Friday, November 18, 2005

Daniel Quinn: Living in the Hands of the Gods

(Excerpted from the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.)

One day (Ishmael began) the gods were considering the administration of the world in the ordinary way, and one of them said, "Here's a spot I've been thinking about for a while - a wide, pleasant savannah. Let's send a great multitude of locusts into this land. Then the fire of life will grow prodigiously in them and the birds and lizards that feed on them, and that will be very fine."

The others thought about this for a while, then one said, "It's certainly true that if we send the locusts into this land, the fire of life will blaze in them and in the creatures that feed on them - but at the expense of all of the other creatures that live there." The others asked what his point was, and he went on. "Surely it would be a great crime to deprive all these other creatures of the fire of life so that the locusts and the birds and the lizards can flourish for a time. For the locusts will strip the land bare, and the deer and the gazelles and the goats and the rabbits will go hungry and die. And with the disappearance of the game, the lions and the wolves and the foxes will soon be dying too. Won't they curse us then and call us criminals for favoring the locusts and the birds and the lizards over them?"

Now the gods had to scratch their heads over this because they'd never looked at matters in this particular light before. But finally one of them said, "I don't see that this presents any great problem. We simply won't do it. We won't raise a multitude of locusts to send into this land, then things will go on as before and no one will have any reason to curse us."

Most of the gods thought this made sense, but one of them disagreed. "Surely this would be as great a crime as the other," he said. "For don't the locusts and the birds and the lizards live our hands as well as the rest? Is it never to be their time to flourish greatly, as the others do?"

While the gods were debating this point, a fox came out to hunt, and they said, "Let's send the fox a quail for its life." But these words were hardly spoken when one of them said, "Surely it would be a crime to let the fox live at the quail's expense. The quail has its life that we gave it and lives in our hands. It would be infamous to send it into the jaws of the fox!"

Then another said, "Look here! The quail is stalking a grasshopper! If we don't give the quail to the fox, then the quail will eat the grasshoppper. Doesn't the grasshopper have its life that we gave it and doesn't it live in our hands as truly as the quail? Surely it would be a crime not to give the quail to fox, so that the grasshopper may live."

Well, as you can imagine, the gods groaned heavily over this and didn't know what to do. And while they were wrangling over it, spring came and the snow waters of the mountains began to swell the streams, and one of them said, "Surely it would be a crime to let these waters flood the land, for countless creatures are bound to be carried off to their deaths." But another said, "Surely it would be a crime not to let these waters flood the land, for without them the ponds and marshes will dry up and all the creatures that live in them will die." And once more the gods were thrown into confusion.

Finally one them had what seemed to be a new thought. "It's clear that any action we take will be good for some and evil for others, so let's take no action at all. Then none of the creatures that live in our hands can call us criminals."

"Nonsense," another snapped. "If we take no action at all, this will also be good for some and evil for others, won't it? The creatures that live in our hands will say, 'Look, we suffer, and the gods do nothing!'"

And while the gods bickered among themselves, the locusts swarmed over the savannah, and the locusts and the birds and the lizards praised the gods while the game and the predators died cursing the gods. And because the gods had taken no action in the matter, the quail lived and the fox went hungry to its hole cursing the gods. And because in the end the gods decided to stem the flood of spring waters, the ponds and the marshes dried up and all the thousands of creatures that lived in them died cursing the gods.

And hearing these curses, the gods groaned. "We've made the garden a place of terror and all that live in it hate us as tyrants and criminals. And they're right to do this because by action or inaction we send them good one day and evil the next without knowing what we should do. The savannah stripped by the locusts rings with curses, and we have no answer to make. The fox and the grasshopper curse us because we let the quail live, and we have no answer to make. Surely the whole world must curse the day we made it, for we are criminals who send good and evil by turns, knowing even as we do it that we don't know what ought to be done."

Well, the gods were sinking right into the slough of despond when one of them looked up and said, "Say, didn't we make for the garden a certain tree whose fruit is the knowledge of good and evil?"

