Ishmael, Part II
I appreciate the comments on the first installment of my blog on Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The second installment on this book is the more interesting, in my opinion. Why? Because it explains part of the mythology of our culture by retelling two important stories we all know. Both are stories from the Book of Genesis.
Although I may draw the ire of Bible literalists when I say this, I think the explanations Quinn gives of the Fall of Man (Adam’s banishment from Eden) and of the story of Cain and Abel make supreme allegorical sense. The explanations opened doors in my mind.
All of us are familiar with the story of the Fall. God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in Eden except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam eats from it so God banishes him from the Garden. (I am deliberately leaving out Eve and her role because the word “Adam” means “mankind, ” and mankind is what Ishmael is concerned with.) Most of us are taught that this act of disobedience was something God could not tolerate. When Adam ate the fruit of the tree he realized he was naked and was ashamed. Hello, instantaneous cultural mores!
Ishmael explains the story from a slightly different perspective: that of the gods. The fruit of the tree gave knowledge of good and evil, but it did not impart the wisdom of how to use that knowledge in the long term. Knowing that something is good in the moment does not mean that that same thing will be good in the future. Also, what is good for one may be evil for another. Mankind is too selfish to make that distinction: if something is good for Man now, then that is Man’s choice. If it results in later harm, well, Man will choose to deal with the consequences later. Just like someone commented on yesterday’s blog, humans want instant gratification.
The example Ishmael gives is of predator and prey. If the lion kills the gazelle, it is good for the lion and the lion lives to hunt another day but it is bad for the gazelle, which dies. If the lion misses the kill, it is bad for the lion because the lion starves to death, but it is good for the gazelle which lives for another day. By controlling his ecology and his world, Man has assumed the mantle of choosing which lives and which dies in this scenario. Although man has the gods’ knowledge of good and evil, Man does not have the gods’ wisdom to choose correctly every time. Man’s poor choices result in an ecological imbalance.
The knowledge of good and evil is therefore something entirely situational for Man. Man only chooses what is good for him at the time. Man does not choose what is good for the world at all times. He cannot. Man’s arrogance and his mistaken belief that he has both the power and the wisdom of the gods is his own undoing. It will cause his own destruction.
The second Genesis tale Ishmael relates is what we know as the First Murder. The sons of Adam, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a herder, both make sacrifices to their god. Cain is jealous because the god prefers Abel’s sacrifice, and kills him. Cain is banished from society as a result and carries a mark that identifies him as evil.
Ishmael tells the man that although the Hebrews preserved the story of the brothers, it was a Semite story to begin with. The Semites were a culture that predated the Hebrews and the Arabs. The Semites lived on the Arabian peninsula and in the fertile crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. As Leavers, they took only what they needed and left the rest alone. The were hunter-gatherers and later nomadic herders. In years of plenty, humans and other animal and plant species flourished. In years of famine, the numbers of all species diminished. They would flourish again when food became plentiful.
Agriculture is believed to have begun in the Fertile Crescent. When Man began farming, animals were no longer allowed to graze on farmland. The farmers produced much more food than they needed, and times of famine became less frequent. The species that had lived where the farmers were cultivating land moved elsewhere. As more land was put under cultivation, the farmers, now a Taker society reshaping the world to suit themselves, pushed the nomadic Leavers from their lands. The story of Cain murdering Abel is the story of the northern Taker Semitic tribes murdering the southern nomadic Semitic Leaver tribes to make room for more agriculture. It is a story of war.
The gods prefer Abel’s way of life, which allows all living things to flourish in good times and which means all living things suffer equally during lean times. Cain is banished from living in the hands of the gods because he has assumed the mantle of the gods by reforming the world to his own purposes. The mark that identifies him as evil is his arrogance and continuing destruction of the very planet he needs to maintain in order to survive.
Basically, Ishmael explains, Takers believe that the world belongs to Man, whereas Leavers believe that Man belongs to the world. Takers see themselves as running the world. Leavers allow the gods to run the world. The gods, of course, prefer Leavers, and Leavers are sustainable. Takers are not, and will eventually destroy themselves along with their world in contradiction to the gods’ intentions.
In his final lesson with Ishmael, the man asks for a program to save the world. Ishmael tells him,
“The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world- not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”
“Yes, I see all that, but that’s a program for mankind to follow, that’s not a program for me. What do I do?”
“What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.”
“Yes, but . . . is it enough?”
Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the was they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”
I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”
“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”
I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”
“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”
The above quotation is taken from Daniel Quinn: Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam, NY (1992)), pp 248-249.