistent. He's simply not the first choice on any predator's menu. So you see that your wonderfully horrific vision of your ancestors' life is just another bit of Mother Culture's nonsense. If you like, you can confirm all this for yourself in an afternoon at the library."

"Okay," I said. "So?"

"So now that you know that it's nonsense, do you feel differently about that life? Does it seem less repulsive to you?"

"Less repulsive maybe. But still repulsive."

"Consider this. Let's suppose you're one of this nation's homeless. Out of work, no skills, a wife the same, two kids. Nowhere to turn, no hope, no future. But I can give you a box with a button on it. Press the button and you'll all be whisked instantly back to prerevolutionary times. You'll all be able to speak the language, you'll all have the skills everyone had then. You'll never again have to worry about taking care of yourself and your family. You'll have it made, you'll be a part of that original affluent society."


"So, do you press the button?"

"I don't know. I have to doubt it."

"Why? It isn't that you'd be giving up a wonderful life here. According to this hypothesis, the life you've got here is wretched, and it's not likely to improve. So it has to be that the other life seems even worse. It isn't that you couldn't bear giving up the life you've got—it's that you couldn't bear embracing that other life."

"Yes, that's right."

"What is it that makes that life so horrifying to you?"

"I don't know."

"It seems that Mother Culture has done a good job on you."


"All right. Let's try this. Wherever the Takers have come up against some hunter-gatherers taking up space they wanted for themselves, they've tried to explain to them why they should abandon their life-style and become Takers. They've said, `This life of yours is not only wretched, it's wrong. Man was not meant to live this way. So don't fight us. Join our revolution and help us turn the world into a paradise for man.' "


"You take that part—the part of the cultural missionary—and I'll take the part of a hunter-gatherer. Explain to me why the life that I and my people have found satisfying for thousands of years is grim and revolting and repulsive."

"Good lord."

"Look, I'll get you started . . . . Bwana, you tell us that the way we live is wretched and wrong and shameful. You tell us that it's not the way people are meant to live. This puzzles us, Bwana, because for thousands of years it has seemed to us a good way to live. But if you, who ride to the stars and send your words around the world at the speed of thought, tell us that it isn't, then we must in all prudence listen to what you have to say."

"Well . . . I realize it seems good to you. This is because you're ignorant and uneducated and stupid."

"Exactly so, Bwana. We await your enlightenment. Tell us why our life is wretched and squalid and shameful."

"Your life is wretched and squalid and shameful because you live like animals."

Ishmael frowned, puzzled. "I don't understand, Bwana. We live as all others live. We take what we need from the world and leave the rest alone, just as the lion and the deer do. Do the lion and the deer lead shameful lives?"

"No, but that's because they're just animals. It's not right for humans to live that way."

"Ah," Ishmael said, "this we did not know. And why is it not right to live that way?"

"It's because, living that way . . . you have no control over your lives."

Ishmael cocked his head at me. "In what sense do we have no control over our lives, Bwana?"

"You have no control over the most basic necessity of all, your food supply."

"You puzzle me greatly, Bwana. When we're hungry, we go off and find something to eat. What more control is needed?"

"You'd have more control if you planted it yourself."

"How so, Bwana? What does it matter who plants the food?"

"If you plant it yourself, then you know positively that it's going to be there."

Ishmael cackled delightedly. "Truly you astonish me, Bwana! We already know positively that it's going to be there. The whole world of life is food. Do you think it's going to sneak away during the night? Where would it go? It's always there, day after day, season after season, year after year. If it weren't, we wouldn't be here to talk to you about it."

"Yes, but if you planted it yourself, you could control how much food there was. You'd be able to say, `Well, this year we'll have more yams, this year we'll have more beans, this year we'll have more strawberries."

"Bwana, these things grow in abundance without the slightest effort on our part. Why should we trouble ourselves to plant what is already growing?" '

"Yes, but . . . don't you ever run out? Don't you ever wish you had a yam but find there are no more growing wild?"