"Yes," cried the others. "Let's find that tree and eat of it and see what this knowledge is." And when the gods had found this tree and had tasted its fruit, their eyes were opened, and they said, "Now indeed we have the knowledge we need to tend the garden without becoming criminals and without earning the curses of all who live in our hands."

And as they were talking in this way, a lion went out to hunt, and the gods said to themselves, "Today is the lion's day to go hungry and the deer it would have taken may live another day." And so the lion missed its kill and as it was returning hungry to its den it began to curse the gods. But they said, "Be at peace, for we know how to rule the world and today is your day to go hungry." And the lion was at peace.

And the next day the lion went out to hunt and the gods sent it the deer they had spared the day before. And as the deer felt the lion's jaw on its neck, it began to curse the gods. But they said, "Be at peace, for we know how to rule the world and today is your day to die, just as yesterday was your day to live." And the deer was at peace.

Then the gods said to themselves, "Certainly the knowledge of good and evil is a powerful knowledge, for it enables us to rule the world without becoming criminals. If we had yesterday sent the lion away hungry without this knowledge, then indeed it would have been a crime. And if we had today sent the deer into the lion's jaws without this knowledge, then indeed this too would have been a crime. But with this knowledge we have done both of these things, one seemingly opposed to the other, and have committed no crime."

Now it happened that one of the gods was away on an errand when the others were eating at the tree of knowledge, and when he returned and heard what the gods had done in the matter of the lion and the deer, he said, "In doing these two things you have surely committed a crime in one instance or the other, for these two things are opposed and one must have been right to do and the other wrong. If it was good for the lion to go hungry on the first day, then it was evil to send it the deer on the second. Or if it was good to send it the deer on the second day, then it was evil to send it away hungry on the first."

The others nodded and said, "Yes, this is just the way we would have reasoned before we ate of this tree of knowledge."

"What knowledge is this?" the god asked, noticing the tree for the first time.

"Taste its fruit," they told him. "Then you'll know exactly what knowledge it is."

So the god tasted, and his eyes were opened. "Yes, I see," he said. "This is indeed the proper knowledge of the gods: the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die."

[...]

When the gods saw that Adam was awakening, they said to themselves, "Now here is a creature so like us that he might almost be one of our company. What span of life and what destiny shall we fashion for him?"

One of them said, "He is so fair, let's give him life for the lifetime of this planet. In the days of his childhood let's care for him as we care for all others in the garden, so that he learns the sweetness of living in our hands. But in adolescence he will surely begin to realize that he's capable of much more than other creatures and will become restless in our care. Shall we then lead him to the other tree in the garden, the Tree of Life?"

But another said, "To lead Adam like a child to the Tree of Life before he had even begun to seek it for himself would deprive him of a great undertaking by which he may gain an important wisdom and prove his mettle to himself. As we would give him the care he needs as a child, let's give him the quest he needs as an adolescent. Let's make the quest for the Tree of Life the occupation of his adolescence. In this way he'll discover for himself how he may have life for the lifetime of this planet."

The others agreed with this plan, but one said, "We should take note that this might well be a long and baffling quest for Adam. Youth is impatient and after a few thousand years of searching, he might despair of finding the Tree of Life. If this should happen, he might be tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil instead."

"Nonsense," the others replied. "You know very well that the fruit of this tree nourishes only the gods. It can no more nourish Adam than the grasses of the oxen. He might take it into his mouth and swallow it, but it would pass through his body without benefit. Surely you don't imagine that he might actually gain our knowledge by eating of this tree?"

"Of course not," the other replied. "The danger is not that he would gain our knowledge but rather that he might imagine that he'd gained it. Having tasted the fruit of this tree, he might say to himself, 'I have eaten at the gods' own tree of knowledge and therefore know as well as they how to rule the world. I may do as I will do.'"

"This is absurd," said the other gods. "How could Adam ever be so foolish as to imagine he had the knowledge that enables us to govern the world and to do what we will do? None of our creatures will ever be master of knowledge of who shall live and who shall die. This knowledge is ours alone, and if Adam should grow in wisdom till the very eclipse of the universe, it would be as far beyond him as it is right now."

