Ishmael: Part Seven



"Here is a puzzle for you to consider," said Ishmael. "You are in a faraway land and find yourself in a strange city isolated from all others. You're immediately impressed by the people you find there. They're friendly, cheerful, healthy, prosperous, vigorous, peaceable, and well educated, and they tell you things have been this way for as long as anyone can remember. Well, you're glad to break your journey here, and one family invites you to stay with them.

"That night you sample their food at dinner and, finding it delicious but unfamiliar, ask them what it is, and they say, `Oh, it's B meat, of course. That's all we eat.' This naturally puzzles you and you ask if they mean the meat of the little insects that gather honey. They laugh and take you to the window. `There are some B's there,' they say, pointing to their neighbors in the next house.

" `Good lord!' you exclaim in horror, `you don't mean that you eat people!' And they look at you in a puzzled way and say, `We eat B's.'

" `How atrocious,' you reply. `Are they your slaves then? Do you keep them penned up?'

" 'Why on earth should we keep them penned up?' your hosts ask.

" `To keep them from running away, of course!'

"By now your hosts are beginning to think you're a little weak in the head, and they explain that the B's would never think of running away, because their own food, the A's, live right across the street.

"Well, I won't weary you with all your outraged exclamations and their baffled explanations. Eventually you piece together the whole ghastly scheme. The A's are eaten by the B's and the B's are eaten by the C's and the C's in turn are eaten by the A's. There is no hierarchy among these food classes. The C's don't lord it over the B's just because the B's are their food, because after all they themselves are the food of the A's. It's all perfectly democratic and friendly. But of course it's all perfectly dreadful to you, and you ask them how they can stand to live in this lawless way. Once again they look at you in bafflement. `What do you mean, lawless?' they ask. `We have a law, and we all follow it invariably. This is why we're friendly and cheerful and peaceable and all those other things you find so attractive in us. This law is the foundation of our success as a people and has been so from the beginning.'

"Here at last is the puzzle. Without asking them, how can you discover what law it is they follow?"

I blinked at him for a moment. "I can't imagine."

"Think about it."

"Well . . . obviously their law is that A's eat C's and B's eat A's and C's eat B's."

Ishmael shook his head. "These are food preferences. No law is required."

"I need something more to go on then. All I've got is their food preferences."

"You have three other things to go on. They have a law, they follow it invariably, and because they follow it invariably, they have a highly successful society."

"It's still very tenuous. Unless it's something like . . . `Be cool.' "

"I'm not asking you to guess what the law is. I'm asking you to devise a method for discovering what the law is."

I slid down in my chair, folded my hands on my stomach, and stared at the ceiling. After a few minutes I had an idea. "Is there a penalty for breaking this law?"


"Then I'd wait for an execution."

Ishmael smiled. "Ingenious, but hardly a method. Besides, you're overlooking the fact that the law is obeyed invariably. There has never been an execution."

I sighed and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I said: "Observation. Careful observation over a long period."

"That's more like it. What would you be looking for?"

"For what they didn't do. For what they never did."

"Good. But how would you eliminate irrelevancies? For example, you might find that they never slept standing on their heads or that they never threw rocks at the moon. There would be a million things they never did, but these wouldn't necessarily be prohibited by the law."

"True. Well, let's see. They have a law, they follow it invariably, and according to them . . . ah. According to them, following this law has given them a society that works very well. Am I supposed to take that seriously?"

"Certainly. It's part of the hypothesis."

"Then this would eliminate most of the irrelevancies. The fact that they never sleep standing on their heads wouldn't have anything to do with having a society that works well. Let's see. In effect . . . What I would actually be looking for is . . . I would be closing in on it from two sides. From one side I would be saying: `What is it that makes this society work?' And from the other side I would be saying: `What is it they don't do that makes this society work?' "

"Bravo. Now, since you've worked this out so brilliantly, I'm going to give you a break: There's going to be an execution after all. For the first time in history, someone has broken the law that is the foundation of their society. They're outraged, horrified, astounded. They take the offender, cut him into little bits, and feed him to the dogs. This should be a big help to you in discovering their law."


"I'll take the part of your host. We've just been to the execution. You may ask questions."

"Okay. Just what did this guy do?"

"He broke the law."

"Yes, but specifically what did he do?"

Ishmael shrugged. "He lived contrary to the law. He did the things we never do."

I glared at him. "That's not fair. You're not answering my questions."

"I tell you the whole sorry tale is public record, young man. His biography, complete in every detail, is available at the library."

I grunted.

"So how are you going to use this biography? It doesn't say how he broke the law. It's just a complete record of how he lived, and much of it is bound to be irrelevant."

"Okay, but I can see that it gives me another guide. I now have three: what makes their society work well, what they never do, and what he did that they never do."


"Very good. These are precisely the three guides you have to the law we're looking for here. The community of life on this planet has worked well for three billion years—has worked beautifully, in fact. The Takers draw back in horror from this community, thinking it to be a place of lawless chaos and savage, relentless competition, where every creature goes in terror of its life. But those of your species who actually live in this community don't find it to be so, and they will fight to the death rather than be separated from it.

"It is in fact an orderly community. The green plants are food for the plant eaters, which are food for the predators, and some of these predators are food for still other predators. And what's left over is food for the scavengers, who return to the earth nutrients needed by the green plants. It's a system that has worked magnificently for billions of years. Filmmakers understandably love footage of gore and battle, but any naturalist will tell you that the species are not in any sense at war with one another. The gazelle and the lion are enemies only in the minds of the Takers. The lion that comes across a herd of gazelles doesn't massacre them, as an enemy would. It kills one, not to satisfy its hatred of gazelles but to satisfy its hunger, and once it has made its kill the gazelles are perfectly content to go on grazing with the lion right in their midst.

