Ishmael: Part Three



"What's that?" I said when I arrived the following morning. I was referring to an object resting on the arm of my chair.

"What does it look like?"

"A tape recorder."

"That's exactly what it is."

"I mean, what's it for?"

"It's for recording for posterity the curious folktales of a doomed culture, which you are going to tell me."

I laughed and sat down. "I'm afraid I haven't as yet found any curious folktales to tell you."

"My suggestion that you look for a creation myth bore no fruit?"

"We have no creation myth," I said again. "Unless you're talking about the one in Genesis."

"Don't be absurd. If an eighth-grade teacher invited you to explain how all this began, would you read the class the first chapter of Genesis?"

"Certainly not."

"Then what account would you give them?"

"I could give them an account, but it certainly wouldn't be a myth."

"Naturally you wouldn't consider it a myth. No creation story is a myth to the people who tell it. It's just the story."

"Okay, but the story I'm talking about is definitely not a myth. Parts of it are still in question, I suppose, and I suppose later research might make some revisions in it, but it's certainly not a myth."

"Turn on the tape recorder and begin. Then we'll know."

I gave him a reproachful look. "You mean you actually want me to . . . uh . . ."

"To tell the story, that's right."

"I can't just reel it off. I need some time to get it together."

"There's plenty of time. It's a ninety-minute tape."

I sighed, turned on the recorder, and closed my eyes.


"It all started a long time ago, ten or fifteen billion years ago," I began a few minutes later. "I'm not current on which theory is in the lead, the steady-state or the big-bang, but in either case the universe began a long time ago."

At that point I opened my, eyes and gave Ishmael a speculative look.

He gave me one back and said, "Is that it? Is that the story?"

"No, I was just checking." I closed my eyes and began again. "And then, I don't know—I guess about six or seven billion years ago—our own solar system was born . . . . I have a picture in my mind from some childhood encyclopedia of blobs being thrown out or blobs coalescing . . . and these were the planets. Which, over the next couple billion years, cooled and solidified . . . . Well, let's see. Life appeared in the chemical broth of our ancient oceans about what—five billion years ago?"

"Three and a half or four."

"Okay. Bacteria, microorganisms evolved into higher forms, more complex forms, which evolved into still more complex forms. Life gradually spread to the land. I don't know . . . slimes at the edge of the oceans . . . amphibians. The amphibians moved inland, evolved into reptiles. The reptiles evolved into mammals. This was what? A billion years ago?"

"Only about a quarter of a billion years ago."

"Okay. Anyway, the mammals . . . I don't know. Small critters in small niches—under bushes, in the trees . . . . From the critters in the trees came the primates. Then, I don't know—maybe ten or fifteen million years ago—one branch of the primates left the trees and . . ." I ran out of steam.

"This isn't a test," Ishmael said. "The broad outlines will do—just the story as it's generally known, as it's known by bus drivers and ranch hands and senators."

"Okay," I said, and closed my eyes again. "Okay. Well, one thing led to another. Species followed species, and finally man appeared. That was what? Three million years ago?"

"Three seems pretty safe."


"Is that it?"

"That's it in outline."

"The story of creation as it's told in your culture."

"That's right. To the best of our present knowledge."

Ishmael nodded and told me to turn off the tape recorder. Then he sat back with a sigh that rumbled through the glass like a distant volcano, folded his hands over his central paunch, and gave me a long, inscrutable look. "And you, an intelligent and moderately well-educated person, would have me believe that this isn't a myth."

"What's mythical about it?"

"I didn't say there was anything mythical about it. I said it was a myth."

I think I laughed nervously. "Maybe I don't know what you mean by a myth."

"I don't mean anything you don't mean. I'm using the word in the ordinary sense."

"Then it's not a myth."

"Certainly it's a myth. Listen to it." Ishmael told me to rewind the tape and play it back.

After listening to it, I sat there looking thoughtful for a minute or two, for the sake of appearances. Then I said, "It's not a myth. You could put that in an eighth-grade science text, and I don't think there's a school board anywhere that would quibble with it—leaving aside the Creationists."

"I agree wholeheartedly. Haven't I said that the story is ambient in your culture? Children assemble it from many media, including science textbooks."