"Yes, I suppose so. But isn't it the same for you? Don't you ever wish you had a yam but find there are no more growing in your fields?"

"No, because if we wish we had a yam, we can go to the store and buy a can of them."

"Yes, I have heard something of this system. Tell me this, Bwana. The can of yams that you buy in the store—how many of you labored to put that can there for you?"

"Oh, hundreds, I suppose. Growers, harvesters, truckers, cleaners at the canning plant, people to run the equipment, people to pack the cans in cases, truckers to distribute the cases, people at the store to unpack them, and so on."

"Forgive me, but you sound like lunatics, Bwana, to do all this work just to ensure that you can never be disappointed over the matter of a yam. Among my people, when we want a yam, we simply go and dig one up—and if there are none to be found, we find something else just as good, and hundreds of people don't need to labor to put it into our hands."

"You're missing the point."

"I certainly am, Bwana."

I stifled a sigh. "Look, here's the point. Unless you control your own food supply, you live at the mercy of the world. It doesn't matter that there's always been enough. That's not the point. You can't live at the whim of the gods. That's just not a human way to live."

"Why is that, Bwana?"

"Well . . . look. One day you go out hunting, and you catch a deer. Okay, that's fine. That's terrific. But you didn't have any control over the deer's being there, did you?"

"No, Bwana."

"Okay. The next day you go out hunting and there's no deer to be caught. Hasn't that ever happened?"

"Assuredly, Bwana."

"Well, there you are. Because you have no control over the deer, you have no deer. So what do you do?"

Ishmael shrugged. "We snare a couple of rabbits."

"Exactly. You shouldn't have to settle for rabbits if what you want is deer."

"And this is why we lead shameful lives, Bwana? This is why we should set aside a life we love and go to work in one of your factories? Because we eat rabbits when it happens that no deer presents itself to us?"

"No. Let me finish. You have no control over the deer—and no control over the rabbits either. Suppose you go out hunting one day, and there are no deer and no rabbits? What do you do then?"

"Then we eat something else, Bwana. The world is full of food."

"Yes, but look. If you have no control over any of it . . ." I bared my teeth at him. "Look, there's no guarantee that the world is always going to be full of food, is there? Haven't you ever had a drought?"

"Certainly, Bwana."

"Well, what happens then?"

"The grasses wither, all the plants wither. The trees bear no fruit. The game disappears. The predators dwindle."

"And what happens to you?"

"If the drought is very bad, then we too dwindle."

"You mean you die, don't you?"

"Yes, Bwana."

"Ha! That's the point!"

"It's shameful to die, Bwana?"

"No . . . . I've got it. Look, this is the point. You die because you live at the mercy of the gods. You die because you think the gods are going to look after you. That's okay for animals, but you should know better."

"We should not trust the gods with our lives?"

"Definitely not. You should trust yourselves with your lives. That's the human way to live."

Ishmael shook his head ponderously. "This is sorry news indeed, Bwana. From time out of mind we've lived in the hands of the gods, and it seemed to us we lived well. We left to the gods all the labor of sowing and growing and lived a carefree life, and it seemed there was always enough in the world for us, because—behold!—we are here!"

"Yes," I told him sternly. "You are here, and look at you. You have nothing. You're naked and homeless. You live without security, without comfort, without opportunity."

"And this is because we live in the hands of the gods?"

"Absolutely. In the hands of the gods you're no more important than lions or lizards or fleas. In the hands of these gods—these gods who look after lions and lizards and fleas—you're nothing special. You're just another animal to be fed. Wait a second," I said, and closed my eyes for a couple minutes. "Okay, this is important. The gods make no distinction between you and any other creature. No, that's not quite it. Hold on." I went back to work, then tried again. "Here it is: What the gods provide is enough for your life as animals—I grant you that. But for your life as humans, you must provide. The gods are not going to do that."