"All this comes about because there is a law that is followed invariably within the community, and without this law the community would indeed be in chaos and would very quickly disintegrate and disappear. Man owes his very existence to this law. If the species around him had not obeyed it, he could not have come into being or survived. It's a law that protects not only the community as a whole but species within the community and even individuals. Do you understand?"

"I understand what you're saying, but I have no idea what the law is."

"I'm pointing to its effects."

"Oh. Okay."

"It is the peace-keeping law, the law that keeps the community from turning into the howling chaos the Takers imagine it to be. It's the law that fosters life for all—life for the grasses, life for the grasshopper that feeds on the grasses, life for the quail that feeds on the grasshopper, life for the fox that feeds on the quail, life for the crows that feed on the dead fox.

"The club-finned fish that nosed the shores of the continents came into being because hundreds of millions of generations of life before them had followed this law, and some of them became amphibians following this law. And some of the amphibians became reptiles following this law. And some of the reptiles became birds and mammals following this law. And some of the mammals became primates following this law. And one branch of the primates became Australopithecus following this law. And Australopithecus became Homo habilis following this law. And Homo habilis became Homo erectus following this law. And Homo erectus became Homo sapiens following this law. And Homo sapiens became Homo sapiens sapiens following this law.

"And then about ten thousand years ago one branch of the family of Homo sapiens sapiens said, `Man is exempt from this law. The gods never meant man to be bound by it.' And so they built a civilization that flouts the law at every point, and within five hundred generations—in an eye-blink in the scale of biological time—this branch of the family of Homo sapiens sapiens saw that they had brought the entire world to the point of death. And their explanation for this calamity was . . . what?"


"Man lived harmlessly on this planet for some three million years, but the Takers have brought the whole thing to the point of collapse in only five hundred generations. And their explanation for this is what?"

"I see what you mean. Their explanation is that something is fundamentally wrong with people."

"Not that you Takers may be doing something wrong but rather that there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature itself."

"That's right."

"How do you like that explanation now?"

"I'm beginning to have my doubts about it."



"At the time when the Takers blundered into the New World and began kicking everything to pieces, the Leavers here were searching for an answer to this question: `Is there a way to achieve settlement that is in accord with the law that we've been following from the beginning of time?' I don't mean, of course, that they had consciously formulated this question. They were no more consciously aware of this law than the early aeronauts were consciously aware of the laws of aerodynamics. But they were struggling with it all the same: building and abandoning one civilizational contraption after another, trying to find one that would fly. Done this way, it's slow work. Proceeding simply by trial and error, it might have taken them another ten thousand years—or another fifty thousand years. They apparently had the wisdom to know there was no hurry. They didn't have to get into the air. It made no sense to them to commit themselves to one civilizational craft that was clearly headed for disaster, the way the Takers have done."

Ishmael stopped there, and when he didn't go on, I said, "What now?"

His cheeks crinkled in a smile. "Now you leave and come back when you're prepared to tell me what law or set of laws has been at work in the community of life from the beginning."

"I'm not sure I'm ready for that."

"That's what we've been doing here for the last half week, if not from the very beginning: getting you ready."

"But I wouldn't know where to begin."

"You do know. You have the same three guides as in the case of the A's, the B's, and the C's. The law you're looking for has been obeyed invariably in the living community for three billion years." He nodded to the world outside. "And this is how things came to he this way. If this law had not been obeyed from the beginning and in each generation thereafter, the seas would be lifeless deserts and the land would still be dust blowing in the wind. All the countless forms of life that you see here came into being following this law, and following this law, man too came into being. And only once in all the history of this planet has any species tried to live in defiance of this law—and it wasn't an entire species, it was only one people, those I've named Takers. Ten thousand years ago, this one people said, `No more. Man was not meant to be bound by this law,' and they began to live in a way that flouts the law at every point. Every single thing that is prohibited under the law they incorporated into their civilization as a fundamental policy. And now, after five hundred generations, they are about to pay the penalty that any other species would pay for living contrary to this law."

Ishmael turned over a hand. "That should be guide enough for you."


The door closed behind me, and there I was. I couldn't go back in and I didn't want to go home, so I just stood there. My mind was a blank. I felt depressed. On no rational grounds, I even managed to feel rejected.

Things were piling up at home. I was falling behind in my work, missing deadlines. In addition, I now had an assignment from Ishmael that did not fill me with enthusiasm. It was time to buckle down and get serious, so I did something I seldom do; I went out and had a drink. I needed to talk to someone, and solitary drinkers are lucky in this regard—they always have someone to talk to.

So: What was at the bottom of these mysterious feelings of depression and rejection? And why had they emerged on this one day in particular? The answer: On this one day in particular, Ishmael had sent me away to work on my own. He might have spared me the investigation I was about to undertake, but he chose not to. Therefore: rejection, of a sort. Childish, of course, to perceive it this way, but I never claimed to be perfect.

There was more to it than this, however, because I still felt depressed. A second bourbon helped me to it: I was making progress. That's right. This was the source of my feeling of depression.

Ishmael had a curriculum. Well, of course, why wouldn't he? He'd developed his curriculum over a period of years, working with one pupil after another. Makes sense. You've got to have a plan. You start here, move to this point, then to this point, this point, and this point, and then, voila! One fine day you're finished. Thanks for your attention, have a nice life, and close the door behind you when you leave.

How far along was I, at this point? Halfway? A third of the way? A quarter? Whatever, every advance I made took be a step closer to being out of Ishmael's life.

What's the best word that describes this way of taking the situation? Selfishness? Possessiveness? Stinginess? Whatever it is, I'll own to it and make no excuses.

I had to face it: I didn't just want a teacher—I wanted a teacher for life.