Ishmael: Part Two



"Oddly enough," he said, "it was my benefactor who awakened my interest in the subject of captivity and not my own condition. As I may have indicated in yesterday's narrative, he was obsessed by the events then taking place in Nazi Germany."

"Yes, that's what I gathered."

"From your story about Kurt and Hans yesterday, I take it that you're a student of the life and times of the German people under Adolf Hitler."

"A student? No, I wouldn't go as far as that. I've read some of the well-known books—Speer's memoirs, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and so on—and a few studies of Hitler."

"In that case, I'm sure you understand what Mr. Sokolow was at pains to show me: that it was not only the Jews who were captives under Hitler. The entire German nation was a captive, including his enthusiastic supporters. Some detested what he was doing, some just shambled on as best they could, and some positively thrived on it—but they were all his captives."

"I think I see what you mean."

"What was it that held them captive?"

"Well . . . terror, I suppose."

Ishmael shook his head. "You must have seen films of the prewar rallies, with hundreds of thousands of them singing and cheering as one. It wasn't terror that brought them to those feasts of unity and power."

"True. Then I'd have to say it was Hitler's charisma."

"He certainly had that. But charisma only wins people's attention. Once you have their attention, you have to have something to tell them. And what did Hitler have to tell the German people?"

I pondered this for a few moments without any real conviction. "Apart from the Jewish business, I don't think I could answer that question."

"What he had to tell them was a story."

"A story."

"A story in which the Aryan race and the people of Germany in particular had been deprived of their rightful place in the world, bound, spat upon, raped, and ground into the dirt under the heels of mongrel races, Communists, and Jews. A story in which, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, the Aryan race would burst its bonds, wreak vengeance on its oppressors, purify mankind of its defilements, and assume its rightful place as the master of all races."


"It may seem incredible to you now that any people could have been captivated by such nonsense, but after nearly two decades of degradation and suffering following World War I, it had an almost overwhelming appeal to the people of Germany, and it was reinforced not only through the ordinary means of propaganda but by an intensive program of education of the young and reeducation of the old."


"As I say, there were many in Germany who recognized this story as rank mythology. They were nevertheless held captive by it simply because the vast majority around them thought it sounded wonderful and were willing to give their lives to make it a reality. Do you see what I mean?"

"I think so. Even if you weren't personally captivated by the story, you were a captive all the same, because the people around you made you a captive. You were like an animal being swept along in the middle of a stampede."

"That's right. Even if you privately thought the whole thing was madness, you had to play your part, you had to take your place in the story. The only way to avoid that was to escape from Germany entirely."


"Do you understand why I'm telling you this?"

"I think so, but I'm not sure."

"I'm telling you this because the people of your culture are in much the same situation. Like the people of Nazi Germany, they are the captives of a story."

I sat there blinking for a while. "I know of no such story," I told him at last.

"You mean you've never heard of it?"

"That's right."

Ishmael nodded. "That's because there's no need to hear of it. There's no need to name it or discuss it. Every one of you knows it by heart by the time you're six or seven. Black and white, male and female, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, American and Russian, Norwegian and Chinese, you all hear it. And you hear it incessantly, because every medium of propaganda, every medium of education pours it out incessantly. And hearing it incessantly, you don't listen to it. There's no need to listen to it. It's always there humming away in the background, so there's no need to attend to it at all. In fact, you'll find—at least initially—that it's hard to attend to it. It's like the humming of a distant motor that never stops; it becomes a sound that's no longer heard at all."

"This is very interesting," I told him. "But it's also a little hard to believe."

Ishmael's eyes closed gently in an indulgent smile. "Belief is not required. Once you know this story, you'll hear it everywhere in your culture, and you'll be astonished that the people around you don't hear it as well but merely take it in."


"Yesterday you told me you have the impression of being a captive. You have this impression because there is enormous pressure on you to take a place in the story your culture is enacting in the world—any place at all. This pressure is exerted in all sorts of ways, on all sorts of levels, but it's exerted most basically this way: Those who refuse to take a place do not get fed."

"Yes, that's so."

"A German who couldn't bring himself to take a place in Hitler's story had an option: He could leave Germany. You don't have that option. Anywhere you go in the world, you'll find the same story being enacted, and if you don't take a place in it you won't get fed."


"Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be. Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story. This is the story man was born to enact, and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself, is to venture into oblivion. Your place is here, participating in this story, putting your shoulder to the wheel, and as a reward, being fed. There is no `something else.' To step out of this story is to fall off the edge of the world. There's no way out of it except through death."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."

Ishmael paused to think for a bit. "All this is just a preface to our work. I wanted you to hear it because I wanted you to have at least a vague idea of what you're getting into here. Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you'll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you'll be tempted to say to the people around you, `How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?' And if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you're talking about. In other words, if you take this educational journey with me, you're going to find yourself alienated from the people around you—friends, family, past associates, and so on."

"That I can stand," I told him, and let it go at that.


