“Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn – Book or Revelation?

“Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

Imagine if you saw that ad in the personals section of the newspaper. What might you think? How can you even qualify what it means to have an “earnest desire to save the world”? Does the world even need saving? And if so, what can any individual person hope to do to improve our world?

This is more or less how Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” opens: in an oppressively inspiring challenge/call to arms. Our nameless first-person narrator is intrigued. There is a teacher out there who wants to educate people as to precisely what is wrong with the world and – even more importantly – show us how we can all do our part to fix it. So the narrator goes, and what he finds in “applying” for this position is more than anyone could have imagined.

You’re probably already wondering why there is an enormous gorilla in the above picture, and while the shock and awe of encountering him in the novel is worth the price of admission alone, I might as well tell you now that that enormous gorilla is our titular character, Ishmael. He’s an old, wise monkey-Buddha of sorts who has manifested the ability to communicate telepathically. Having spent much of his life in typical gorilla fashion (being kidnapped from the wild and forced into the imprisonment we might call the zoological system), he has had years to contemplate his existence and even learn to read. By the time our narrator meets him, Ishmael is probably the greatest philosopher, sociologist, and ecologist of his time. And yes, he is a gorilla. A telepathic gorilla. I know what you’re thinking: it’s absurd, even a bit loopy, but stifle your disbelief and your surprise, and the spiritual journey that “Ishmael” will take you on is the sort that will open certain doors inside your mind that will be impossible to ever close again. So are you ready to hear the rant of a lifetime? Good. Maybe we can save the world together:

There is very little actual plot to “Ishmael”. Nearly all of it is a Socratic type of dialogue between the narrator and this erudite gorilla as they tell the story of humanity. It’s didactic and not even particularly enjoyable to read; but it makes up for these perceived shortcomings by the revelations it dishes out. Ishmael teaches the narrator by asking questions and forcing him to define our humanity, the world, and our place and nature within it. The scope of the book can get nauseating at times and it would be impossible for me to write an accurate review that summarizes each point that is brought up. I simply challenge you to read it for yourself and experience the Story that is our people. If enough of us understand the story and how it relates to many of humanity’s problems new and old, then maybe we can actually make a difference?

This isn’t going to be your typical book review. This is going to basically amount to a very long-winded rant that may or may not be worth your time. But that, of course, depends on whether or not you’re in the mood for world saving. So here goes:

The most prevalent motif in the conversation between Ishmael and the narrator is the dichotomy within humanity. There are two kinds of people in the world: the Takers and the Leavers. Humanity has its overarching story, as defined by the overly active Takers, whom Ishmael tells us are people who believe that “the World belongs to Man”.

The story of the Takers is the godless story of Manifest Destiny, of that inborn tendency in man to use his powers of reason and freedom to constantly impose his will upon the world. It is that story of Western Civilization that began with the agricultural revolution. It was bred out of the constant lust to destroy the gods, control our destiny, deny our mortality, and to go against the course of Mother Nature. We preserve our lives and “improve” them at any cost, even at the expense of our world. We destroy rain forests and murder other species that compete with us for space and resources. We drain the world itself of all its fuel reserves for the sake of making cheap machinery to make our lives more efficient. And all for the sake of what? So that we might be able to eat what we want when we want, do what we want when we want? And does all this alleged “freedom” really grant us any measure of peace or satisfaction? In a way, nothing is ever good enough for the Takers. We are stagnant in our development and belligerent in our defiance of Nature; we have lost the passive, genetic will to evolve into anything better than what we simple are. We are the same people that we were thousands of years ago when we evolved into homo sapiens sapiens and made the conscious choice to control the world rather than simply belong to it.

