Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Ishmael reframes the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden from a Leaver viewpoint, declaring that the story as it is known in Genesis makes no sense when viewed from the Taker viewpoint. The story in Genesis supposes that pre-agriculture was paradise and the agricultural revolution precipitated expulsion from the Garden, preventing a Taker from having been its original author. Recap on the background and some of the terms here.
Ishmael lets the narrator imagine the gods bickering about how to rule the earth. Their dilemma rests on the fact that no matter how they try to divide the food (should the lion live and the deer die? or the frog live and the fly dies, but then the frog must die when the stork comes along - oh dear!) without committing both good and evil acts. Then they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and suddenly realise that that is the right way: some days the frog can live, and other days it must die. It's what we call an ecosystem, but remember we're trying to explain the Fall.
Then one day Adam appeared on the scene and the gods were worried: "He is almost like ourselves, what if he should be tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, impatient for the time that he will be ready to eat from The Tree of Life? There is no telling what the knowledge could do to him, because he is not a god himself." And a bit of knoweldge is a dangerous thing it would seem, because they conjecture that Adam (the human race, that is) will employ the knowledge in its own service, i.e. to live well, grow exponentially in population, and slowly kill all the rest of nature to feed its expanding numbers.
And if any say, "Let's put off the burdens of the criminal life and live in the hands if the gods once again," I will kill them, for what they say is evil. And if any say, "Let's turn aside from our misery and search for that other tree," I will kill them, for what they say is evil ... And to the people of this land I will say, "Grow, for this is good," and they will grow.
To reiterate, the story is nonsensical in Taker mythology - a mystery - because the knowledge given by Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is beneficial to man. Why would it be forbidden?
But when you look at the story from a Leaver point of view - from the point of view of the little tribes bordering the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where agriculture is said to have originated - then it starts to make more sense. What these tribes saw was a people who needed more and more land and killed or converted their neighbours (to the agricultural revolution). And wat they thought, these tribes, is "why on earth would anyone want to give up this way of life for such a burdensome, loathsome, cursed form of living as agriculture?". And so they dreamt up the story of the fall whereby man took the power of the gods, the power of life and death, good and evil, into his own hands (and stuffed it up by being completely selfish), only to be deny itself The Good Life.
And so you see that this explanation is pure genius and puts a lot of things into perspective - like how Adam is not the mythological First Man, only the First Man in Taker culture. And Eve, whose name means life, symbolises fertility and population expansion. To add further weight to the agriculture argument, the story of Cain and Abel is the story of two brothers - agriculturalist people and neighbouring Semitic herders. And the gods accept Abel's offering, not Cain's agricultural offering. Clearly the gods are on the side of a Leaver culture!
What Ishmael does not point out, but what occurred to me, is the traditional puritan notion that the Evil in the Garden is connected with sex (the snake plays a symbolic role). Following Ishmael's reframe one might want to comment that population growth, rather than sex per se, is the evil. Then again, we now know that religion has as much to do with mind control as with keeping society together.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
In your eyes I saw the sadness
and disappointment sinking deep,
in your beautiful face a listless
trace of anger, and lack of sleep.
Your pain was already approaching me
where it hid in a far place
but it drained there where I couldn't see
in the shadows in your face.
I felt strange - so close, yet excluded
when I heard your fearful voice
telling me about the future
where you live someone else's choice.
Saturday, June 11, 2005
Unless you have been reading anthropology for a long time (and I haven't) Daniel Quinn's Ishmael can leave you completely surprised. And even if you have, this novel has every appearance of being a golden thread of concerns many anthroplogists should have been thinking about for decades. I cannot comment on whether they have, but Ishmael is so lucidly written and its message so clearly articulated that there is no question about the importance of its contents. Here is not some new method on how to improve your life, or become a better person - this is about something that concerns all of us on earth, and that everyone should know about.
It would be futile to condense all of what the novel does so admirably in 260 odd pages in one or two posts. Instead I will attempt to highlight one noteworthy topic covered - the recontextualisation of the story of the fall in the book of Genesis in the Bible. To do so it is of some use to explain the setting of the novel.
The novel is largely a dialogue of ideas - literally a dialogue. The narrator, an unspecified person who appears to do some sort of freelance journalism for a living seems to have been searching for someone who can teach him (or her - I can't recall the novel ever specifiying the gender of the narrator; so funny that with the constraint in English of having to genderise a referent, gender is suddenly important! there are languages in which gender differentiation is unimportant in this way) about things he suspects are wrong in the world. It seems to be a case that of "when the student is ready the master appears" because he meets a teacher who starts teaching him about ... captivity
Now, incidentally - and to energise the reader's attention with something more generally accessible - this was also the topic of that entertaining trilogy The Matrix. Remember, in the first movie Neo learns that all humans are living in the Matrix - but they don't know it. The world as they know it is the Matrix. It is almost like a simulation, something that could have been designed by someone - which indeed it was, as we find out in the second installment - by The Architect.
The Teacher (Ishmael) teaches the apprentice about the nature of captivity as well - a prison that one could conceive of as a kind of Matrix, and which we are all living in (enacting) without quite knowing that we are a captive audience and entirely captured participants:
Ishmael: 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.
But perhaps this is where the analogy of The Matrix has fulfilled its purpose, because Ishmael succeeds where The Matrix does not venture - nor could have, as its roots are in the ultra-postmodernist ideas that are dismantling civilisation's realities and cherished belief systems, but fixed on this unstable set of continuously imploding constructs. In short, The Matrix's premises (if people cared to look) should make people deeply uncomfortable because no certainties or objective vaues are given to replace them.
As in the novel I will briefly set out some of the terms that are frequently used. First up is the notion of Takers and Leavers. Takers make up most of homo sapiens sapiens. They include everyone who has gone along wth the agricultural revolution started around 10000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Life as most of us know it is entirely dependent on agriculture to allow permanent settlement and population growth. These are some of the basic premises in the story of the Takers. The Leavers on the other hand do not experience consistent population growth - their numbers being held in check by the eco-system they are a part of, just like any species' - and consist of many of the peoples who lived for 3 million years until the agricultural revolution, when things began to change. Today there are few Leavers left - the bushmen in South Africa and the Navajo in North America are some.
Other terms that require explanation by way of definition are:
Story: loosely defined as a story describing man's role in the world and his relationship to the gods.
To enact: in this context enaction means to live in such a way that the story of man as he is related to the rest of the world and to the gods becomes a reality
culture: in Ishmael's words, "culture is a people enacting a story" - i.e. it is the ongoing activity of people enacting their story
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
the window recedes
from this interior's darkness
the space retreats
into interior darkness
beneath blue skies
a man doffs his mask
his eyes are fire
as he hides the mask
the mask concealed
a deep inner darkness
the window recedes
and shatters in darkness
Monday, June 06, 2005
We are both ready, and tonight in your eyes
I've come to realise
I can read my own thoughts, and they say:
What if you're the one?
My mind is cold however, chiseled by anxiety
I never knew just how much I relied
on your easy acceptance
Now I look for an escape, another tune
a rhythm or thought
where I won't have to risk you
This is my song. Chalk screeches across a board
A pig squeals
I lean over and our lips meet
and your lips part and I kiss you