"Then what are you saying? Are you trying to tell me that this isn't a factual account?"

"It's full of facts, of course, but their arrangement is purely mythical."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You've obviously turned off your mind. Mother Culture has crooned you to sleep."

I gave him a hard look. "Are you saying that evolution is a myth?"


"Are you saying that man did not evolve?"


"Then what is it?"

Ishmael looked at me with a smile. Then he shrugged his shoulders. Then he raised his eyebrows.

I stared at him and thought: I'm being teased by a gorilla. It didn't help.

"Play it again," he told me.

When it was over, I said, "Okay, I heard one thing, the word appeared. I said that finally man appeared. Is that it?"

"No, it's nothing like that. I'm not quibbling over a word. It was clear from the context that the word appeared was just a synonym for evolved. "

"Then what the hell is it?"

"You're really not thinking, I'm afraid. You've recited a story you've heard a thousand times, and now you're listening to Mother Culture as she murmurs in your ear: `There, there, my child, there's nothing to think about, nothing to worry about, don't get excited, don't listen to the nasty animal, this is no myth, nothing I tell you is a myth, so there's nothing to think about, nothing to worry about, just listen to my voice and go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep . . . .' "

I chewed on a lip for a while, then I said, "That doesn't help."

"All right," he said. "I'll tell you a story of my own, and maybe that'll help." He nibbled for a moment on a leafy wand, closed his eyes, and began.


This story (Ishmael said) takes place half a billion years ago—an inconceivably long time ago, when this planet would be all but unrecognizable to you. Nothing at all stirred on the land, except the wind and the dust. Not a single blade of grass waved in the wind, not a single cricket chirped, not a single bird soared in the sky. All these things were tens of millions of years in the future. Even the seas were eerily still and silent, for the vertebrates too were tens of millions of years away in the future.

But of course there was an anthropologist on hand. What sort of world would it be without an anthropologist? He was, however, a very depressed and disillusioned anthropologist, for he'd been everywhere on the planet looking for someone to interview, and every tape in his knapsack was as blank as the sky. But one day as he was moping along beside the ocean he saw what seemed to be a living creature in the shallows off shore. It was nothing to brag about, just a sort of squishy blob, but it was the only prospect he'd seen in all his journeys, so he waded out to where it was bobbing in the waves.

He greeted the creature politely and was greeted in kind, and soon the two of them were good friends. The anthropologist explained as well as he could that he was a student of life-styles and customs, and begged his new friend for information of this sort, which was readily forthcoming. "And now," he said at last, "I'd like to get on tape in your own words some of the stories you tell among yourselves."

"Stories?" the other asked.

"You know, like your creation myth, if you have one."

"What is a creation myth?" the creature asked.

"Oh, you know," the anthropologist replied, "the fanciful tale you tell your children about the origins of the world."

Well, at this, the creature drew itself up indignantly—at least as well as a squishy blob can do—and replied that his people had no such fanciful tale.

"You have no account of creation then?"

"Certainly we have an account of creation," the other snapped. "But it is definitely not a myth."

"Oh, certainly not," the anthropologist said, remembering his training at last. "I'll be terribly grateful if you share it with me."

"Very well," the creature said. "But I want you to understand that, like you, we are a strictly rational people, who accept nothing that is not based on observation, logic, and the scientific method."

"Of course, of course," the anthropologist agreed.

So at last the creature began its story. "The universe," it said, "was born a long, long time ago, perhaps ten or fifteen billion years ago. Our own solar system—this star, this planet and all the others seem to have come into being some two or three billion years ago. For a long time, nothing whatever lived here. But then, after a billion years or so, life appeared."

"Excuse me," the anthropologist said. "You say that life appeared. Where did that happen, according to your myth—I mean, according to your scientific account."

The creature seemed baffled by the question and turned a pale lavender. "Do you mean in what precise spot?"

"No. I mean, did this happen on the land or in the sea?"

"Land?" the other asked. "What is land?"

"Oh, you know," he said, waving toward the shore, "the expanse of dirt and rocks that begins over there."

