August 2009 – Review of “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn

This month we feature the 1991 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship winning novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  This creative and highly readable book blends philosophy, ethics and history with lessons on how to develop practical, sustainable solutions to global issues.

About the Author

The American Daniel Quinn (1935-) spent over twenty years in educational and consumer publishing in Chicago before giving up this career to become a freelance writer in 1975.  He didn’t receive widespread recognition for his work until Ishmael was published in the early ’90’s, but when it was, his international fame grew rapidly.  Quinn followed up on the success of the novel with The Story of B and My Ishmael to form a trilogy.

It is testament to the creativity and original thought of Ishmael that the environmental movement, simple living movementanarchist movement and Anarcho-primitism movements all came to identify with the ideas Quinn put forth.

Quinn himself never considered himself an environmentalist, per se, because he felt the that the environmentalist doctrine implicitly treats humans and nature are separate elements.  His central thesis is that humans are a part of nature, and our relationship with the environment does not need to be parasitic or toxic.  Based on an understanding our place within the broader environment, Quinn argues that we can build a genuinely sustainable society.


About the Book

Ishmael begins when the narrator finds a newspaper ad that simply states: “Teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person”.  Upon responding to the ad at the listed address, the narrator unexpectedly finds himself in a room with a large gorilla.  Even more unexpectedly, the gorilla – Ishmael, the teacher – is able to communicate with him telepathically.

From here, the novel progresses as a Socratic dialogue between the two, in which Ishmael draws from his life experiences, and leads the narrator back through the evolution of human culture and civilization.  This examination illuminates that like an animal in a zoo, human beings are held ‘captive’ by the fallacious story – the mythology – we have come to believe of how we have come to this point in history, and what we consider ‘progress’.

Ishmael says:

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact, in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”

In another metaphor, Ismael explains that the way we have constructed our civilization is akin to an aspiring aviator who builds a ‘flying machine’ that is not in accordance with the laws of physics or aviation, and then launches his creation off a high cliff.  As he hurtles towards the distant earth, he takes the fact that he has not yet crashed, and continues to remain airborne, to mean that his machine is a success, and that he is flying.  Only when he finally hits the ground will he realize that he was not.

Similarly, our civilazation is structured in a way that is not in accordance with nature; we have created a system where we continually diminish finite natural resources at an ever-growing rate.  Since these resources were once plentiful, we have convinced ourselves that our system works, though it is absolutely clear that we are doomed to crash, and that we are not ‘flying’.

In order to create a society that can truly fly, we need to build it in cooperation with nature: we need a system that replenishes the resources that it uses.  This, Ishmael argues, is by no means impossible, nor is it a mystery.  All we have to do is look around us at the natural world in which we participate as a prime example of an incredibly complex, abundandant, and self-sustaining system for inspiration.

This is a highly recommended book: while you may find some of its themes and metaphors eloquent and inspirational and others controversial, it is the type of book that provokes thought and spurs discussions years after you’ve put it back on the shelf.


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