But the other was not disconcerted by this argument. "If Adam should eat of our tree," he persisted, "there's no telling how he might deceive himself. Not knowing the truth, he might say to himself, 'Whatever I can justify doing is good and whatever I cannot justify doing is evil.'"

But the others scoffed at this, saying, "This is not the knowledge of good and evil."

"Of course it's not," the other replied, "but how would Adam know this?"

The others shrugged. "Perhaps in childhood Adam might believe he was wise enough to rule the world, but what of it? Such arrogant foolishness would pass with maturity."

"Ah," said the other, "but possessed of this arrogant foolishness, would Adam survive into maturity? Believing himself our equal, he would be capable of anything. In his arrogance, he might look around the garden and say to himself, 'This is all wrong. Why should I have to share the fire of life with all these creatures. Look here, the lions and the wolves and the foxes take the game I would have for myself. This is evil. I will kill all these creatures, and this will be good. And look here, the rabbits and the grasshoppers and the sparrows take the fruits of the land that I would have for myself. This is evil. I will kill all these creatures, and this will be good. And look here, the gods have set a limit on my growth just as they've set a limit on the growth of all others. This is evil. I will grow without limit, taking all the fire of life that flows through this garden into myself, and that will be good.' Tell me - if this should happen, how long would Adam live before he had devoured the entire world?"

"If this should happen," the others said, "Adam would devour the world in a single day, and at the end of that day he would devour himself."

"Just so," the other said, "unless he managed to escape from this world. Then he would devour the entire universe as he had devoured the world. But even so he would inevitably end by devouring himself, as anything must that grows without limit."

"This would indeed be a terrible end for Adam," another said. "But might he not come to same end even without having eaten at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Might he not be tempted by his yearning for growth to take the fire of life into his own hands even without deluding himself that this was good?"

"He might," the other agreed. "But what would be the result? He would become a criminal, an outlaw, a thief of life, and a murderer of the creatures around him. Without the delusion that what he was doing was good - and therefore to be done at any cost - he would soon weary of the outlaw's life. Indeed this is bound to happen during his quest for the Tree of Life. But if he should eat the tree of our knowledge, then he will shrug off his weariness. He will say, 'What does it matter that I'm weary of living as a murderer of all the life around me? I know good and evil, and this way of living is good. Therefore I must live this way even though I'm weary unto death, even though I destroy the world and even myself. The gods wrote in the world a law for all to follow, but it cannot apply to me because I'm their equal. Therefore I will live outside this law and grow without limit. To be limited is evil. I will steal the fire of life from the hands of the gods and heap it up for my growth, and that will be good. I will destroy those kinds that do not serve my growth, and that will be good. I will wrest the garden from the hands of the gods and order it anew so that it serves only my growth, and that will be good. And because these things are good, they must be done at any cost. It may be that I'll destroy the garden and make a ruin of it. It may be that my progeny will teem over the earth like locusts, stripping it bare, until they drown in their own filth and hate the very sight of one another and go mad. Still they must go on, because to grow without limit is good and to accept the limits of the law is evil. And if any say, "Let's put off the burdens of the criminal life and live in the hands of 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 when at last all the garden has been subjugated to my use and all kinds that do not serve my growth have been cast aside and all the fire of life in the world flows through my progeny, still I must grow. And to the people of this land I will say, "Grow, for this is good," and they will grow. And to the people of the next land I will say, "Grow, for this is good," and they will grow. And when they can grow no more, the people of this land will fall upon the people of the next to murder them, so that they may grow still more. And if the groans of my progeny fill the air throughout the world, I will say to them, "Your sufferings must be borne, for you suffer in the cause of good. See how great we have become! Wielding the knowledge of good and evil, we have made ourselves the masters of the world and the gods have no power over us. Though your groans fill the air, isn't it sweeter to live in our own hands than in the hands of the gods?"'"

And when the gods heard all this, they saw that of all the trees in the garden, only the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could destroy Adam. And so they said to him, "You may eat of every tree in the garden save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree, you will certainly die."

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