The creature turned a deeper shade of lavender and said, "I can't imagine what you're gibbering about. The dirt and rocks over there are simply the lip of the vast bowl that holds the sea."

"Oh yes," the anthropologist said, "I see what you mean. Quite. Go on."

"Very well," the other said. "For many millions of centuries the life of the world was merely microorganisms floating helplessly in a chemical broth. But little by little, more complex forms appeared: single-celled creatures, slimes, algae, polyps, and so on.

"But finally," the creature said, turning quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of his story, "but finally jellyfish appeared!"


Nothing much came out of me for ninety seconds or so, except maybe waves of baffled fury. Then I said, "That's not fair."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't exactly know what I mean. You've made some sort of point, but I don't know what it is."

"You don't?"

"No, I don't."

"What did the jellyfish mean when it said, `But finally jellyfish appeared'?"

"It meant . . . that is what it was all leading up to. This is what the whole ten or fifteen billion years of creation were leading up to: jellyfish."

"I agree. And why doesn't your account of creation end with the appearance of jellyfish?"

I suppose I tittered. "Because there was more to come beyond jellyfish."

"That's right. Creation didn't end with jellyfish. Still to come were the vertebrates and the amphibians and the reptiles and the mammals, and of course, finally, man."


"And so your account of creation ends, `And finally man appeared.' "


"Meaning what?"

"Meaning that there was no more to come. Meaning that creation had come to an end."

"This is what it was all leading up to."


"Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. The pinnacle was reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation."


"When man finally appeared, creation came to an end, because its objective had been reached. There was nothing left to create."

"That seems to be the unspoken assumption."

"It's certainly not always unspoken. The religions of your culture aren't reticent about it. Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself."


"Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn't created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man."

"That's right."

Ishmael fixed me with a sardonic eye. "And this is not mythology?"

"Well . . . the facts are facts."

"Certainly. Facts are facts, even when they're embodied in mythology. But what about the rest? Did the entire cosmic process of creation come to an end three million years ago, right here on this little planet, with the appearance of man?"


"Did even the planetary process of creation come to an end three million years ago with the appearance of man? Did evolution come to a screeching halt just because man had arrived?"

"No, of course not."

"Then why did you tell it that way?"

"I guess I told it that way, because that's the way it's told."

"That's the way it's told among the Takers. It's certainly not the only way it can be told."

"Okay, I see that now. How would you tell it?"

He nodded toward the world outside his window. "Do you see the slightest evidence anywhere in the universe that creation came to an end with the birth of man? Do you see the slightest evidence anywhere out there that man was the climax toward which creation had been straining from the beginning?"

"No. I can't even imagine what such evidence would look like."

"That should be obvious. If the astrophysicists could report that the fundamental creative processes of the universe came to a halt five billion years ago, when our solar system made its appearance, that would offer at least some support for these notions."

"Yes, I see what you mean."

"Or if the biologists and paleontologists could report that speciation came to a halt three million years ago, this too would be suggestive."


"But you know that neither of these things happened in fact. Very far from it. The universe went on as before, the planet went on as before. Man's appearance caused no more stir than the appearance of jellyfish."

"Very true."

Ishmael gestured toward the tape recorder. "So what are we to make of that story you told?"

I bared my teeth in a rueful grin. "It's a myth. Incredibly enough, it's a myth."


"I told you yesterday that the story the people of your culture are enacting is about the meaning of the world, about divine intentions in the world, and about human destiny."


"And according to this first part of the story, what is the meaning of the world?"

I thought about that for a moment. "I don't quite see how it explains the meaning of the world."

"Along about the middle of your story, the focus of attention shifted from the universe at large to this one planet. Why?"

"Because this one planet was destined to be the birthplace of man."

"Of course. As you tell it, the birth of man was a central event—indeed the central event—in the history of the cosmos itself. From the birth of man on, the rest of the universe ceases to be of interest, ceases to participate in the unfolding drama. For this, the earth alone is sufficient; it is the birthplace and home of man, and that's its meaning. The Takers regard the world as a sort of human life-support system, as a machine designed to produce and sustain human life."

"Yes, that's so."

