The Story of B
is a novel by Daniel
Quinn published in 1996 that is directly linked to two other of his books:
Quinn is often seen as an environmentalist, an author close to what has become known as Anarcho-Primitivism,
although he always rejected that label. He does see himself as promoting
some sort of new tribalism still very undefined as a solution to the mounting
problems that our civilization faces.
The book, written as a diary, chronicles the story of Jared Osborne, a young Roman Catholic priest
who belongs to a religious order
known as the order of St. Lawrence (or Laurentian order, quite similar to the
Jesuits according to the
author's own description), whose main duty is to be the first group to
recognize the Anti-Christ. A well regarded member of the order, Fr. Bernard Lulfre, assigns him a task
to investigate an itinerant American lecturer, Charles Atterley, and report
on his activities. When he finally manages to attend one of Atterley's
lectures in Central Europe, Jared takes verbatim notes (the lectures are
actually included at the end of the book) and fails to understand at first
the significance of this character and why the elder members of his order
even suspect that he might be the Anti-Christ:
Atterley's message seemed difficult to summarize and was typically
characterized as "mind-boggling" by those who were favorably impressed and
as "incomprehensible" by those who weren't. I told Fr. Lulfre I didn't
understand what made him seem dangerous.
"What makes him dangerous," he said, "is the fact that no one can place
him or his product. He's not selling meditation or Satanism or goddess worship or faith healing or spiritualism or Umbanda or
speaking in tongues or any kind of New Age drivel. He's apparently not making money at all —and
that's disquieting. You always know what someone's about when he's raking in
millions. Atterley's not another example of some familiar model, like
David Koresh or the
Reverend Moon or
or Uri Geller. In fact,
his presentation and lifestyle are more reminiscent of Jesus of Nazareth than anyone else, and
that too is disquieting."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 9-10)
Fr. Lulfre, however, quickly explains:
Everything Atterley was saying was obvious, and all of it was new. This
made it maddening, because what is obvious should be old —and
therefore well known, boring, and unnecessary to say. I glanced at the
listeners around me, and seeing them riveted by Atterley's words, I wanted
to kick them in the shins, grab them by the hair, and shake them, screaming,
"Why are you paying attention to this? You know this! You should
have worked it out yourself!"
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 18)
As indicated above, the complete transcription of Atterley's conference can
be found in an appendix at the end of the book. The gist of the message is
actually pretty much the same we already encountered in Quinn's best known
novel, Ishmael (see the review on this very same website here):
With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see
that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our parents and pass on to
our children is squarely and solidly built on a Great Forgetting that
occurred in our culture worldwide during the formative millenia of our
civilization. What happened during those formative millenia of our
civilization? What happened was that Neolithic farming communes turned into villages, villages turned
into towns, and towns were gathered into kingdoms. Concomitant with these
events were the development of division of labor along craft lines, the establishment of
regional and interregional trade systems, and the emergence of commerce as a separate profession. What was being forgotten while all
this was going on was the fact that there had been a time when none of
it was going on —a time when human life was sustained by hunting and gathering rather than
by animal husbandry
and agriculture, a time
when villages, towns, and kingdoms were undreamed of, a time when no one made
a living as a potter or a basket maker or a metalworker, a time when trade
was an informal and occasional thing, a time when commerce was unimaginable
as a means of livelihood.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 242-243)
And then, to stress and clarify the point:
What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not that humans had
evolved from other species. There isn't the slightest reason to think
humans or Mesolithic
humans guessed guessed that they had evolved. What was forgotten in the
Great Forgetting was the fact that, before the advent of agriculture and
village life, humans had lived in a profoundly different way.
This explains why the Great Forgetting was not exposed by the development of
theory. Evolution in fact had nothing to do with it. It was
exposed the Great Forgetting (and would have done so even if no theory of
evolution had ever been proposed). It did so by making it unarguably clear
that humans had been around long, long, long before any conceivable date for
the planting of the first crop and the beginning of civilization.
Paleontology made untenable the idea that humanity, agriculture, and
civilization all began at roughly the same time. History and archaeology had put it beyond doubt that
agriculture and civilization were just a few thousand years old, but
paleontology put it beyond doubt that humanity was millions
of years old. Paleontology made it impossible to believe that Man had been
born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder. Paleontology forced us
to conclude that Man had been born something else entirely —a forager and a homeless nomad— and this is what hada been
forgotten in the Great Forgetting.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 244-245)
Not only that, we should add, but it also became clear that this life that
predated agriculture and civilization was as distinctly human as the one that
followed. And yet, Atterley explains in his conference, when we finally
came to realize all this, nothing changed. One would have expected a
major reassessment of our intellectual tradition, but none of that happened.
On the contrary, we went on living as if nothing had changed. How did we
account for these facts, then? We simply converted the birth of agriculture
into the Agricultural Revolution, came up with a new field of knowledge called prehistory and forcibly stated that
history, truly, is all that mattered. There was nothing to learn from what
In this sense, both the peoples of the East and the West, Atterley argues,
are more similar than dissimilar. However, it is important to stress that
Quinn (using Atterley's words) does not criticize all forms of agriculture,
but rather what he labels
Totaliatarian agriculture is more than a means of getting what you need to
live, it's the foundation for the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on
this planet. This comes as a shock to many listeners, but there isn't any
question about it: No one works harder to stay alive than the people of our
culture do. This has been so thoroughly documented in the past forty
years that I doubt if you could find an anthropologist anywhere who would
argue about it.
It's my notion that the laboriousness of their lifestyle has given rise to
another fundamental similarity between the peoples of East and West, and
this is the similarity in their spiritual outlook. Again, it's
commonplace to imagine that an enormous gulf separates East and West in this
regard, but the two of them look like twins to me, because they're both
obsessed by the strange idea that people need to be saved. In
recent decades, the salvationist coloration of Eastern religions has been toned down for export
to Beat, hippie, and New Age markets, but it's unmistakable when seen in the originals,
in native haitats.
It's certainly true that the ends and means of salvation differ between East
and West, but then the ends and means of salvation differ among all
the salvationist religions of the world —this is precisely how you tell
them apart. The essential fact remains that, anywhere in the world, East or
West, you can walk up to a stranger and say, "Let me show you how to be
saved," and you'll be understood.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 248-249)
It all goes back to the story of the paradise lost, the Garden of Eden, a true golden thread of many
world religions. Deep down, we all seem to know that, prior to civilization
as we know it, we followed a lifestyle that connected us to the world and to
each other, something that we lost once agriculture and civilization spread
throughout the planet. It also accounts for the recurrent myth of the noble savage in so many
cultures all over the planet. But what is it that we miss from those
During the Great Forgetting it came to be understood among the people of
our culture that life in "the wild" was governed by a single, cruel law known
in English as "the Law of the Jungle," roughly translatable as "kill or be
killed." In recent decades, by the process of looking (instead of merely
have discovered that this "kill or be killed" law is a fiction. In fact,
a system of laws —universally observed— preserves the tranquility
of "the jungle," protects species and even individuals, and promotes the
well-being of the community as a whole. This system of laws has been called,
among other things, the peacekeeping law, the law of limited competition,
and animal ethics.
