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Remembering Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael


It had been a long time since I thought about Daniel Quinn and his book Ishmael when I learned of his passing on February 17th.

Ishmael is an incredible, profound book that examines the mythological elements underpinning modern civilization. The narrative is framed as a conversation between a man and a telepathic gorilla. A central theme is the dichotomous separation of mankind into Takers and Leavers, and from there branches into different areas of philosophical inquiry. One can guess which group the majority of modern humans are categorized under.

It’s been well over a decade since I read it, and I decided to leaf through it. Looking at some of my past blogs, I can see the subtle influence it had on me, despite my rarely thinking of it. I consider it odd that Ishmael was the only thing I’ve read of Quinn’s. There must have been reasons why this is so, but whatever they were I don’t remember.

There are a few things I take issue with in Ishmael, one of them being the book’s conception of contemporary “Leaver” cultures as existing since time immemorial, which isn’t always the case – some of the extant “Leavers” are indeed descended from former agriculturalists. Also, there is a certain amount of romanticization of life without agriculture that I’m not sure is entirely warranted. I think this is a line of thinking that many of the authors in the broad milieu to which Quinn belonged are guilty of. Of course, I haven’t reread the entire book, so perhaps I’m off in my very short critique.

Here are some excerpts (“I” always refers to the narrator/human character and not Ishmael, the gorilla):

“Famine isn’t unique to humans. All species are subject to it everywhere in the world. When the population of any species outstrips its food resources, that population declines until it’s once again in balance with its resources. Mother Culture says that humans should be exempt from that process, so when she finds a population that has outstripped its resources, she rushes in food from the outside, thus making it a certainty that there will be even more of them to starve in the next generation. Because the population is never allowed to decline to the point at which it can be supported by its own resources, famine becomes a chronic feature of their lives.”

The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler’s mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.

The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn’t a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it doesn’t give them power. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them. This is what you’ll find if you go among them. They’re not seething with discontent and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way, not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or something to believe in that will make their lives worth living. And — I repeat — this is not because they live close to nature or have no formal government or because they’re innately noble. This is simply because they’re enacting a story that works well for people — a story that worked well for three million years and that still works well where the Takers haven’t yet managed to stamp it out.

***

“Leaver peoples are always conscious of having a tradition that goes back to very ancient times. We have no such consciousness. For the most part, we’re a very ‘new’ people. Every generation is somehow new, more thoroughly cut off from the past than the one that came before.”

“What does Mother Culture have to say about this?”

“Ah,” I said, and closed my eyes. “Mother Culture says that this is as it should be. There’s nothing in the past for us. The past is dreck. The past is something to be put behind us, something to be escaped from.”

Ishmael nodded. “So you see: This is how you came to be cultural amnesiacs.”

“How do you mean?”

“Until Darwin and the paleontologists came along to tack three million years of human life onto your history, it was assumed in your culture that the birth of man and the birth of your culture were simultaneous events — were in fact the same event. What I mean is that the people of your culture thought that man was born one of you. It was assumed that farming is as instinctive to man as honey production is to bees.”

“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”

“When the people of your culture encountered the hunter-gatherers of Africa and America, it was thought that these were people who had degenerated from the natural, agricultural state, people who had lost the arts they’d been born with. The Takers had no idea that they were looking at what they themselves had been before they became agriculturalists. As far as the Takers knew, there was no ‘before.’ Creation had occurred just a few thousand years ago, and Man the Agriculturalist had immediately set about the task of building civilization.”

***

“The gods have played three dirty tricks on the Takers,” he began. “In the first place, they didn’t put the world where the Takers thought it belonged, in the center of the universe. They really hated hearing this, but they got used to it. Even if man’s home was stuck off in the boondocks, they could still believe he was the central figure in the drama of creation.