"In your telling of the story, you naturally left out any mention of the gods, because you didn't want it to be tainted with mythology. Since its mythological character is now established, you no longer have to worry about that. Supposing there is a divine agency behind creation, what can you tell me about the gods' intentions?"

"Well, basically, what they had in mind when they started out was man. They made the universe so that our galaxy could be in it. They made the galaxy so that our solar system could be in it. They made our solar system so that our planet could be in it. And they made our planet so that we could be in it. The whole thing was made so that man would have a hunk of dirt to stand on."

"And this is generally how it's understood in your culture—at least by those who assume that the universe is an expression of divine intentions."


"Obviously, since the entire universe was made so that man could be made, man must be a creature of enormous importance to the gods. But this part of the story gives no hint of their intentions toward him. They must have some special destiny in mind for him, but that's not revealed here."



"Every story is based on a premise, is the working out of a premise. As a writer, I'm sure you know that."


"You'll recognize this one: Two children of warring families fall in love."

"Right. Romeo and Juliet. "

"The story being enacted in the world by the Takers also has a premise, which is embodied in the part of the story you told me today. See if you can figure out what it is."

I closed my eyes and pretended I was working hard, when in fact I knew I didn't stand a chance. "I'm afraid I don't see it."

"The story the Leavers have enacted in the world has an entirely different premise, and it would be impossible for you to discover it at this point. But you should be able to discover the premise of your own story. It's a very simple notion and the most powerful in all of human history. Not necessarily the most beneficial but certainly the most powerful. Your entire history, with all its marvels and catastrophes, is a working out of this premise."

"Truthfully, I can't even imagine what you're getting at."

"Think. . . . Look, the world wasn't made for jellyfish, was it?"


"It wasn't made for frogs or lizards or rabbits."


"Of course not. The world was made for man."

"That's right."

"Everyone in your culture knows that, don't they? Even atheists who swear there is no god know that the world was made for man.

"Yes, I'd say so."

"All right. That's the premise of your story: The world was made for man. "

"I can't quite grasp it. I mean, I can't quite see why it's a premise."

"The people of your culture made it a premise—took it as a premise. They said: What if the world was made for us?"

"Okay. Keep going."

"Think of the consequences of taking that as your premise: If the world was made for you, then what?"

"Okay, I see what you mean. I think. If the world was made for us, then it belongs to us and we can do what we damn well please with it."

"Exactly. That's what's been happening here for the past ten thousand years: You've been doing what you damn well please with the world. And of course you mean to go right on doing what you damn well please with it, because the whole damn thing belongs to you. "

"Yes," I said, and thought for a second. "Actually, that's pretty amazing. I mean, you hear this fifty times a day. People talk about our environment, our seas, our solar system. I've even heard people talk about our wildlife."

"And just yesterday you assured me with complete confidence that there was nothing in your culture remotely resembling mythology."

"True. I did." Ishmael continued to stare at me morosely. "I was wrong," I told him. "What more do you want?"

"Astonishment," he said.

I nodded. "I'm astonished, all right. I just don't let it show."

"I should have gotten you when you were seventeen."

I shrugged, meaning that I wished he had.


"Yesterday I told you that your story provides you with an explanation of how things came to be this way."


"What contribution does this first part of the story make to that explanation?"

"You mean . . . what contribution does it make to explaining how things came to be the way they are right now?"

"That's right."

"Offhand, I don't see how it makes any contribution to it."

"Think. Would things have come to be this way if the world had been made for jellyfish?"

"No, they wouldn't."

"Obviously not. If the world had been made for jellyfish, things would be entirely different."

"That's right. But it wasn't made for jellyfish, it was made for man.

"And this partly explains how things came to be this way."

"Right. It's sort of a sneaky way of blaming everything on the gods. If they'd made the world for jellyfish, then none of this would have happened."

"Exactly," Ishmael said. "You're beginning to get the idea."


"Do you have a feeling now for where you might find the other parts of this story—the middle and the end?"

I gave this some thought. "I'd watch Nova, I think."


"I'd say that if Nova was doing the story of creation, the story I told today would be the outline. All I have to do now is figure out how they'd do the rest."

"Then that's your next assignment. Tomorrow I want to hear the middle of the story."