In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond posits the theory that Eurasian cultures (meaning Europe plus the whole of the Mediterranean region from the Mesopotamian Basin and the Levant across northern Africa to the Atlantic) were able to conquer so-called primitive cultures in Africa and the Americas not because of any inherent intellectual superiority, but because the accident of geography had given the Eurasians natural travel corridors that exposed them to both the creative ideas and the germs of other societies, providing tools for growth and conquest with the one, and resistance to disease with the other. Diamond’s book was written in 1997, over thirty years after Peter Matthiessen wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord, yet Matthiessen’s novel anticipated—albeit indirectly—some of Diamond’s theories about cultural destruction, while adding a third in the form of religious dogma, thereby proving that art frequently presages reality.
Very briefly, and crudely, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, presents three entities in conflict. Two are “civilized” American groups, one of mercenaries, one of missionaries, at a remote outpost in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian jungle.
The mercenaries are a duo, a New York Jew and a half-Cheyenne named Lewis Moon (the side of their stolen plane bears the logo, “Wolfie & Moon, Inc., Small Wars & Demolition”) stranded by lack of cash, and willing to earn their way out of the filthy, fly-ridden hell-hole by killing off the third entity, a band of fierce and feared Indians farther upriver. On a reconnaissance flight, trying to locate the tribe they are to kill, they fly over a clearing as the terrified Indians run into the jungle. All but one, who stands his ground and shoots an arrow into the air at the giant noisy bird above him and with that arrow, that courageous, hopeless gesture of defiance, begins the transformation of Lewis Moon.
The other “civilized” group consists of two married couples, members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect determined to save both the souls of the primitive Indians from damnation and their lives from the mercenaries. One man wants to save them by understanding them; the other by making them understand him and his vision of Jesus Christ. Neither succeeds.
Also there is an intelligent, educated, enigmatic Catholic priest who too wants to save the souls of the savages, but with the wisdom and patience of over a thousand years of the Church, he bides his time and watches the others with detachment and amusement.
Of course, no one is saved. But the story lies in the transformation of the pivotal characters. One of the missionaries loses some of his religion, but gains a greater level of humanity; Matthiessen has him lose his last pair of glasses just as he begins to finally and truly “see” in the proper Christian sense of understanding and compassion. The mercenary loses an identity he never really had and gains a truer understanding of himself as he tries to save the little band of Indians who have proven themselves less savage than portrayed. And the Indians… The Indians lose everything.
I hate synopses; they so frequently—as I have just done—reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, but I want you to keep the basics of the plot in mind.
Many, many years ago I knew an artist by the name of Tobias Schneebaum. Toby, deceased now, God bless him, was acclaimed for his art, but also for his penchant for travelling the world and living with disparate and primitive cultures in far-flung places. He was also known for a book he wrote about one of his experiences, where he marched off into the jungles of Peru and lived for—months? years?—with a tribe of cannibals, a book entitled Keep the River on Your Right, so named after the advice given him by a missionary, the last Westerner to see him. Toby was thought dead for a long time, until he finally reemerged from the jungle to write and paint about his experiences with the tribe (including, apparently, sampling their favorite dish, other tribesmen).
It was Toby’s book that inspired me to originally read At Play in the Fields of the Lord. There are parallels, but it is the differences that are most striking. Toby wasn’t interested in killing or converting anyone. His interests were learning about other people, other cultures, other varieties of artistic expression, and—perhaps above all (at least from something he once said to me)—about the differences of light and color in various parts of the world, differences he would capture on canvas when he returned to New York.
The point is that art can bridge the gap between cultures in ways that nothing else can, certainly and especially not religious belief. I suspect music does this more effectively and universally than any other art form, but Toby wrote specifically about using his artistic skill to keep himself alive initially (Amazonian cannibals apparently being not too fussy about the origins of their food source. New York? Hell, we’ll even eat Brooklyn, Queens, Paterson, whatever.) and equally to bridge the language barrier. And in that openness of mind and spirit, in that willingness to bridge cultural gaps by using the universal language of art, Toby most closely resembles Lewis Moon, the half-Cheyenne mercenary who comes first to kill, then to save, and finally, inadvertently, to destroy, embodying all the elements Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord was published in 1965, not so long ago as the world turns, but unfathomable eons ago in terms of today’s technological advancements. Today, Toby’s cannibals and Lewis Moon’s warrior savages both probably have the internet, 4G Wi-Fi, and their own Facebook pages, so from that perspective it is an old-fashioned, dated book. Yet not so. We can learn much from that grumpy old fart next door, if we just stop being judgmental and open our minds and our hearts to different ways of thinking and being, and other cultures, with other ways of seeing the world might be able to save us more than we can save them. Lewis Moon learns a new way of being, the missionaries retreat, and the priest waits, patient, wise, and enduring.
What I lament is the passing of that single, courageous Indian, defiantly shooting his arrow at a monstrous metal bird.