“The second of the gods’ tricks was worse. Since man was the climax of creation, the creature for whom all the rest was made, they should have had the decency to produce him in a manner suited to his dignity and importance — in a separate, special act of creation. Instead they arranged for him to evolve from the common slime, just like ticks and liver flukes. The Takers really hated hearing this, but they’re beginning to adjust to it. Even if man evolved from the common slime, it’s still his divinely appointed destiny to rule the world and perhaps even the universe itself.

“But the last of the gods’ tricks was the worst of all. [This final trick is the subject of the next several pages and, to me, isn’t very persuasive or interesting.]

***

“There is one significant difference between the inmates of your criminal prisons and the inmates of your cultural prison: The former understand that the distribution of wealth and power inside the prison has nothing to do with justice.”

I blinked at him for a while, then asked him to explain.

“In your cultural prison, which inmates wield the power?”

“Ah,” I said. “The male inmates. Especially the white male inmates.”

“Yes, that’s right. But you understand that these white male inmates are indeed inmates and not warders. For all their power and privilege — for all that they lord it over everyone else in the prison — not one of them has a key that will unlock the gate.” “Yes, that’s true. Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can’t, but he can no more get out of the prison than I can. But what does this have to do with justice?” [note that this was written 28 years ago]

“Justice demands that people other than white males have power in the prison.”

“Yes, I see. But what are you saying? That this isn’t true?”

“True? Of course it’s true that males — and, as you say, especially white males — have called the shots inside the prison for thousands of years, perhaps even from the beginning. Of course it’s true that this is unjust. And of course it’s true that power and wealth within the prison should be equitably redistributed. But 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.”

“Yes, I see that. But I’m not sure many other people would.”

“No?”

“No. Among the politically active, the redistribution of wealth and power is … I don’t know what to call it that would be strong enough. An idea whose time has come. The Holy Grail.”

“Nonetheless, breaking out of the Taker prison is a common cause to which all humanity can subscribe.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s a cause to which almost none of humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and they don’t give a damn that it’s destroying the world.”

Ishmael shrugged. “As always, you’re a pessimist. Perhaps you’re right. I hope you’re wrong.”

“I hope so too, believe me.”

***

Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the way they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your 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’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost — something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people in ten minutes than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”

“I’m not a stand-up comic.”

[Leaving aside the fact that Paul was able to reach untold millions via the perpetuation of Christianity, I’m injecting a quick anecdote. The most recent episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made? discusses the movie Ladybugs. What they describe is a toxic brew of sexism, transphobia, racism, and terrible pedophilia-related jokes. The white male protagonist, Rodney Dangerfield, bumbles his way to success despite not showing any amount of aptitude that would lead one to believe it is in any way deserved. The sheer amount of awful cultural traits on display is staggering in what I vaguely recall from my childhood as a fairly innocuous movie. But it’s generally par for the course for entertainment in the late 80’s/early 90’s – I’m reminded of the unlearning that I think should be, but only sometimes is a hallmark of skeptical thinking as it pertains to what we have internalized from the entertainment/education of our formative years. Quinn certainly helped play a role in that process for me.

Anyways, many more people saw Ladybugs than have ever read Ishmael. Voices like Quinn’s are mere molecules in the avalanche of bullshit that is contemporary culture. I think that’s bad.]

“But you’re a writer, aren’t you?”

“Not that kind of writer.”

Ishmael shrugged. “Lucky you. You are absolved of any obligation. Self-absolved.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What were you expecting to learn from me? An incantation? A magic word that would sweep all the nastiness away?”

“No.”

“Ultimately, it would seem you’re no different from those you profess to despise: You just wanted something for yourself. Something to make you feel better as you watch the end approach.”

“No, it isn’t that. You just don’t know me very well. It’s always this way with me — first I say, ‘No, no, it’s impossible, completely and utterly impossible,’ then I go ahead and do it.”

Ishmael humphed, barely mollified.

“One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ ”

“That of course is an inane idea,” Ishmael said. “The Leaver life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live — and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.” He paused and shook his head. “What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.”

“But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.”

“That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be inventive — if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive.” He gave me a dull stare. “You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then invent.”

***

I think this is a fitting end to the post. RIP.

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