The Man Who Knew Gods

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The Man Who Knew Gods


HHIS case illustrated the risks explorers run. Not the physical sort, which are apt to be overestimated, hut the psychological dangers. He had lived so long among savages, studying their ways, that he had fallen into a completely detached mental habit; and when he finally returned to civilization, he couldn't quite get back into touch with it—he remained an outsider.

I met him but once myself. I was in the publishing business at the time, and, hearing that this man was in New York, I thought I might as well see him about his next book. Telephoning him, therefore, at his hotel, I asked him to dine with me on the following Friday.

"What is 'Friday'?" said he. He spoke English perfectly.

"It is the twenty-sixth," I answered.

He said: "The twenty-sixth what? Oh, I know," he continued; "Friday is a day of the week. Thank you very much, but I do not keep track of my dinners as carefully as that."

This rather odd answer I passed over, at the moment, thinking I had misunderstood him; and we arranged that he would come some day to my office, instead—"after lunch."

The next that I heard, he had called there at a quarter to five, the hour at which I always leave. My secretary explained to him that I had gone.

He looked at my desk, on which lay some unfinished business, and said to my secretary, "Why?"

The man courteously responded, "Because it is a quarter to five."

The explorer thereat laughed weirdly and went off.

I now perceived I had to deal with a most eccentric character; but that being a necessary evil in the publishing business, I went to his hotel at nine o'clock that evening. I found him down in the restaurant eating oatmeal and succotash, and we then and there had the following extravagant interview,—which I give without comment.

"The book I mean to write." he said, staring at me, "is a study of actual religions. Other writers have told the world what men of all countries suppose their religions to be. I shall tell what they really are."

I SAID that our house would prefer an account of his travels; but he paid no attention.

"Men's real religions," he announced, "are unknown to themselves. You may have heard of the Waam Islanders," he leisurely continued. "They, for instance, have a deity called Bashwa, who is splendidly worshiped on the first of each lunar month. No Waam Islander would ever acknowledge he had any other God but Bashwa. But a stranger soon notices that in every hut in that country, hanging beside the water-jar, is a long sleeping mat, and on that mat sometimes is a rough pattern, like a face. 'What is that?' I asked them. 'G'il,' they answered, carelessly; so carelessly that one might suppose 'G'il' (or 'Gheel,' as they often pronounced it) entirely unimportant. I thought so myself until I observed—as I say—that G'il was in every hut, and that submissive references to him, or it, were far more numerous than those to Bashwa. That made me begin collecting those references; and presently I found that most things of which that tribe approved were spoken of as being g'il, or very g'il, and things they didn't like were damned as na-g'il. G'il, so far as I could make out, typified the hut, or the hut point of view. Marriage was g'il, and good manners and building materials, because they made for hut-life. Inhospitality was na-g'il, and the infidelity of women, and earthquakes, and leaks.

"They sometimes personified G'il and talked of him as he. 'G'il loves not Wheesha' (the wind); 'G'il comforts the weary'; 'G'il says, "Get more children." ' But all this was only in their fanciful moments. At other times G'il was simply the mat by the water-jar. When I said to them, 'G'il is your real God, they laughed at my stupidity—good humoredly, as though there were something, perhaps, in my idea, yet with a complacent assurance that I was preposterous. I did not argue with them. One couldn't, you know. I simply continued my observations, corroborating my theory at every turn. To give you an instance: Bashwa is supposed to think highly of hunters and sailors, and the Waam-folk always profess to think highly of them too. That attitude, however, is only official, not real. Very few of them actually become sailors. The life is na-g'il."

He came to a pause.

"I WONDER whether we, too, have a G'il," I said, to humor him. "We shall have to ask some of your Waam-folk to come here and tell us."

The explorer looked me over as though he were "continuing his observations" of my manners and customs. "Yes," he said, "there's a white man's G'il."

I regretted having mentioned it.

"Can't you guess what he is?" he inquired. "I say 'he' because, like the Waam G'il, he is sometimes personified. Come now. Apply the test. He doesn't typify the Waam Islander point of view—and he isn't a mat—but he can easily be discovered by examining your huts and your conversation. No, I'm not talking of money, or power, or success: you may bow down to these,—but not blindly. You at least know what you're doing. The worship of a G'il is unconscious, and hence more insidious. Even when an explorer points it out, you won't see its importance. It will seem insignificant to you. And yet, while the Bashwa to whom you build temples is only occasionally deferred to, this G'il of yours sways you in all things. He is the first whom you think of when you rise, and the last when you go to bed. You speak of your G'il hourly—or oftener—all day long. Those of you who heed him too little are universally disapproved of, while the American who succeeds is the man who most cherishes G'il."

"I have habits," he morosely continued, "of doing certain things,—eating my meats for instance,—at quite different hours from those that are prevalent here. I find that every one who hears of this is surprised at my ways. Their attitude, while not openly intolerant, is distinctly disapproving. When I ask them why, I get no answer—no rational answer. They say simply, 'It's the wrong time.' Following up this clue I have noticed that not only is the time for performing an act supposed to be sometimes 'wrong' and sometimes 'right,' but that the idea of time in general governs all your people like a tyrant. You can scarcely imagine a life without calendars and clocks. And just as the Waam-folk are unconsciously obsessed by their hut-thought, and see everything from that angle, so you have drifted into an unthinking fetishistic regard for time. A difference of thirty minutes in your dinner hour marks a difference in your social scale. 'There isn't time,' you sigh, submissively, when you give up something you'd like to do. Time is money, time presses, give me time, are some of your phrases. Your maxims are full of references to him. Time waits for no man, time cures more than the doctor, time flies, time comforts grief. These are small instances, but their total effect is not small, for it is life itself that you sacrifice to this fetish. Your G'il actually wont let you take good full draughts of existence—he keeps you busy dividing it into months, days, and minutes. And it isn't because you lead crowded lives that you do it. It's because you're always thinking of time that you lead crowded lives.

"YOU are smiling at me good humoredly, my friend. I see that you,like the Waam Islanders, think I am preposterous. It is the old story. You cannot view yourself from without. You will admit that considerations of time enter into all your acts, and yet—this seems trivial? And it in inconceivable to you that you are its slaves?"

"My dear sir," I interposed, "a strict observance of the laws of time enables a man to live a much fuller life."

"It in what all devotees say to all gods," he murmured.

"We are not its slaves," I continued. "That's absurd. We have only a sensible regard for it, as every one must."

"Ah! ah!" he cried. "But you do not say 'one must' when your Bashwa speaks.

"Your Bashwa thinks highly of those who do good works without ceasing. You profess to think highly of them too; that is your official attitude. In reality, how very few of you lead that life. It happens to be na-g'il, you see. You haven't the time.

"Look about you if you would convince yourself. The concrete evidence alone is enough. On the breasts or the wrists of your women, and in every man's pocket you see a G'il amulet, a watch, to remind them constantly of time. What other god was ever so faithfully worshiped? In every hut in the land you will find his altar, and in your large huts you will find one in every principal room. No matter how free and unconventional their owners may be, no matter how those rooms may vary in their arrangement, richness, furnishings, there stands always in the most prominent place the thing railed a mantel; on it, ceremonially flanked by two candlesticks, or vases, sits G'il, the timepiece; and his is the face of all others you most frequently consult. Blind and idolatrous tribesman, time is your deity."

Well, that's all there was to our interview, for at this point he came to a pause and I rose to leave, explaining to him, soothingly (though I must confess it had a strangely opposite effect) that I had to go because it was getting so late.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1935, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.