Briefly, the law of limited competition is this: You may compete to the
full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors
or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you
may compete but you may not wage war on your competitors.
The ability to reproduce is clearly a prerequisite for biological success,
and we can be sure that every species comes into existence with that ability
as an essential heritage from its parent species. In the same way, following
the law of limited competition is a prerequisite for biological success, and
we can be sure that every species comes into existence following that law as
an essential heritage from its parent species.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 252)
Some might criticize these views, automatically labeling them as yet one more
restatement of the myth of the noble savage. However, Atterley does have
a point that we are not aware of any genocidal tendencies in the prehistoric
world, just as we do not know of any such case among the hundreds of
contemporaneous cultures that still live to a great extent according to those
old principles. Sure, one could argue that the main reason why they
never behaved with the same brutality that we witness nowadays is because
they never reached a level of technological development that allowed them to
do so. And yet, the fact remains that we do not seen in these tribal
cultures anything similar to our wars of conquest. Yes, there are skirmishes.
Yes, they kill each other. Yes, they have warriors. However, they do
not go to the extent of attempting to completely eradicate their
enemy or even conquer their territory. The approach is always far more
hands-off. It's more defensive in nature, as it tends to happen in wild
life in general: "here are the limits of your territory, and do not dare
cross them or you will meet my fierce opposition".
To put it another way, Atterley (and, by extension, Quinn) is not talking
only about an idealized prehistoric world that we can barely study. Far from
it. He is also talking about the hundreds of cultures that, even in today's
world, trace their lifestyle to those prehistoric men:
It is precisely this cultural continuity that was broken in the Great
Forgetting. To put it another way: After rejecting the law that had
protected us from extinction three million years and making ourselves the
enemy of the rest of the biological community, we suppressed our outlaw
status by forgetting that there ever was a law.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 254)
Incidentally, some people would argue that agriculture was actually born as a way to fight famine. Atterley strongly disagrees with
an argument that we should consider carefully:
Agriculture is useless as a response to famine. You can no more respond
to famine by planting a crop than you can respond to falling out of an
airplane by knitting a parachute. But this really misses the popint. To
say that agriculture was developed as a response to famine is like saying that
cigarette smoking was developed as a response to lung cancer. Agriculture
doesn't cure famine, it promotes famine —it creates the conditions in
which famines occur. Agriculture makes it possible for more people to live
in an area than that area can support —and that's exactly where famines
occur. For example, agriculture made it possible for many populations
of Africa to outstrip their
homelands' resources —and that's why these populations are now
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 257)
One only has to consider that these horrible famines in Africa did not
happen precisely until we modernized their societies and imposed our
own modern industrial agriculture practices on them
. Likewise, it could
be argued that the relative overpopulation is behind their constant wars,
since they now feel obliged to conquer other territories in order to feed
their own populations, which have outgrown the very same territories where
they managed to live peacefully for thousands of years.
After attending Atterley's first conference in Munich, Osborne follows his tracks to a fictional German
city by the name of Radenau, where he attends a second conference. In this
case, Atterley changes his lecture a bit and also gives a talk titled The
Boiling of a Frog whose transcription is included in the end of the book.
In this other lecture, using the metaphor of the boiling frog, Atterley describes how our
civilization has slowly but surely been appriximating a point of no return.
It all started, as explained above, with the advent of totalitarian
agriculture. Yet, the new system spread not so much because it was
totalitarian as because it satisfied certain needs:
Totalitarian agriculture was not adopted in our culture out of shear
meanness. It was adopted because, by its very nature, it's more productive
than any other style (and there are many other styles). Totalitarian
agriculture represents productivity to the max, as Americans like
to say. It represents productivity in a form that literally cannot be
Many styles of agriculture (not all, but many) produce food surpluses. But,
not surprisingly, totalitarian agriculture produces larger surpluses than any
other style. It produces surpluses to the max. You simply can't
outproduce a system designed to convert all the food in the world into human
Totalitarian agriculture is the fire under our cauldron. Totalitarian
agriculture is what has kept us "on the boil" here for ten thousand years.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 260)
In that sense, one would imagine that, according to Quinn, what makes
totalitarian agriculture the most successful economic system in
human History is precisely the very same reason behind the success of
efficiency to produce material goods. Quinn, however, sees agriculture and
food (and not capitalism) as the source of today's crisis of civilization.
If anything, he would point out that all capitalism does is deepen an
already existing trend towards conquering the whole world and subject it to
human needs and wishes. Yes, industrialization and capitalism have expanded
the sphere of production to every single corner of the world (pretty much)
and every single area of human life. However, in doing so, it is simply
following on the footsteps that human civilization started thousands of years
ago. All capitalism does, then, is increase the speed at which we devour our
surroundings and put everything under the same logic of material production
and consumption without limits. In other words, if I understand Quinn
correctly, he would argue that the logic of profit that characterizes
capitalism would be totalitarian agriculture on steroids, more than a
completely new mindset or vision.
In any case, Quinn argues (through Atterley's speech) that most of the
social issues that we interpret as being intrinsically related to the frailty
of human nature are actually due to the existence of this overall mindset
that grew out of the Agricultural Revolution:
Looking out into your faces, I see how uninmpressed you are with this news.
Crime? Crime is universal among humans, isn't it? No, actually it isn't.
Misbehavior, yes. Unpleasant behavior, disruptive behavior, yes. People
can always be counted on to fall in love with the wrong person or to lose
their tempers or to be stupid or greedy or vengeful. Crime is something else,
and we all know that. What we mean by crime doesn't exist among tribal
peoples, but this isn't because they're nicer people than we are, it's because
they're organized in a different way. This is worth spending a moment on.
If someone irritates you —let's say by constantly interrupting you
while you're talking— this isn't a crime. You can't call the police
and have this person arrested, tried, and sent to prison, because
interrupting people isn't a crime. This means you have to handle it yourself,
whatever way you can. But if this same person walks onto your property and
refuses to leave, this is a trespass —a crime— and you can
absolutely call the police and have this person arrested, tried, and maybe
even sent to prison. In other words, crimes engage the machinery of the
state, while other unpleasant behaviors don't. Crimes are what the
state defines as crimes. Trespassing is a crime, but interrupting
is not, and we therefore have two entirely different ways of handling them
—which people in tribal societies do not. Whatever the trouble is,
whether it's bad manners or muder, they handle it themselves, the way you
handle the interrupter. Evoking the power of the state isn't an option for
them, because they have no state. In tribal societies, crime simply
doesn't exist as a separate category of human behavior.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 265)
I would like to make a couple of considerations here, though. First, aside
from the existence or not of the state (Quinn is right about that), there is
still an intrinsic difference between crime and misbehavior (a difference of
grade, or perhaps a difference of importance or gravity of the deed) that
ought to be taken into account. And also in this regard, crime is something
that has far more presence in human civilization than in tribal societies.