"It is my most heartfelt and unattainable fantasy to travel once in your world as you do, freely and unobtrusively—to step out onto a street and flag down a taxi to take me to the airport, where I would board a flight to New York or London or Florence. Much of this fantasy is spent in making delicious preparations for the journey, in pondering what must accompany me in my luggage and what may be safely left behind. (You understand that I would of course be traveling in human disguise.) If I take too much, dragging it from place to place will be tiresome; on the other hand, if I take too little, I will forever be having to break my journey to pick up things along the way—and that will be even more tiresome."

"True," I said, just to be agreeable.

"That's what today is for: We're packing a bag for our journey together. I'm going to throw into this bag some things I won't want to stop and pick up later on. These things will mean little or nothing to you right now. I'll just show them to you briefly and then toss them into the bag. That way you'll recognize them when I take them out later on."


"First, some vocabulary. Let's have some names so we don't have to go on talking about `the people of your culture' and `the people of all other cultures.' I've used various names with various pupils, but I'm going to try a new pair with you. You're familiar with the expression `Take it or leave it.' Using them in this sense, do the words takers and leavers have any heavy connotation for you?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"I mean, if I call one group Takers and the other group Leavers, will this sound like I'm setting up one to be good guys and the other to be bad guys?"

"No. They sound pretty neutral to me."

"Good. So henceforth I'm going to call the people of your culture Takers and the people of all other cultures Leavers."

I hmm'ed a bit. "I have a problem with that."


"I don't see how you can lump everyone else in the world into one category like that."

"This is the way it's done in your own culture, except that you use a pair of heavily loaded terms instead of these relatively neutral terms. You call yourselves civilized and all the rest primitive. You are universally agreed on these terms; I mean that the people of London and Paris and Baghdad and Seoul and Detroit and Buenos Aires and Toronto all know that—whatever else separates them—they are united in being civilized and distinct from Stone Age peoples scattered all over the world; you consider or recognize that, whatever their differences, these Stone Age peoples are likewise united in being primitive."

"Yes, that's right."

"Would you be more comfortable if we used these terms, civilized and primitive?"

"Yes, I suppose I would be, but only because I'm used to them. Takers and Leavers is fine with me."


"Second: the map. I have it. You don't have to memorize the route. In other words, don't worry if, at the end of any day, you suddenly realize that you can't remember a word I've said. That doesn't matter. It's the journey itself that's going to change you. Do you see what I mean?"

"I'm not sure."

Ishmael thought for a moment. "I'll give you a general idea of where we're heading, then you'll understand."


"Mother Culture, whose voice has been in your ear since the day of your birth, has given you an explanation of how things came to be this way. You know it well; everyone in your culture knows it well. But this explanation wasn't given to you all at once. No one ever sat you down and said, `Here is how things came to be this way, beginning ten or fifteen billion years ago right up to the present.' Rather, you assembled this explanation like a mosaic: from a million bits of information presented to you in various ways by others who share that explanation. You assembled it from the table talk of your parents, from cartoons you watched on television, from Sunday School lessons, from your textbooks and teachers, from news broadcasts, from movies, novels, sermons, plays, newspapers, and all the rest. Are you with me so far?"

"I think so."

"This explanation of how things came to be this way is ambient in your culture. Everyone knows it and everyone accepts it without question."


"As we make our journey here, we're going to be reexamining key pieces of that mosaic. We're going to be taking them out of your mosaic and fitting them into an entirely different mosaic: into an entirely different explanation of how things came to be this way. "


"And when we're finished, you'll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that's happened here. And it won't matter in the least whether you remember how that perception was assembled. The journey itself is going to change you, so you don't have to worry about memorizing the route we took to accomplish that change."

"Right. I see what you mean now."


"Third," he said, "definitions. These are words that will have a special meaning in our discourse here. First definition: story. A story is a scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods."


"Second definition: to enact. To enact a story is to live so as to make the story a reality. In other words, to enact a story is to strive to make it come true. You recognize that this is what the people of Germany were doing under Hitler. They were trying to make the Thousand Year Reich a reality. They were trying to make the story he was telling them come true."


"Third definition: culture. A culture is a people enacting a story."

"A people enacting a story. And a story again is . . . ?"

"A scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods."

"Okay. So you're saying that the people of my culture are enacting their own story about man, the world, and the gods."

"That's right."

"But I still don't know what that story is."

"You will. Don't fret about it. For the moment all you have to know is that two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of man. One began to be enacted here some two or three million years ago by the people we've agreed to call Leavers and is still being enacted by them today, as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we've agreed to call Takers, and is apparently about to end in catastrophe."

"Ah," I said, meaning I know not what.


"If Mother Culture were to give an account of human history using these terms, it would go something like this: `The Leavers were chapter one of human history—a long and uneventful chapter. Their chapter of human history ended about ten thousand years ago with the birth of agriculture in the Near East. This event marked the beginning of chapter two, the chapter of the Takers. It's true there are still Leavers living in the world, but these are anachronisms, fossils—people living in the past, people who just don't realize that their chapter of human history is over.' "


"This is the general shape of human history as it's perceived in your culture."

"I would say so."

"As you'll come to see, what I'm saying is quite different from this. The Leavers are not chapter one of a story in which the Takers are chapter two."

"Say that again?"

