After reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, it's very difficult to understand how this innovative and thought-provoking author had a hard time finding a publisher for his unique and powerful book. Quinn has taken the history of our civilization and quality-of-our-planet themes - very familiar to any informed reader in 2004 - to new heights and new levels of understanding. And he did so with a distinctive dialog format, borrowed from Plato's Republic and re-structured through a narrator who engages in a telepathic dialog with a very wise gorilla named Ishmael. While there are in this book some oversimplifications, the richness and power of the ideas offers convincing evidence that population growth, if not restrained in some way, will be our planet's undoing. The fact that Quinn won the Turner Tomorrow Award ($500,000 plus the attendant publicity for fiction that "produces creative and positive solutions to global problems") says a lot about the quality of Ishmael. And if humans want quality of life to be restored on Earth, we need to heed the lessons contained in this book.
Main Points of Takers
Ishmael's initial lesson to the narrator, his prelude to the facts and ideas regarding the "Takers," would appear to be contained in his statements (25) following his initial biographical sketches. Ishmael warns that though nobody seems to "want to destroy the world," indeed, Ishmael lectures, "Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world." In other words, readers will later find out, too many members of the human race are or have been "takers" and too much taking is ruining the world, because humans don't know how to be released from the urge to take. To wit: "The world is not going to survive for very much longer as humanity's captive," Ishmael states (26). And though many people have the right idea of how to "release the world from captivity," they are prevented because they can't find "the bars of the cage," he explains.
On page 39, Ishmael says the people of the narrator's culture are "Takers" and people of "all other cultures" are "Leavers." And (42) in terms of "human history," the Leavers "were chapter one" and the Takers were chapter two. What that means is further identified on page 76: "The world was made for man [to "Take"], and man was made to conquer and rule it."
Where is the Taker culture leading humanity?
The Taker culture, therefore, according to Ishmael, is leading humanity to its own destruction, as more and more vital parts of the planet are being destroyed and "conquered." The Taker cultures addressed questions about how people ought to live and wound up engaged in "arguments among the prophets" and in "becoming religious questions" (88). "According to the Taker mythology (90)...there's something fundamentally wrong with [people]," and also, Takers have "no certain knowledge about how they ought to live - and never will have any." This point emphasizes that Ishmael believes the destruction of the planet (the natural world) - and mankind - is inevitable. So, to paraphrase, the Taker culture is leading humanity down the path of inevitable carnage and chaos.
The world was given to man, Ishmael instructs (91), "to turn into a paradise, but he's always screwed it up, because he is fundamentally flawed."
The Leaver culture
We'll never know what the Leavers of Europe and Asia were up to when the people of your culture came along to plow them under forever," Ishmael tells the narrator (248). But as to the Leavers in North America, Ishmael goes on, "...it didn't occur to them to take the life of the world into their own hands and to declare war on the rest of the community of life."
And what has happened to the remaining Leavers? "During the last century," Ishmael explains (254), "every remaining Leaver people in North America was given a choice: to be exterminated or to accept imprisonment. Many chose imprisonment, but not many were actually capable of adjusting to prison life," the gorilla explained through metaphor.
The Mother Culture
Ishmael spends quite a bit of time relating to how Hitler came to power, and how people got caught up in Nazism, then (37) states that Mother Culture "teaches you that this [being a captive of one's world] is as it should be." So, Germans who got caught up in Hitler's charisma basically had their Mother Culture whispering in their ear that what they were doing was correct. And, as a reward for doing what the Mother Culture teaches, one is "being fed" and there is no "something else" to believe in - lest one falls off "the edge of the world. There's no way out of it except through death." And, Ishmael warns the narrator, to take "this educational journey" with the gorilla, is to find one's self "alienated from the people around you," including friends and family.
You're really not thinking (55), I'm afraid," Ishmael tells his human friend from the other side of the glass, in explaining Mother Culture. "...Now you're listening to Mother Culture as she murmurs in your ear: 'There, there, my child, there's nothing to think about, nothing to worry about, don't get excited, don't listen to the nasty animal..." Here readers realize fully that Mother Culture is the concept of the lulling to sleep of humans who fall back on rituals and social mores they've been propagandized by their whole lives, and who resist learning new things because those new things may not be comfortable.
An example of Mother Culture consciousness being imbedded into humans' lives is the "creation myth" (57), according to Ishmael. And when man appeared, "creation had come to an end" (59) Ishmael continued. Mother Culture, he explains through the stories he tells, points out that "when man finally appeared, creation came to an end..."
Ishmael's explanation of his "program to save the world"
The premise of the Taker story (243)," the narrator expounds, "is the world belongs to man." And, on the other hand, "The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world." And (245), further, the narrator continues, "The Takers' story is, 'The gods made the world for man, but they botched the job, so we had to take matters into our own, more competent hands.' The Leavers' story is, 'The gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrows and rabbits for the world; this seems to have worked pretty well so far, so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods."
With that as a backdrop, Ishmael (252) lays out his program, which begins with him saying, "The story of Genesis must be reversed," and "Cain must stop murdering Abel," and "you must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet."
As long as the narrator's culture "are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they've been acting for the past ten thousand years." They will go on "conquering it as if it were an adversary." And, change won't come, Ishmael continues, "with laws. You must change people's minds."
And how can the narrator do this single-handedly? "What you do is teach a hundred what I've taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred." As long as the narrator's culture is "convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule," Ishmael declares, then they will continue their bad habits toward the world.
The world of "Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison" (254) Ishmael states.
And, "Justice demands (255) that people other than white males have power in the prison," says Ishmael. "...It should be noted that what is crucial to your survival as a race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but rather the destruction of the prison itself," the gorilla stated. And, just so the reader knows that the "prison" is a metaphor for the fact that present day society's unbending philosophy towards conquering the planet, Ishmael (256) adds: "...Breaking out of the Taker prison is a common cause to which all humanity can subscribe."
After the narrator expresses a view that Ishmael's cause is on which "almost none of humanity will subscribe," and that "what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get" (256), Ishmael "shrugged...As always, you're a pessimist. Perhaps you're right. I hope you're wrong."
My reactions to Ishmael's explanations of how things got this way and his "program to save the world" think Ishmael is a much smarter animal than…