Why? One would imagine it is due, on the one hand, to the smaller size of
the societies involved, and, on the other, to the strong sense of community
prevalent in tribal groups. A second consideration that is, I believe, just
as important, is that our highly complex and civilized societies continuously
expand the realm of crime by regulating more and more areas of our social (and
even personal!) life. Thus, we have definitely reached a point by the end of
the 20th century when we started regulating manners. It almost seems as if the
sphere of the state continues expanding while that of the society itself is
being shrunk. Notice the difference between my position and that of the
liberal: I state that the expansion of the state is not only encroaching on the
realm of individual freedom, but also on the realm of society and community
. Nevertheless, the key to Atterley's message is that, somehow,
we were convinced that all this crime is nothing but the direct consequence of
our own flawed nature.
Yet, it is Quinn's argument that this deep belief in the inherent flawness
of human nature is what gave birth to today's religions of salvation:
It's impossible to overstate the novelty of this idea of salvation. Religion had been around in our
culture for thousands of years, of course, but it had never been about
salvation as we understand it or as the people of this period [1,400
to 0 B.C.E.] began to understand it. Earlier gods had been talismanic
gods of kitchen and crop, mining and mist, housepainting and herding, stroked
at need like lucky charms, and earlier religions had been state religions,
part of the apparatus of sovereignty and governance (as is apparent from their
temples, built for royal ceremonies, not for popular public devotions).
Judaism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and Buddhism
all came into being during this period and had no existence before it.
Quite suddenly, after six thousand years of totalitarian agriculture and
civilization building, the people of our culture —East and West, twins
of a single birth— were beginning to wonder if their lives made sense,
were beginning to perceive a void in themsleves that economic success and
civil esteem could not fill, were beginning to imagine that something was
profoundly, even innately, wrong with them.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 267)
Obviously, nothing changed after the sudden appearance of these new religions,
except for one important thing:
The fire burned on unwaveringly under the cauldron of our culture, but people
everywhere now had salvationist religions to show them how to understand and
deal with the inevitable discomfort of being alive. Adherents tend to
concentrate on the differences between these religions, but I concentrate on
their agreements, which are as follows: The human condition is what it is,
and no amount of effort on your part will change that; it's not within your
power to save your people, your friends, your parents, your children, or your
spouse, but there is one person (and only one) you can save, and that's
you. Nobody can save you but you, and there's nobody you can save but
yourself. You can carry the words to others and they can carry the word
to you, but it never comes down to anything but this, whether it's Buddhism,
Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam: Nobody can save you but you, and
there's nobody you can save but yourself. Salvation is of course the most
wonderful thing you can achieve in your life —and you not only don't
have to share it, it isn't even possible to share it.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 268)
That is, according to the boiling frog
speech, how we decided to cope
with all the problems brought about upon us by our own choice in favor of
the particular type of agriculture that we started at the dawn of
But all these are Atterley's public teachings (i.e., the transcripts
of his speeches), included at the end of the book. However, Atterley sees
some potential in Jared, and proposes to share with him some secret
teachings. Yet, these teachings are not "secret" in the sense that they
are hidden from the view of everybody else:
"In other words: Secret teachings aren't ones that teachers keep to
themselves. Secret teachings are ones that teachers have a hard time giving
I shook my head. I damn well had to shake my head, of course. I've
never seen it spelled out, but it's implicit in every text that —aside
from forbidden (and probably illusory) lore like witchcraft and necromancy— there are no relevant secrets. There
are plenty of things we don't know and will never know, but everything we
need to know has been revealed. If this isn't the case, if Moses or Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad held
something back for an inner circle, then revelation is incomplete —and
by definition useless.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 34)
The problem is that Atterley's task is infinitely more difficult than that of
any of those other prophets. He has to go against the current of thousands of
years of culture that laid the foundation for those other revealed religions:
"Jesus didn't have to lay a foundation every time he spoke. Others had
done that for him through a hundred generations, literally from the time of
Abraham. But I do
have to do that —with every single audience I face. You've heard
me in Munich and here in Radenau, but you haven't heard what I have to teach.
All you've heard so far is the foundation —and it's far from finished.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 35)
A second speech that he gives in the city of Radenau discusses the current
collapse of values, a conference that is also included at the end of the
book in its entirety:
Before our era, the chorus of distress that had assembled over the ten
thousand years of our cultural life consisted of nine voices: war, crime,
corruption, rebellion, famine, plague, slavery, genocide, and economic
collapse. Beginning in 1960,
our own era found a tenth voice to add to the chorus, a voice never heard
before, and this is the voice of cultural catastrophe —a voice that
wails of loss of vision, failure of purpose, and the collapse of values.
Every culture has a defining place in the scheme of things, a vision of
where it fits in the universe. There's no need for people to articulate this
vision in words (for example, to their children because it's articulated in
their lives —in their history, their legends, their customs, their
laws, their rituals, their arts, their dances, their stories and songs.
Indeed, if you ask then to explain this vision, they won't know how to begin
and may not even know what you're talking about. You might say that it's a
kind of low, murmurous song that's in their ears from birth, heard so
constantly throughout their lives that it's never consciously heard at all.
I know that many of you are familiar with the work of my colleague Ishmael (commented here), who called the singer of this song
Mother Culture and identified the song itself as nothing less than mythology.
The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell lamented the fact that nowadays the people of our culture
have no mythology, but, as Ishmael showed us, not all mythology comes from the
mouths of bards and storytellers around the fire. Another sort has come to
us from the mouths of emperors, lawgivers, priests, political leaders, and
prophets. Nowadays it comes to us from the pulpits of our churches, from film
screens and television screens, fro the mouths of clergy, schoolteachers, news
commentators, novelists, pundits. It's not a mythology of quaint tales
but a mythology that tells us what the gods had in mind when they made the
universe and what our role in that universe is. A people can no more
function without this sort of mythology than an individual can function
without a nervous system. It's the organizing principle of all our
activities. It explains to us the meaning of everythig we do.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 276-277)
This particular mythology that Atterley is referring to is based on the idea
that the world belongs to us, that we can do whatever we want with nature:
What's more —and you must mark this— the things that got us here
were good things. In 1950 there wasn't the slightest whisper of a
doubt about this anywhere in our culture, East or West, capitalist or
communist. In 1950 this was something everyone could agree on: Exploiting
the world was our God-given right. The world was created for us to
exploit. Exploiting the world actually improved it! There as no
limit to what we could do. Cut as much down as you like, dig up as much
as you like. Scrape away the forests, fill in the wetlands, dam the rivers,
dump poisons anywhere you want, as much as you want. None of this was
regarded as wicked or dangerous. Good heavens, why would it be? The earth
was created specifically to be used in this way. It was a limitless,
indestructible playroom for humans. You simply didn't have to consider the
possibility of running out of something or of damaging something. The earth
was designed to take any punishment, to absorb and sweeten any toxin, in any
quantity. Explode nuclear weapons? Good heavens, yes —as many as
you want! Thousands, if you like. Radioactive material generated while
trying to achieve our God-given destiny can't harm us.
