Squid, yum!
All of our struggles eventually lead to being dissected by a squadron of aliens . . . if we’re lucky.

Hope is wicked. Happiness is wicked. Certainty is blessed [17]

Our fearful brains clutch at the mystery of mortality like a hypercaffeinated squid. That is to say, we’re so close to the matter that we can’t see it clearly, just as we can never really see ourselves.

The first part of GB Shaw’s five-play cycle Back to Methuselah, titled In the Beginning, returns to a point of complete innocence in human evolution. The result is a peek at what lies under those tense tentacles at the closely-tied knots of mortality and morality.

Will you be having the life or the death today?

Adam and Eve, are the innocents and ignorants of the Garden of Eden. They know nothing about death, and are able to live forever, spending their days picking nettles off of the Garden floor and naming things.

Adam worries and mopes over eternity with his aimless thoughts. Eve makes sure he eats enough and cleans himself. Love is unknown to them, but the revelation of death, when a fawn slips and falls on a slippery rock, awakens in them fears of loneliness and the end of their species:

Adam: We have to live here for ever. Think of what for ever means! Sooner or later I shall trip and fall. It may be tomorrow; it may be after as many days as there are leaves in the garden and grains of sand by the river. No matter: some day I shall forget and stumble.
Eve: I too.
Adam: Oh no, no. I should be alone. Alone for ever. You must never put yourself in danger of stumbling […] You must sit still. [4]

Awareness of death upsets the torpor of the Garden’s endless days, and the Serpent tells Eve that she can bring other Adams and Eves into the world through childbirth. This gives them the ability to end their own lives without worry; the human race does not have to end with them.

Why be naked when you can wear naked clothes?
From David Fielding’s ’00 production of BTM

Pitter-patter of little feet

Before they bring more Adams and Eves into the world, they give birth to a number of crimes and bad habits, starting with politics:

Eve: [Y]ou could come softly up behind me and throw me down so that I should die. I should not dare to sleep if there were no reason why you should not make me die.
[…]
Adam: If I did not know that I loved Eve, at least I did not know that she might cease to love me, and come to love some other Adam and desire my death. Can you find a name for that knowledge?
The Serpent: Jealousy. Jealousy. Jealousy. [15-17]

Though they could not bear the prospect of immortality, the moment they know that they can die they also know that they do not want to die soon. From the very beginning of time, life is unbearable and death is unfathomable. This is the knot of our human minds which we can neither parse nor understand; we feel for sure that we are here for some reason, but it’s rare that anyone can satisfactorily define that purpose or its relationship with our inevitable decline to death and gruesome rot.

To solve this problem and others, they make a pact: they invent marriage, pledge their love to one another, and decide to live for 1000 years; no more, no less.

Shaw sticks a thermometer into the gristle of time and measures its effect on us and our attitudes to the world around us. The moment that Adam realizes that it is not his fate to spend eternity in the garden, and that there will be other men after him who can shoulder some of the labor, he considers being lazy and letting the garden go to seed. The moment there is the possibility of more Adams and Eves, the two begin to plot and suspect one-another, testing the possibilities of turning against each other. Fearful of one-another’s motives, and seeing no angle in betrayal, they invent social compacts and bind the future to their certainty.

The devil, he walks

I have imagined a glorious poem of many men, of more men than there are leaves on a thousand trees. I will divide them into two great hosts […] all those multitudes of men fighting, fighting, killing, killing! The four rivers running with blood! The shouts of triumph! the howls of rage! the curses of despair! the shrieks of torment! That will be life indeed: burning, overwhelming life. Every man who has not seen it, heard it, felt it, risked it, will feel a humbled fool in the presence of the man who has. [22]

Of course they don’t make more Adams and Eves—they make Cains and Abels.

Damn girl check out his tits
We’ve never really gotten over fetishizing war and warriors

The second half of In the Beginning traces the development of a morality of murder. Cain, raised under the yoke of his father’s dogma of digging and hard labor, stands for his new way of living: a violent, warlike, tribal lifestyle worshipping death, hunting, war, slavery, idleness, and pleasures of the flesh. Adam speaks for hard labor, vegetarianism, a relationship with the soil, peace, and simple, conservative pleasures. He is closed-minded, unprogressive, and easily riled by Cain’s philosophies.

