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The Ishmael Companion
Beyond Civilization
 Study Guide


From The Story of B:
Excerpt 2

The peace-loving killers of New Guinea

“The Gebusi are one of those agricultural peoples whose
agricultural style owes nothing at all to our revolution. In fact,
it would make better sense to call them hunter-gardeners than
farmers. . .

The main difference between them and us is their theory of
sickness and death. In the Gebusi theory, there’s no such thing
as death from ‘natural causes.’ All causes of sickness and death
are supernatural, and every sickness and death is caused by
someone who literally ‘wishes you ill.’ This may be a sorcerer
or it may be the spirit of someone living or dead or even the
spirit of an animal. To achieve a diagnosis in the case of
illness, a medium visits the spirit world in order to discover
the guilty party, and this information indicates the best means
of treatment.

“If someone dies, the medium conducts an inquest in
consultation with the spirits. Not every inquest leads to the
accusation of a living person, but when it does, the accused
sorcerer is given the chance to demonstrate his or her
innocence by performing a sago divination, a cooking feat so
difficult that skill alone can’t assure success. Complete success
is taken as a sign that the spirit of the deceased was on hand to
help out and thus exonerate the accused. Partial success leaves
the matter in doubt, and the accused will be spared for a while
as other indicators are considered, such as the behavior of the
corpse in the suspect’s presence . . .

Chances are, the miscreant’s days are numbered. Most
commonly, a family member of the deceased does away with
him or her.

“Among the Gebusi, the spirits of the dead soon return as
animals. . . Executed sorcerers invariably return as wild pigs,
which is why (I suspect) executed sorcerers are invariably
cooked and eaten. My guess is that, being sorcerers, they are
already in some sense wild pigs, which are hunted not only
because they’re good to eat but because they’re inhabited by
malevolent spirits.”

“Now to the point of this anthropological exercise. I want
you to imagine that it was not the people of our culture who
teemed over the world and made it their own but rather the
Gebusi. I want you to imagine a world where every death is
routinely avenged by killing and eating a sorcerer. I want you
to imagine a world where, if you were a telephone installer,
legislator, symphony conductor, or fashion designer in Berlin
or Beijing or Tokyo or London or New York City—or Box
Elder, Montana—you might at any moment be required to
perform a successful sago divination in order to save your life.
I want you to imagine a world where eating sorcerers is a
perfectly normal thing to do—as normal as sending your
children off to educational concentration camps when they
reach the age of five or six. I want you to imagine a world
where killing a man will turn him into a wild pig as surely as
putting a man in prison for a few years will turn him into a
good citizen.”

B paused at this point and gave Jared a hopeful look that he
wasn’t sure how to answer. But he said, “I think you’re telling
me that every culture’s lunacy seems like sanity to the
members of that culture.”

“That’s certainly so,” B said. “If I were to tell you that the
Gebusi believe that the creator of the universe has spoken to
only one people on this earth during its entire history, and that
one people is the Gebusi, you would smile patronizeingly.
Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose I would.”

“Yet this is precisely what the people of our culture believe,
isn’t it? Has the creator of the universe spoken to anyone but




More excerpts from The Story of B

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