Wipe out whole species? Absolutely! Why ever not? If people don't need
these creatures, then obviously they're superfluous! To exercise such
control over the world is to humanize it, is to take us a step closer
to our destiny.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 278)
But it all changed in the 1960s, although B chooses the 1960
as the turning point for symbolic reasons:
I've said that his new era of the collapse of values began in 1960. Stricyly
speaking, it should be dated to 1962, the year of Rachel Carson's Silent
Spring, the first substantive challenge ever issued to the motivating
vision of our culture. The facts Carson brought forward to detail the
devastating environmental effects of DDT and other pesticides were astounding: DDT didn't just do its intended job of killing unwanted
insects; it had entered the avian food chain, disrupting reproductive
processes and breaking down egg structures, with the result that many
species had already been destroyed and many more were threatened, making it
not unthinkable that the world might someday wake to a silent spring
—a spring without birds. But Silent Spring wasn't just another
sensational exposé, welcome in any publishing season. With a single
powerful blow, it shattered for all time a complex of fundamental articles of
our cultural faith: that the world was capable of repairing any damage we
might do it; that the world was designed to do precisely this; that
the world was "on our side" in our aggrandizement, would always tolerate and
facilitate our efforts; that God himself had fashioned the world
specifically to support our efforts to conquer it and rule it. The
facts in Silent Spring plainly contradicted all these ideas.
Something presumably beneficial to us was not being tolerated and facilitated
by the world. The world was not supporting our cultural vision.
God was not supporting our cultural vision. The world was not
unequivocally on our side. God was not unequivocally on our side.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 281-282)
That is precisely what conservatives dislike about the 1960s. When pressed
for details, they will acknowledge that what they do not like about it is
precisely the fact that the certainties of the old ways disappeared all of
a sudden. Supposedly, we "betrayed" our traditional way of doing things,
which is often seen as the beginning of the sloppery slope towards decadence.
Yet, one ought to consider whether this is truly the case, or rather what
happened then is that we just started to be aware of the inevitability of
In any case, once we realized that we were quickly going downhill, a whole
array of possible explanations were suggested:
The theories that are advanced to explain these things are for the most part
commonplace generalities, truisms, and platitudes. They are the received
wisdom of the ages. You hear, for example, that the human race is
fatally and irremediably flawed. You hear that the human race is a sort of
planetary disease that Gaia will eventually shake off. You hear that insatiable capitalist greed
is to blame or that technology is to blame. You hear that parents are to
blame or the schools are to blame or rock and roll is to blame. Sometimes
you hear that the symptoms themselves are to blame: things like poverty,
oppression, and injustice, things like overcrowding, bureaucratic indifference,
and political corruption.
These are some of the common theories advanced to explain what's gone wrong
here. You'll hear others. Most of them have to be deduced from the remedies
that are proposed to correct them. Usually these remedies are expressed in
this form: All we have to do is... something. Elect the right party.
Get rid of this leader. Handcuff the liberals. Handcuff the conservatives.
Write stricter laws. Give longer prison sentences. Bring back the death
penalty. Kill Jews, kill anciente enemies, kill foreigners, kill somebody.
Meditate. Pray the Rosary. Raise consciousness. Evolve to some new plane
I want you to understand what I'm doing here. I'm proposing a new theory
to explain what's gone wrong. This is not a minor variation, not a
smartening up of conventional wisdom. This is something unheard of,
something entirely novel in our intellectual history. Here it is: We're
experiencing cultural collapse. The very same collapse that was experienced
by the Plain Indians
when their way of life was destroyed and they were herded onto
reservations. The very same collapse that was experienced by countless
peoples overrun by us in Africa, South America, Australia, New Guinea,
and elsewhere. It matters not that the circumstances of the collapse
were different for them and for us, the results were the same. For both of
us, in just a few decades, shocking realities invalidated our vision of the
world and made nonsense of a destiny that had always seemed self-evident.
For both bof us, the sond we'd been singing from the beginning of time
suddenly died in our throats.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 283-284)
Atterley's problem is that he has to speak against the backdrop of a very
successful civilization that pervades it all by now, to the point that it
has imprinted in all of us an absolute forgetting of anything that preceded
it, as if before its own existence there was just nothing. He has to fight
against a mentality, against a vision, which means that, in order to even
have a chance, he also has to offer an alternative vision:
"What I said was this: If the world is saved, it will be saved by people
with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by people
with old minds and new programs. It will not be saved by people with the old
vision but a new program."
Everyone in the room seemed to be looking at me, awaiting my reply. I couldn't
imagine why this was so, but there was no mistaking it. I said, "I'm not sure
I know the difference between a vision and a program."
"Recycling is a program," B said. "Supporting earth-friendly legislation
is a program. You don't need a ner vision to engage in either of these
"Are you saying that such programs are a waste of time?"
"Not at all, though they do tend to give people a false sense of progress
and hjope. Programs are initiated in order to counter or defeat
"Give me an example of what you mean by vision."
"Vision in our culture supports isolation, for example. It supports a
separate home for every family. It suppors locks on the doors. It powefully
supports staying isolated behind your locked doors and viewing the world
electronically. Since this is the case, no programs are needed to encourage
people to stay home and watch television. On the other hand, if you want to
get people to turn off their television sets and leave their homes, that's
when you need a program."
"I see —I think."
"Isolation is supported by vision, so it takes care of itself, but
community building isn't, so it has to be supported by programs. Programs
invariably run counter to vision, and so have to be thrust on people
—have to be 'sold' to people. For example, if you want people to
live simply, reduce consumption, reuse, and recycle, you must create programs
that encourage such behaviors. But if you want them to consume a lot and
waste a lot, you don't need to create programs of encouragement, because
these behaviors are supported by our cultural vision."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 48-49)
To some extent, it is the old debate between revolution and reform. Revolution is, without a doubt, difficult and, quite often,
violent and traumatic (also, let us be honest, it is incomplete and does not
truly effect a change of minds), but at least the change becomes clear. There
is a before and after. On ther other hand, reform is far easier and does not
require any major sacrifice or violence. Yet, one always gets that very bad
aftertaste that, truth be told, things did not change that much. The same
people are still in charge and we continue doing things the same way (i.e.,
following the same "vision", in B's terms). As a consequence of this, one
could say that reform may slow down things but it truly never changes the
course of things. Sure, what is needed is a revolution of the mind
that involves a clear change in our behavior (i.e., a new vision). Something
that can be accomplished without violence. We all know that. What we ignore
is how to bring it about.
