Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Daniel Quinn. 262 pp. 1992. Bantam/Turner Books: New York. $10.95 paperback. ISBN 0-553-37540-7
Ishmael is about a man seeking peace from the disillusioned lies he has been lead to believe. He comes across an ad in the newspaper stating teacher-seeking student, willing to save the world. The ad inspires him to seek out wisdom of the unknown truth. To the man's surprise the teacher is a caged gorilla. This gorilla "Ishmael" is not just a gorilla he is gifted with the revolution of mother culture; his objective is to teach captivity. Ishmael criticizes human civilization and states "your captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live (25)." He explains that you can try and escape but it is a constant battle against mother culture, keeping people bound to the civilized way of life.
If one begins to see the lies as reality change would not likely be erected but if the multitudes began to see the lies then that Ishmael explains is what we must hope for.
As a civilization we are all part of a story, each enacting a role and to this story we are held captive. We are unaware of the story because we have habituated to the hum of mother culture in our ear. We are all blind to the reality of the story but Ishmael says once we are aware of the story then it becomes our reality. The irony of the story is that there is no way out, to get out is to die. The only option is to be aware of mother culture and challenge the inherent lies we have been lead to believe.
Ishmael describes the two distinctive stories between the Leavers and the Takers. Leavers are primitive they live harmoniously with other species and the earth. They hold on to the traditions and the past, preserving the knowledge of their ancestors Takers are civilized and their objective is to conquer the world. Mother culture would describe the past as useless where traditions are lost and ancestral ways should be forgotten. The Takers perceive the Leavers to live an animalistic life; a life style that should no longer be tolerated. Leaver's primitive hunting-gathering way of life soon turned into the Takers agricultural expansion, which ignited the cycle of worldly destruction. Mother culture influences the Takers to believe that more is better; bigger and greater material things are to be desired when in reality it is not prosperous, it is wasteful and disastrous to the world. The ideal of civilized man is to turn the world into an absolute utopia. Contradictory to the ideal the result is consumption and pollution, which causes global destruction. Resolution to the problem will remain unresolved until man becomes aware of the destruction being caused by civilization.
The Takers think that the laws that govern all other species do not apply because through agriculture and technology their belief is that they are exempt from famine, disease and extinction. Ishmael clearly explains that this is not the case. He states, "any species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion. (135)" For man to live in harmony with the planet the Takers must examine their ideals and mythology by adopting a new paradigm. Change must occur so civilization can fit the guidelines of the natural law. Man is unaware of this law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilized flight (107). Because man is not in compliance with the law it makes flight impossible (108). With absence of natural law civilization is forced to peddle faster and harder pushing itself to stay up when the law is creating a greater force of resistance. Civilization is blind to the reality of the fall, consumed by momentary pleasure. What they don't see is that they are headed for a crash. Mother culture is the false conscious whisper in our ear that it is the individual that should be held accountable for failure not the flaws of society. The individual must peddle faster and if he/she crashes then it is there own fault for not peddling fast enough.
The Takers are unconscious of their four actions that are fundamental to civilization. First they exterminate their competitors. Second they destroy their competitor's food and make room for their own. Third they deny their competitors access to food. Fourth they store food by taking and killing more than they can eat. By allowing these four fundamentals to continue the Takers are breaking the peace-keeping law. This inhibits diversity and by inhibiting diversity the mortality rate of other species increases, resulting in extinction. We may never fully see the solution to the problem as a civilization but Quinn suggests that there is still hope.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Ishmael is a stimulating and thought provoking book. Quinn is amazingly talented at putting a complex subject matter into a simplistic story line. He challenges the reader to think about the society we live in and reexamine the things that we accept as truth. Some of the analogies were a little confusing at first although after rereading it became clearer. In different sections of the book he went on tangents and at those points it became hard to tie the story together, but he did a wonderful job retelling it to clear up the points that were not at first clear. The ideas suggested were explained in a way that made the book take on a very realistic role. Although, the book is fictional Quinn brought to light many truths that we must be aware of. The unsettling realities of this world are not pleasurable topics of conversation but it also not something that can be overlooked. Quinn offers this story not only to bring reality to the surface but also to encourage a sense of hope. Ishmael is an inventive and compelling book. It will encourage readers to take action and reevaluate their own personal story.
There were many intriguing points made in this book one of which may be disagreeable to readers. Quinn suggests that if an area is over populated and the land is unable to sustain the people we should let them die off. He also states that if we feed them and increase food production then the population will continue to increase. The problem is significant but the solution Quinn suggests is controversial. People do not have a choice in where they are born, if the land does not supply enough resources then we must bring the resources to them. From Quinn's point of view we may only be ensuring that overpopulation will persist. Although, there are other alternatives for population control that he did not suggest such as education on contraceptive use. We are responsible as a civilization to care for others and feed the unfed.
The dialogue Quinn describes between Ishmael and the man brings the story to life as if I were apart of the conversation. His eloquent way of explaining a complex situation comes across simplistic and well thought out, which makes it easy to read. Quinn is an optimist; he brings to light the failures of civilization but believes there may still be hope. Quinn is hopeful for a solution to end the destruction caused by civilization. According to Hegal's theory of absolute truth there may never be a solution even if we are hopeful of one. His theory suggests that the world must first be understood before it is changed. The only way to understand the world is to acquire the absolute truth. As humans we are all imperfect, which prevents us as a civilization from acquiring the absolute truth. Therefore, civilization will never conform to the laws of peace keeping or limited competition. If the natural laws continue to be broken by civilization then we will continue to exist in a state of anomie. Emile Durkheim describes this as an unstable society. He suggests that we should rely on science as the solution to the problem. If part of the structure of society is not functioning within the laws, then science will determine a way in which all species can coexist with equilibrium. The civilization that Quinn describes has a lack of morality and if capitalism continues society will not be stable.
Durkheim compares primitive societies with modern societies, relating to Quinn's theory of the Leavers and Takers. The primitive society or the Leavers were like-minded people; there was minimal division of labor and a high level of morality. On the contrary, the modern society or the Takers are individualistic. Their society progressed through increasing the division of labor, which lead to the agricultural era. The agricultural era created more jobs and made the way for technological advances but with progress came conflict.
Max Weber also has an equivalent of Quinn's Leavers and Taker, which he calls substantive rationality and instrumental rationality. The substantive are the Leavers; they are altruistic and unified as a group. The instrumental or the Takers are practical and focus on the individual. Instrumental rationality influences the individual to resort to the iron cage of bureaucracy. Man abuses the resources available for personal gain. In Ishmael's story man is abusing the earth with desire to concur. C. Wright Mills similar to Quinn believes that the problems of civilization are not the fault of individuals but social construction is to blame. It is only through social movement that social change may occur.
Relevance to the Class
Ishmael is a book that is relevant to any subject and any educational discipline. Ishmael relates not only to sociology but can also be applicable to any field of study, particularly to history and business. Quinn illustrates many points about civilization and how it has evolved over time. This signifies former ways of life and cultural changes that have occurred that are relevant to our history. Ishmael would be beneficial to the business department because these are the people who are mostly running the world. It may help future corporation owners to form new paradigms. Once they realize the reality of mother culture they can evaluate the positive or negative effects they are having on civilization. With this new reality they may question to who's benefit is this corporation. Ishmael is a fiction book that is relevant to the times we live in. It touches on serious issues that are often overlooked. Ishmael challenges us to be aware of the destruction civilization is causing and to resist the curse of mother culture.
Minor in Sociology
Sam Houston State University