"I'll say it differently. The Leavers and the Takers are enacting two separate stories, based on entirely different and contradictory premises. This is something we'll be looking at later, so you don't have to understand it right this second."



Ishmael scratched the side of his jaw thoughtfully. From my side of the glass, I heard nothing of this; in imagination it sounded like a shovel being dragged across gravel.

"I think our bag is packed. As I said, I don't expect you to remember everything I've thrown into it today. When you leave here, everything will probably all just turn into one great muddle."

"I believe you," I said with conviction.

"But that's all right. If I pull something from our bag tomorrow that I put in today, you'll recognize it instantly, and that's all that matters."

"Okay. I'm glad to hear it."

"We'll make this a short session today. The journey itself begins tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can spend the rest of today groping for the story the people of your culture have been enacting in the world for the past ten thousand years. Do you remember what it's about?"


"It's about the meaning of the world, about divine intentions in the world, and about human destiny."

"Well, I can tell you stories about these things, but I don't know any one story."

"It's the one story that everyone in your culture knows and accepts."

"I'm afraid that doesn't help much."

"Perhaps it'll help if I tell you that it's an explaining story, like `How the Elephant Got Its Trunk' or `How the Leopard Got Its Spots.' "


"And what do you suppose this story of yours explains?"

"God, I have no idea."

"That should be clear from what I've already told you. It explains how things came to be this way. From the beginning until now."

"I see," I said, and stared out the window for a while. "I'm certainly not aware of knowing such a story. As I said, stories, yes, but nothing like a single story."

Ishmael pondered this for a minute or two. "One of the pupils I mentioned yesterday felt obliged to explain to me what she was looking for, and she said, `Why is it that no one is excited? I hear people talking in the Laundromat about the end of the world, and they're no more excited than if they were comparing detergents. People talk about the destruction of the ozone layer and the death of all life. They talk about the devastation of the rain forests, about deadly pollution that will be with us for thousands and millions of years, about the disappearance of dozens of species of life every day, about the end of speciation itself. And they seem perfectly calm.'

"I said to her, `Is this what you want to know then—why people aren't excited about the destruction of the world?' She thought about that for a while and said, `No, I know why they're not excited. They're not excited because they believe what they've been told.' "

I said, "Yes?"

"What have people been told that keeps them from becoming excited, that keeps them relatively calm when they view the catastrophic damage they're inflicting on this planet?"

"I don't know."

"They've been told an explaining story. They've been given an explanation of how things came to be this way, and this stills their alarm. This explanation covers everything, including the deterioration of the ozone layer, the pollution of the oceans, the destruction of the rain forests, and even human extinction—and it satisfies them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it pacifies them. They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they're leaving their children to cope with."


"You yourself were given the same explanation of how things came to be this way as everyone else—but it apparently doesn't satisfy you. You've heard it from infancy but have never managed to swallow it. You have the feeling something's been left out, glossed over. You have the feeling you've been lied to about something, and if you can, you'd like to know what it is—and that's what you're doing here in this room."

"Let me think about this for a second. Are you saying that this explaining story contains the lies I was talking about in my paper about Kurt and Hans?"

"That's right. That's it exactly."

"This boggles my mind. I don't know any such story. Not any single story."

"It's a single, perfectly unified story. You just have to think mythologically."


"I'm talking about your culture's mythology, of course. I thought that was obvious."

"It wasn't obvious to me."

"Any story that explains the meaning of the world, the intentions of the gods, and the destiny of man is bound to be mythology."

"That may be so, but I'm not aware of anything remotely like that. As far as I know, there's nothing in our culture that could be called mythology, unless you're talking about Greek mythology or Norse mythology or something like that."

"I'm talking about living mythology. Not recorded in any book—recorded in the minds of the people of your culture, and being enacted all over the world even as we sit here and speak of it.

"Again, as far as I know, there's nothing like that in our culture."

Ishmael's tarry forehead crinkled into furrows as he gave me a look of amused exasperation. "This is because you think of mythology as a set of fanciful tales. The Greeks didn't think of their mythology this way. Surely you must realize that. If you went up to a man of Homeric Greece and asked him what fanciful tales he told his children about the gods and the heroes of the past, he wouldn't know what you were talking about. He'd say what you said: `As far as I know, there's nothing like that in our culture.' A Norseman would have said the same."

"Okay. But that doesn't exactly help."

"All right. Let's cut the assignment down to a more modest size. This story, like every story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And each of these parts is a story in itself. Before we get together tomorrow, see if you can find the beginning of the story."

"The beginning of the story."

"Yes. Think . . . anthropologically."

I laughed. "What does that mean?"

"If you were an anthropologist after the story being enacted by the Alawa aborigines of Australia, you would expect to hear a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end."


"And what would you expect the beginning of the story to be?"

"I have no idea."

"Of course you do. You're just playing dumb."

I sat there for a minute, trying to figure out how to stop playing dumb. "Okay," I said at last. "I guess I'd expect it to be their creation myth."

"Of course."

"But I don't see how that helps me."

"Then I'll spell it out. You're looking for your own culture's creation myth."

I stared at him balefully. "We have no creation myth," I said. "That's a certainty."