And so, Atterley begins his "private lessons" by telling Jared how in our
more distant past, before the Great Forgetting, there were other lifestyles.
As a matter of fact, there are still people living among us (a tiny minority,
to be sure) that live according to those old principles that precede the
agricultural revolution. He is referring, obviously, to the tribes of hunters
and gatherers that are still around. Thus, he tells him about the Gebusi people of Papua
"(...) Confined to their own few hundred square miles, the Gebusi are quaint
and bizarre. Blow them up into a universal world culture to which every
human belong and they become an obscenity. The same is true in general.
Any culture will become an obscenity when blown up into a universal world
culture to which all must belong. Confined to the few hundred square miles
in which it was born, our own culture would have been merely quaint and
bizarre. Blown up into a universal world culture to which all must belong,
it is a horrifying obscenity".
"I think I'm beginning to see," I told him. "I think I'm beginning to see
what you're getting at as a whole."
B nodded. "You probably don't remember why I brought up the Gebusi in the
first place. You said it was a wonder that we ever adopted totalitarian
agriculture, considering the fact that, far from making life easier or more
secure, it actually has the opposite effect."
"Yes, I remember."
"I wanted you to see that lifestyle strategies adopted in a culture aren't
necessarily logical. They don't necessarily benefit people in obvious
ways. They aren't necessarily adopted because they make life more comfortable
—though people may use this rationale to explain them to children and
outsiders. In our culture, for example, the adoption of our style of
agriculture is presented to our children as an inevitable step forward for
the human race, because it makes life easier and more secure."
I asked B what it did do if it doesn't make life easier and more secure.
"That's exactly what we are trying to understand here. We're presented with
a complex of behaviors and we're trying to figure out how they work together
to produce the result that we see. Right now, sort through the peculiarities
of the Gebusi and see if you can find a mechanism that would tend to make
them blow up into a universal world culture to which all must belong."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 82-83)
Let us be clear. Quinn emphasizes that he does not believe in the
idealization of these tribes. He disagrees with the myth of the bon sauvage. They were not
perfect angels. They were (and are) every bit as prone to violence as we are.
They were (and are) as capable of misbehave as anybody else. That is not
what maked them (what makes them) different. Rather, what makes them
different is something else:
"In our culture, to support one peculiarity, we needed a second peculiarity,
and the two reinforced each other. We believed (and still believe) that
we have the one right way for people to live, but we needed totalitarian
agriculture to support our missionary effort. Totalitarian agriculture gave
us fabulous food surpluses, which are the foundation of every military and
economic expansion. No one was able to stand against us anywhere in the
world, because no one had a food-producing machine as powerful as ours. Our
military and economic success confirmed our belief that we have the one right
way for people to live. It still does so today. For the people of our
culture, the fact that we're able to defeat and destroy any other lifestyle
is taken as clear proof of our cultural superiority."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 84)
Or, to put it a different way, what we usually consider the definitive
proof of the superiority of a particular culture is its ability to impose
its power on others
. That is the stick we still use to measure how
"successful" a culture is. Everything else (including its crime rate, its
moral decadence, levels of social anomie
, drug addiction...) does not count. The only things we
care about are: power and material wealth. That's how we measure the level
of success of cultures and countries. Needless to say, measured that way,
none of the tribal cultures have ever accomplished much. Quinn's point is,
precisely, that this is the reason why they are more capable of living in
harmony with the rest of the community of life. What makes tribes
different is not that they are less violent or that they do not have wars,
which they do. What makes them different is that they do not care about
conquering others or totally wiping out their enemies from the face of the
planet. They live inwardly, not outwardly. Their objective is to live and
let live, and not to impose their own "right way to live" on others
That is what most people just fail to understand. So, they first build a
straw man (the idea that primitivists
believe in a perfectly peaceful tribal world where ther
is no war) in order to attack it mercilessly, as it happened with War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage, by Lawrence H. Keeley
. Sure, there
are people out there who do believe in the myth, but it is just the ones who
have no clue. No serious primitivist states that tribes are angelical
gatherings of perfect humans. That is only the myth we have built ourselves
to make it easier to criticize them. It is an old rhetorical trick.
So, what is Atterley's theory about the ultimate cause of the current
decadence? He thinks everything boils down to population and ecology. To
explain it, he uses a fable where he argues that people are made of
food (in the sense that, without food, there are no people, we cannot
survive, as simple as that):
We began to grow more rapidly becaused we'd found a way to defeat the
negative feedback controls of the community. We'd become food producers
—agriculturalists. In other words, we'd found a way to increase food
availability at will.
"At will" is the operative expression here. Because we could now produce
food at will, our population was no longer subject to control by food
availability on a random basis. Anytime we wanted more food, we could grow
it. After a hundred and ninety thousand years of being limited by what
was available, we began to control what was available —and
invariably we began to increase what was available. You don't become
a farmer in order to reduce food availability, you become a farmer to
increase food availability. And so do the folks next door. And so do
the folks farming throughout your region. You are all involved in increasing
food availability for your species.
And here comes the B in the ABC's of ecology: An increase in food
availability for a species means growth for that species. In other words,
ecology predicts that the
blessing of agriculture will bring us growth —and history confirms
ecology's prediction. As soon as we began to increase the availability
of our own food, our population began to grow —not glacially, as
before, when we were subject to the community's negative feedback
controls— but rapidly.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 295-296)
Atterley addresses in his speech some of the usual criticisms to his theory:
Almost invariably someone asks if I'm not aware that population growth is
much slower in the food-rich North than in the food-poor South. This fact
seems to be offered as proof that human societies are not subject to
the laws of ecology, which (it is assumed) predict that the more food the
faster the growth. But this is not what ecology predicts. Let me
repeat that: Ecology does not predict that the population in a
food-rich area will grow more rapidly than the population in a food-poor
area. What ecology predicts is: When more food is made available, the
population will increase. Every year more food is made available in the
North, and every year the population increases. Every year more food is
made available in the South, and every year the population increases.