Ishmael gave me a stunned look. "You mean there is something we need that the gods are not willing to give us, Bwana?"

"That's the way it seems, yes. They give you what you need to live as animals but not what you need beyond that to live as humans."

"But how can that be, Bwana? How can it be that the gods are wise enough to shape the universe and the world and the life of the world but lack the wisdom to give humans what they need to be human?"

"I don't know how it can be, but it is. That's the fact. Man lived in the hands of the gods for three million years and at the end of those three million years was no better off and no farther ahead than when he started."

"Truly, Bwana, this is strange news. What kind of gods are these?"

I snorted a laugh. "These, my friend, are incompetent gods. This is why you've got to take your lives out of their hands entirely. You've got to take your lives into your own hands."

"And how do we do that, Bwana?"

"As I say, you've got to begin planting your own food."

"But how will that change anything, Bwana? Food is food, whether we plant it or the gods plant it."

"That's exactly the point. The gods plant only what you need. You will plant more than you need."

"To what end, Bwana? What's the good of having more food than we need?"

"Damn!" I shouted. "I get it!"

Ishmael smiled and said, "So what's the good of having more food than we need?"

"That is the whole goddamned point! When you have more food than you need, then the gods have no power over you!"

"We can thumb our noses at them."


"All the same, Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don't need it?"

"You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it's your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, `Not me, goddamn it! I'm not going hungry, and there's nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my own hands now!' "


Ishmael nodded, abandoning his hunter-gatherer role. "So your lives are now in your own hands."

"That's right."

"Then what are you all so worried about?"

"What do you mean?"

"If your lives are in your own hands, then it's entirely up to you whether you go on living or become extinct. That's what this expression means, isn't it?"

"Yes. But obviously there are still some things that aren't in our hands. We wouldn't be able to control or survive a total ecological collapse."

"So you're not safe yet. When will you finally be safe?"

"When we've taken the whole world out of the hands of the gods."

"When the whole world is in your own, more competent, hands."

"That's right. Then the gods will finally have no more power over us. Then the gods will have no more power over anything. All the power will be in our hands and we'll be free at last."


"Well," Ishmael said, "are we making progress?"

"I think so."

"Do you think we've found the root of your revulsion toward the sort of life that was lived in prerevolutionary times?"

"Yes. Far and away the most futile admonition Christ ever offered was when he said, `Have no care for tomorrow. Don't worry about whether you're going to have something to eat. Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but God takes perfect care of them. Don't you think he'll do the same for you?' In our culture the overwhelming answer to that question is, `Hell no!' Even the most dedicated monastics saw to their sowing and reaping and gathering into barns."

"What about Saint Francis?"

"Saint Francis relied on the bounty of farmers, not the bounty of God. Even the most fundamental of the fundamentalists plug their ears when Jesus starts talking about birds of the air and lilies of the field. They know damn well he's just yarning, just making pretty speeches."

"So you think this is what's at the root of your revolution. You wanted and still want to have your lives in your own hands."

"Yes. Absolutely. To me, living any other way is almost inconceivable. I can only think that hunter-gatherers live in a state of utter and unending anxiety over what tomorrow's going to bring."

"Yet they don't. Any anthropologist will tell you that. They are far less anxiety-ridden than you are. They have no jobs to lose. No one can say to them, `Show me your money or you don't get fed, don't get clothed, don't get sheltered.' "

"I believe you. Rationally speaking, I believe you. But I'm talking about my feelings, about my conditioning. My conditioning tells me—Mother Culture tells me—that living in the hands of the gods has got to be a never-ending nightmare of terror and anxiety."

"And this is what your revolution does for you: It puts you beyond the reach of that appalling nightmare. It puts you beyond the reach of the gods."

"Yes, that's it."

"So. We have a new pair of names for you. The Takers are those who know good and evil, and the Leavers are . . . ?"

"The Leavers are those who live in the hands of the gods."