Adam and Eve have listened to the Voice in the Garden since they were born there. The Voice might be their human consciousnesses; it might be God.

Cain: I have never in my soul listened willingly when you have told me of the Voice that whispers to you. There must be two Voices: one that gulls and despises you, and another that trusts and respects me. I call yours the Devil. Mine I call the Voice of God.
Adam: Mine is the Voice of Life: yours the Voice of Death.
Cain: Be it so. For it whispers to me that death is not really death: that it is the gate of another life: a life infinitely splendid and intense: a life of the soul alone: a life without clods or spades, hunger or fatigue.

Though of course Cain’s lifestyle is absolutely condemnable, and Adam more closely embodies the ethics laid out in the Ten Commandments, Cain’s more power-hungry philosophy will overwhelm Adam’s humble one and build a church on his claims of a life after death and God’s respect for bloody-mindedness. 

This being the font from which the world’s three dominant monotheisms spring, the Crusades, the auto-da-fé, slavery, brainwashing and genocide couldn’t be better predicted.

Digging and killing

Cain is born into a body with a limited lifespan, and into a world in which he has someone to rebel against—something Adam lacked. He finds a way of life to sets him apart and to be proud of, to create meaning out of meaninglessness, to while away the time, and even to shorten his already truncated lifespan.

Adam is not above condemnation—Shaw is careful never to let a single character score all the points, and he spurns Adam’s conservatism and ignorance. Adam is slow, self-centered, fearful, and lazy in his heart, though he labors day-to-day to stave off corruption.

Eve: I hardly know which of you satisfies me least, you with your dirty digging, or he with his dirty killing. I cannot think it was for either of these cheap ways of life that Lilith set you free. You dig roots and coax grains out of the earth: why do you not draw down a divine sustenance from the skies? He steals and kills for his food; and makes up idle poems of life after death; and dresses up his terror-ridden life with fine words and his disease-ridden body with fine clothes, so that men may glorify and honor him instead of cursing him as murderer and thief. [30]

Eve is far more interested in her sons and grandsons who neither kill nor dig, but the audacity to create art, philosophy, mathematics, music, divine musings, and other original things.

Though she is the (relative) voice of reason, she can do nothing but hope. She leaves the germination of ideas to her male descendants, and takes care of her husband. She has no answer to the problems, though she eagerly desires one.

Eve: Man need not always live by bread alone. There is something else. We do not yet know what it is; but some day we shall find out; and then we will live on that alone; and there shall be no more digging nor spinning, nor fighting nor killing.

Shaw says in his preface, “I never forgot that without knowledge even wisdom is more dangerous than mere opportunist ignorance,” [lxxxviii] elucidating Eve’s uselessness. She can hope, and strive for an answer better and higher than murder and labor, but being ignorant of the ways of the world and having no history of humanity to study, she could not predict Cain, Able, or any of their grandsons, and therefore could not tame them.

The beast

At the marriage ceremony, the Serpent, who had whispered into Eve’s ear the mystery of birth, says, “I fear certainty as you fear uncertainty. […] nothing is certain but uncertainty. If I bind the future I bind my will. If I bind my will I strangle creation.” Eve cries that she will continue to create, even if she has to tear herself to piece, and Adam interrupts them: “Be silent, both of you. I will bind the future. I will be delivered from fear.”

Unable to live with uncertainty, the men, in their efforts to make a world for themselves, commit crimes against the natural order of that world and their own species. The serpents are driven out of the garden. Meanwhile, Eve creates and hopes for the future, and Cain’s wife Lua masters Cain with her sexuality, making him wage war for her approval and skin animals for their furs. Their actions are at once reprehensible, flailingly pointless, and inevitable.

There is no way out of innocence but into the world, which is a brutal and unstable place; and in ignorance, we are left with no way forward but hope.

Part 2 of an exploration of Shaw’s interminable epic. Read Part 1 here.

Quotes in come from my ratty, six-volume Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962. I indicate the play but not the volume number. 

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