Then I will be told very emphatically that more food is not being
made available in the South. The population is growing like wildfire, but
this growth is not being supported by any increase in food. All I
can say about this is, if what you say is true, then we are clearly in the
presence of a miracle. These people are not being made from food, because,
according to you, no food is being made available for them. They must be
made of icicles or dirt. But if it turns out —as I strongly suspect
it will— that these people are not made of air or icicles or
dirt but ordinary flesh and blood, then I'll have to say, what do you think
this stuff is? [Here B grabbed the skin on his arm.] Do you think you can
make this flesh and blood out of nothing? No, the existence of the
flesh and blood is proof that these people are being made out of food.
And if there are more people here this year, this is proof that there
is more food here this year.
And of course I have to deal with the starving millions. Don't we have
to continue to increase food production in order to feed the starving
millions? There are two things to understand here. The first is that the
excess that we produce each year does not go to feed the starving
millions. It didn't go to feed the starving millions in 1995, it didn't
go to feed the starving millio0ns in 1994, it didn't go to feed the starving
millions in 1993, it didn't go to feed the starving millions in 1992
—and it won't go to feed the starving millions in 1996. Where did
it go? It went to fuel our population explosion.
That's the first thing. The second thing is that everyone involved in
the problem of world hunger knows that the problem is not a shortage of
food. Producing more food does not solve the problem, because
that's simply not the problem. Producing more food just produces
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 392-393)
He also addresses the issue of birth control:
No one has ever specifically asked me what I have against birth control, but
I'll answer anyway. I don't have a thing against birth control as such.
It just represents very poor problem-solving strategy. The rule in crisis
management is, Don't make it your goal to control the effects, make it your
goal to control the causes. If you control causes, then you don't have
to control effects. This is why they make you go through airpor security
before you go on the plane. They don't want to control effects. They
want to control causes. Birth control is a strategy aimed at effects.
Food-production control is a strategy aimed at causes.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 394)
So, what happened once we turned our back to the tribal way of life? For
starters, we found ourselves with a tremendous vacuum, and nothing to fill
it with. The old way, based on nature (i.e., following the basic rules of
ecology), had to be replaced with something. So, we quickly started
inventing new laws:
This is of course a startling idea, the idea that laws could be anything
but invented —but that's exactly the point to be made about
tribal laws. Tribal laws are never invented laws, they're always
received laws. They're never the work of committees of living
individuals, they're always the work of social evolution. They're shaped
the way a bird's beak is shaped, or a mole's claw —by what works.
They never reflect a tribe's concern for what's "right" or "good" or "fair,"
they simply work —for that particular tribe. (...)
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 314)
So, it seems as if B is proposing a return to tribalism as a solution to our
problems. And that is correct, at least in part. However, he is fully
aware that we cannot just turn the clock back:
People will sometimes charge me with just being in love with tribalism. They
say to me in effect, "If you love it so much, why don't you just go do it and
leave the rest of us alone?" Those who understand me in this way totally
misunderstand what I'm saying. The tribal lifestyle isn't precious
because it's beautiful or lovable or because it's "close to nature." It
isn't even precious because it's "the natural way for people to live." To
me, this is gibberish. This is like saying that bird migration is good
because it's the natural way for birds to live, or like saying that bear
hibernation is good because it's the narural way for bears to live. The
tribal life is precious because it tested out. For three million
years it worked for people. It worked for people the way nests work for birds,
the way webs work for spiders, the way burrows work for moles, the way
hibernation works for bears. That doesn't make it lovable, that makes it
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 319-320)
Even more important, B (Quinn) does not idealize tribal life:
It's not hard to figure out what made people cling to the tribal life
—and makes them cling to it wherever it's still found today. Tribal
peoples have their full share of suffering to do, but in tribal life, no one
suffers unless everyone suffers. There's no class or group of people
who are expected to do the suffering —and no class or group of people
who are exempt from suffering. If you think this sounds entirely too
good to be true, check it out. In the tribal life there are no rulers to
speak of; elders or chiefs —almost always part-time— exert
influence rather than power. There's nothing equivalent to a ruling class
—or to a rich or privileged class. There's nothing equivalent to a
working class —or to a poor or underprivileged class. If this sounds
ideal, well, why shouldn't it be, after three million years of evolutionary
shaping? You're not surprised that natural selection has organized gees
in a way that works well for geese. You're not surprised that natural
selection has organized elephants in a way that works well for elephants.
You're not surprised that natural selection has organized dolphins in a way that works well
for dolphins. Why should you be surprised that natural selection organized
people in a way that worked well for people?
And conversely, why should you be surprised that the founders of our
culture, having obliterated a lifestyle tested over a period of three
million years, were unable to instantly slap together a replacement that was
just as good? Really, the task was a formidable one. We've been working
at it for ten thousand years, and where are we?
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 321-322)
After one of these lectures that takes place on a train, Jared discovers
Atterley's body, who was shot in an empty car. Atterley's followers suspect
that it was a crime and it may have something to do with Jared's religious
order, but they have no clear evidence. In any case, to Jared's surprise,
one of Atterley's followers, a woman by the name of Shirin, takes over and
starts calling herself B. She takes on Atterley's lectures, and also
continues helping Jared get up to speed with their philosophy.
But let us return to our culture, what B calls "the Taker culture" (as
opposed to "the Leaver culture", which is that of the tribes):
B stared into space for a few minutes, then said, "The fundamental Taker
delusion is that humanity itself was designed —and therefore
destined— to become us. This is a twin of the idea that the
entire universe was created in order to produce this planet. We would
smile patronizingly if the Gebusi boasted that humanity was divinely destined
to become Gebusi, but we're perfectly satisfied that humanity was divinely
destined to become us."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 129)
That is indeed one of the main characteristics of any imperialistic mentality.
However, what we should find quite interesting here is the fact that, even
though we live in a highly secularized society by now, our mindset continues
being the same: we truly believe that we (and nobody else!) are destined
to take over the world and spread our civilization to every corner of this
. In this sense, a Christian, a Muslim, a liberal and a Marxist
are all the same. They all want to spread the one and only right way to live
all over the earth.
What Atterley and Shirin (and, by extension, Quinn) propose as a solution is
"There once was a universal religion on this planet, Jared," B said.
"Were you aware of that."
I said I wasn't.
"Audiences are almost always amazed by this news. Occasionally someone will
think I'm referring to what is sometimes called the 'Old Religion'
Wicca— but of course I'm not. In the first place, paganism isn't old.
It's a farmer's religion through and through, which means it's just a few
thousand years old, and of course it was never a universal religion, for the
simple reason that farming was never universal. Very often —almost
invariably, in fact— no one will even recognize the name of the
religion I'm talking about, which of course is animism. They've
literally never heard of it."
"I can believe it," I said.
"Do you know animism?"