Through this worldview we have wound up with a culture whose aim it is to streamline the human experience. We are taught through our inept education systems – particularly in this country – to fit a certain mold, to pass a series of tests and climb educational ladders until we are released into an adulthood that is full of more hoops to jump through. Work for that promotion. Make more money. Spend more money. Consume, consume, consume. It leads us to believe that to become another cog in the great mechanism of our society is the most fulfilling thing for us to do. The ideal life for a Taker is one in which we fit in, where we earn an living and consume all we can until we are able to procreate and, in turn, proliferate the story that the Takers have been enacting since our race transcended beyond being mere monkeys (ironic that we learn this from a monkey, isn’t it?). This story of the Takers – whispered in our ears by the the oppressive force of Mother Culture – is constantly telling us how to live our lives, saying that we ought to conform to the worldview of consumerism and capitalism.

But stop. Think. The Native Americans were fine before the early Americans attacked them and took their land. They had a culture and a oneness with nature that gave them a satisfactory existence. If there was a drought and a hunter-gatherer tribe couldn’t obtain enough food to support itself, the population inevitably declined. It’s the law of nature. Those peoples belonged to the world, until a culture that perceived itself as “higher” took it upon themselves to “enlighten” the “lower” peoples and impose their beliefs on them. Now, (according to Quinn’s theories of population fluctuations via Ishmael’s teaching) our Taker society sees a starving society (a.k.a., a population that cannot support itself and as a natural result would decrease its numbers accordingly) and we “help” by sending them our surplus of food. So the people live and their population increases just enough so that the next generation experiences a new and even more devastating extreme of poverty and starvation. It’s a harsh and animalistic perspective that disregards our humanitarian instincts. But there is no way to deny that our population explosion in the last hundred years is destroying our planet and even the substance of our culture at an exponential rate.

There are so many problems in our society that only seem to get worse because of this Taker mentality. The expectations of the individual Taker have increased drastically in the last twenty, ten, or even five years. The job market in America is arguably worse than it’s ever been, and young people are at perhaps the greatest disadvantage here. Once upon a time, a Bachelor’s Degree meant a lot. It meant a well-paying job because you had received a quality education. But because everyone is expected to jump through that particular hoop, now our country is flooded with people in their early twenties who are more likely to have received a sub-par college education with a degree that is worth less than it was in the past. It’s the simple law of inflation. When every twenty-two year old has a college degree, the worth of the degree is diminished.

Look at the state of the higher education system: interest rates on college loans are increasing higher than the tuition at your average university (which also increases much too quickly). Meanwhile, our parents’ generation has to endure an abysmal job market and struggle to not only support themselves, but also to support the increasing number of recent college graduates that are forced to move back home after graduation in order to afford paying their loans or even worse, because they can’t find a job at all. Young people spend money they don’t have on education because our society expects them to. And even worse, many young people are forced into waiting to get married, forced into waiting to procreate, forced to put off a lot of things until they manage to finagle their way into a steady career where they have the nigh unreachable goal of financial stability in which they can start their family.

In this grand framework, individual people can maintain their uniqueness through their subjective passions and interests, but as a society we’ve lost the substance and individuality that make us a species. We are a people no longer a part of our own world. We are a society that disrespects our world out of arrogant and selfish appetite. But the biggest problem is that the same thing is expected of everyone!

The Leavers – those that “belong to the world” rather than seek to control it – are the ones that get the short end of the stick when some foolish excuse for oppression like “Manifest Destiny” is put to use. And these sort of people are an endangered species in our world, particularly today. In archaic hunter-gatherer societies, it would only take a few hours of work to get enough food to feed yourself (Ishmael’s claim, not mine). For the rest of the day one might sit around and contemplate nature, make love to your mate, or simply spend time with your family. There was none of that insatiable modern desire to always be doing something (i.e., tweeting, muploading, facebooking, consuming consuming consuming all the media we can!). According to Ishmael, the lesson of the Leavers is that we need to reorder our way of thinking to save ourselves and our world; we need to respect real diversity, not as a sociological construct but as a factor of nature. Man is a part of this world, not king of it. In a fit of arrogance, he thinks he can be master, but in all his flaws all he can manage is our own destruction.

So what does it all mean? It’s a bit overwhelming isn’t it? I could keep thinking, critiquing, and ranting, but I’ll leave the rest up to you. I wrap up with one of the few bits of straightforward advice that Ishmael gives on how we can save this world:

“You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”