"I think you'd better assume I don't. Most people in my position, with my
training, are aware of animism the way modern-day chemists are aware of
"You mean you're aware of animism as a crude and simpleminded precursor of
religion the way chemists are aware of alchemy as a crude and simpleminded
precursos of chemistry. Not really religion in the proper sense any more
than alchemy is chemistry in the proper sense."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 132)
Animism, Shirin explains, espouses a different approach to the world that
surrounds us. It is something that has little to do with the figure of God
as we know it:
"The God of revealed religions —and by this I mean religions like
yours, Taker religions— is a profoundly inarticulate God. No matter
how many times he tries, he can't make himself clearly or completely
understood. He speaks for centuries to the Jews but fails to make himself
understood. At last he sends his only-begotten son, and his son can't seem
to do any better. Jesus might have sat himself down wit a scribe and dictated
the answers to every conceivable theological question in absolutely
unequivocal terms, but he chose not to, leaving subsequent generations to
settle what Jesus had in mind with pogroms, purges, persecutions, wars, the
burning stake, and the rack. Having failed through Jesus, God next tried to
make himself understood through Muhammad, with limited success, as always.
After a thousand years of silence he tried again with Joseph Smith, with no better results.
Averaging it out, all God has been able to tell us for sure is that
we should do unto others as we'd have them do unto us. What's that —a
dozen words? Not much to show for five thousand years of work, and we
probably could have figured out that much for ourselves anyways. To be
honest, I'd be embarrassed to be associated with a god as incompetent as
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 134-135)
So, how is animism any different?
Animism, then, centers on the world as-is, and not as it is represented on a
"Animism looks for truth in the universe, not in books, revelations, and
authorities. Science is
the same. Though animism and science read the universe in different ways,
both have complete confidence in its truthfulness."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 136)
. It stays away from revelation and theory. More than interpreting
the surroundings, it simply describes them through stories. Thus, for
instance, it comes up with a completely different approach to concepts so dear
to us, such as kindness:
"On the subject of kindness... I don't know if you know David Brower —one of the century's
foremost environmentalists, the founder of the John Muir Institute, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute. He tells the story of one
of his earliest adventures as a naruralist. At the age of eleven he
collected some eggs of the western swallowtail butterfly and kept an eye on them as they hatched
which later turned into chrysalides. Finally the first of the chrysalides began to crack
open, and what Brower saw was this: The emerging butterfly struggled out, its
abdomen distended by some sort of fluid that was pumped out over its wings
as it hung upside down on a twig. Half an hour later it was ready to fly,
and it took off. As the other chrysalides began to crack, however, Brower
decided to make himself useful. He gently eased open the crack to facilitate
the butterflies' emergence, and they promptly slid out, walked around, and
one by one dropped dead. He had failed to realize that the exertions he had
spared the butterflies were essential to their survival, because they triggered
the flow of fluid that had to reach their wings. This experience taught him
a lesson he as still talking about seventy years later: What appears to be
kind and is meant to be kind can be the reverse of kind."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 140)
Some food for thought, certainly. However, Quinn's position should not be
confused with that of a social darwinist
. The way I see it, he is just warning about mechanically
applying human concepts to the natural world.
Furthermore, B argues that the revealed religions are so intimately
linked to our lifestyle that it is almost impossible to understand them
"The religions I just mentioned —the revealed religions— are
fundamentally wed to our cultural vision, and I use the word wed
advisedly. These religions are like a harem of sanctimonious wives
married to a greedy, loutish sensualist of a husband. They're forever trying
to improve him, forever hoping to get his mind on 'higher things,' forever
bawling him out and shaking their fingers at him, but husband and harem are
in fact completely inseparable. These religions clearly function as our
'better half'. They're the highest expression of our cultural vision."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 145)
But perhaps the core of Quinn's message is his ideas about overpopulation and its causes,
which Jared himself struggles with (and I, to be honest, do not totally see
When I returned fifteen minutes later, I told B what I'd had to get away to
think about. I'd heard everything Charles had said in Stuttgart and thought I understood it, but I
hadn't. In spite of everything he said, I felt sure he was showing us that
our population explosion is a social problem, like, say, crime or
racism. I failed to hear him say that our population explosion is a
biological problem, that if we pursue a policy that would be fatal
for any species, then it will be fatal for us in exactly the same
way. We can't will it to be otherwise. We can't say, "Well, yes,
our civilization is built on an evolutionary unstable strategy but we can
make it work anyhow, because we're humans." The world will not make
an exception for us. And of course what the Church teaches is that
God will make an exception for us . God will let us behave in a
way that would be fatal for any other species, will somehow "fix it" so we
can live in a way that is in a very real sense self-eliminating. This
is like expecting God to make our airplanes fly even if they're
aerodynamically incapable of flight.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 155)
It is the old idea that the world belongs
to us, not that we are a
of the world (one of many parts, by the way). The revealed
religions have been repeating this story to us for thousands of years now.
have been repeating the same story, even in a secular form, for
thousands of years. And yet, we all know that it is an impossibility.
On the contrary, animism finds the gods here, with us, wherever we
"This isn't a theological statement they're making. The Alawa are not saying to the Bushmen, 'Your gods are frauds, the true
gods are our gods.' The Kreen-Akrore are not saying to the Onabasulu, 'You have no
gods, only we have gods.' Nothing of the kind. They're saying, 'Our
place is a sacred place, like no other in the world.' They would never think
of looking elsewhere to find the gods. The gods are to be found among
them —living where they live. The god is what animates
their place. That's what a god is. A god is that strange
force that makes every place a place —a place like no other in
the world. A god is the fire that burns in this place and no other
—and no place in which the fire burns is devoid of god. All of this
should explain to you why I don't reject the name that was given to us by
an outsider. Even though it as bestowed with a false understanding of our
vision, the name animism captures a glimmer of it.
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 160)
That is precisely the reason why there is no single right way
an animist belief. There is not a single set of animist gods. Rather, there
are multiple ways to understand it. Or, to put it a different way, the very
same core beliefs are expressed through many different sets of stories, each
one adapted to each human community and their environment. Animism definitely
is a different type of religion. Not what we are used to.
What B describes also has plenty in common with the concept of pantheism or, even more to the point, with
the concept of ecology:
"Nothing in the community lives in isolation from the rest, not even the
queens of the social insects. Nothing lives only in itself, needing nothing
from the community. Nothing lives only for itself, owing nothing
to the community. Nothing is untouchable or untouched. Every life is
on loan from birth and without fail is paid back to the community in death.
The community is a web of life, and every strand of the web is a path to all
the other strands. Nothing is exempt or excused. Nothing is special. Nothing
lives on a strand by itself, unconnected to the rest. As you saw
yesterday, nothing is wasted, not a drop of water or a molecule of protein
—or the egg of a fly. This is the sweetness and the miracle of it all,
Jared. Everything that lives is food for another. Everything that feeds is
ultimately itself fed upon or in death returns its substance to the
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 163)
In our case, there is a series of traits that we have developed throughout
millions of years to help us live as a part of that "web of life" that B
talks about. Sure, over the past 10,000 years (and, especially, during the
last 200!) we have forgotten quite a few of those skills. And yet, some of
them remain an intrinsic part of our nature. For example, B argues that
"each and every one of us wants to know the future —by any means
whatever, rational or irrational, sensible or fantastic", and that this
is precisely one of those traits that we developed to adapt to our life in
a natural state:
"It would be hard for us even to imagine an intelligent species that
wasn't obsessed with the future —and perhaps a species that wasn't
obsessed with the future could never seem fully intelligent to us at all.
Beyond all the presumably rational planning I just described, every single
one of us is a reader of omens and signs —no matter how much we
pooh-pooh it. When we get up in the morning and the newspaper on the
lawn is soaked and the milk in our cereal is sour and the shirt we intended
to wear is in the laundry and the car won't start, there's not one of us who
can avoid thinking, 'This is going to be a rotten day.' There's not one of
us who can pick a winner at the track without thinking, 'I knew it!' There's
not one of us who can get a call from someone we've just been thinking about
without feeling a twinge of pride in our clairvoyant abilities. I have
utterly no rational belief in astrology, but it someone reads me my horoscope, a tiny part of me always
listens and says, 'Yes, yes, that could happen, that makes sense.'
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, p. 175)
All this, B argues, is actually an intrinsic part of our hunter and gatherer
Needless to say, all this strikes us nowadays as weird. We have grown up in
a world where we contrapose nature to ourselves, and ourselves to nature:
"You'll see people turn onto this section of the road when they start talking
about Nature, which is
perceived as being something like the aggregate of processes and phenomena
of the nonhuman world —or the power behind those processes and
phenomena. As people commonly see it, we Takers have tried to 'control'
Nature, have 'alienated' ourselves from Nature, and live 'against' Nature.
It's almost impossible for them to understand what B is saying as long as
they're in the grip of these useless and misleading ideas.
"Nature is a phantom that sprang entirely from the Great Forgetting, which,
after all, is precisely a forgetting of the fact that we are exactly as much
a part of the processes and phenomena of the world as any other creature, and
if there were such a thing as Nature, we would be as much a part of it as
squirrels or squids or mosquitoes or daffodils. We are unable to
alienate ourselves from Nature or to 'live against' it. We can no more
alienate ourselves from Nature than we can alienate ourselves from
entropy. We can no more
live against Nature than we can live against gravity. On the contrary,
what we're seeing here more and more clearly is that the processes and
phenomena of the world are working on us in exactly the same way that they
work on all other creatures. Our lifestyle is evolutionary unstable
—and is therefore in the process of eliminating itself in the perfectly
"I think I understand all that."
"Even understanding all that, I assure you, people will say to you, 'All the
same, don't you think we need to get closert to Nature?' To me, this is as
nonsensical as saying that we need to get closer to the carbon cycle."
"I understand. On the other hand, some people do like to be outdoors."
"That's fine, of course —so long as they don't insist that sitting in
a forest glade is 'closere to Nature' than sitting in a movie theater."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 180-181)
Slowly, Jared is starting to see that he cannot remain a devout Catholic
priest anymore. He has definitely lost faith and switched sides to the
animist approach B argues in favor of. And then, something big happens
and the diary suddenly stops for a while. All we know at that point is that
Jared has been involved in an explosion of some sort. Later, we learn the
hard truth: the theater where B (i.e., Shirin) lectured was bombed, and all
there is left is the rubble. Jared has been shipped to a hospital in the
USA, and is kept more or less incommunicado for a while. He lost his memory
of the most recent events but, slowly, he starts to realize what truly
happened: Fr. Lulfre had finally decided that B was indeed the Antichrist,
gave the order and some other member of the Laurentian order carried it out.
Jared somehow manages to call other followers of B in Germany, but all they
have to say is that most people, including Shirin, indeed died in the
explosion. They actually blame him, not for setting off the blast but for
bringing about the destruction with his reports back to the Laurentian base.
In the end, Jared breaks the news to Fr. Lulfre that he has lost his religious
convictions, leaves the USA and returns to Germany in search of Shirin and
the others. At first, although he has already abandoned the old ways, he is
still incapable of seeing the "new vision" completely on his own. He can
repeat what he learned from Atterley and Shirin, but it is clear that he did
not internalize it and assumed it as his own yet... until they ask him about
the reason as to why war is so prevalent in today's civilization and, yet,
while there was conflict in the old tribal societies (and there still is),
it never reaches the same levels of destruction. Jared answers:
Characteristically, the people of these tribes don't think of themselves as
having "a problem" with their neighbors; chracteristically, no one is
"working for peace"; characteristically, no one thinks there's anything wrong
or reprehensible about this way of life. Also characteristically, the people
of Tribe X don't imagine that their life would be sweet if one day they went
out and killed off all their neighbors; they know there are neighbors beyond
their neighbors, and these distant neighbors would be no friendlier than their
near ones. It's in fact really not so bad. Years go by in which X doesn't
attack Y and Y doesn't attack X, and in these years relations between them
are typically very cordial.
The task of B is to ask, "What's working here?" or "Why is this system so
successful that it's still around after hundreds of thousands of years?"
What's working is that cultural identities and cultural borders are being
preserved. When X attacks Y, it doesn't annex it. It doesn't destroy Y's
identity or erase its borders, it just inflicts a certain amount of damage,
then turns around and goes home. It's no different when Y attacks X.
In other words, every attack serves as a demonstration and affirmation of
identity to both sides: "We're X and you're Y, and here's the border between
us. We cross it at our risk, and you cross it at yours. We know you're
strong and healthy. Every once in a while, we're going to make sure you know
we're strong and healthy too. We know that if we mess with you, we'll suffer.
We want you to know that if you mess with us, you'll suffer too."
(Daniel Quinn: The Story of B, pp. 218-219
Notice that this position has nothing to do with the idealization of the
old tribal life that so many people accuse Quinn and others of. He does
not deny that there was/is conflict in these societies. Specifically,
he does not deny that there was/is war in these societies. What he
discusses is not its existence, but rather its nature (i.e., these are
not wars of conquest wheree the objective is to take over the
enemy's territory and expand one's own indefinitely)
Once Jared passes the test, he is brought to Shirin and the others, who
escaped the explosion thanks to an underground tunnel in the theater. He is
now one of them and, one suspects, will sooner or later become the new B. In
a very brief epiloque, the author tells us that Shirin and Jared are planning
to disappear from the public eye. Jared writes the last words on his diary,
where he acknowledges his conversion and urges us to spread B's vision.
Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 8/10