Monday, April 18, 2022

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

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

This ad enrages the narrator of the book, Ishmael. Although he has in the past sought a teacher, he is now disillusioned, and angry at the naive audacity of the ad. He answers the ad simply to expose the person who wrote it as a fake. Imagine his response when he discovers just who that is.

Because it was backed by darkness, the glass in this window was black—opaque, reflective. I made no attempt to see beyond as I approached. I was the spectacle under observation. On arrival, I continued to gaze into my own eyes for a moment, then rolled the focus forward beyond the glass—and found myself looking into another pair of eyes.

I fell back, startled. Then recognizing what I’d seen. I fell back again, now a little frightened.

The creature on the other side of the glass was a full-grown gorilla.

And so begins one of the most captivating and insightful books I have read in years. Actually the book had gone through several iterations until Quinn published the current version in 1992.

I’m surprised it took me so long to discover this brilliant treatise on human’s destruction of the earth, quite a fitting topic for our earth-day show.

Yes, he is being interviewed by a gorilla and a very clever one at that. A poster on the wall reads





This koan recurs many times in the book. The gorilla announces, “I am the teacher,’ and so begins an incredibly complex discussion of how we got to where we are, and how we might save ourselves and the rest of sentient life forms on earth.

Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you ‘How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’ and if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you’re talking about. In other words, if you take this educational journey with me, you’re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you—friends, family, past associates, and so on. 

There is a whole philosophy of history spun out in the gorilla’s lessons, from creation myths to a tracing of the history of agriculture. The story of The Leavers and The Takers. The story is too complex to simply overview, nor am i anything like as clever as Quinn and the gorilla. 

“And so your account of creation ends, ’And finally man appeared.’


“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that there was no more to come. Meaning that creation had come to an end.”

“This is what it was all leading up to”


“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. The pinnacle was reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation.”


“When man finally appeared, creation came to an end, because its objective had been reached. There was nothing left to create.”

“That seems to be the unspoken assumption.”

Ishmael is a wise if impatient teacher and he does not simply lay out his theory of how we came to this precipice we are on, he proceeds in Socratic fashion, urging the narrator to dig out the story, and play his part in discovery, to bring out of concealment the story of our own destruction.

At first I thought that the author must have read The Sixth Extinction, and was playing off of it, but if anything, it is the other way around since this novel predates the publication of The Sixth Extinction and centers more on economic history than on scientific data.

In essence, the world was made for man, and man was made to rule it. But since the world would not meekly submit, man had to conquer it.

“I’m saying that the price you’ve paid is not the price of becoming human. It’s not even the price of having the things you just mentioned. It’s the price of enacting a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the world.“

Martin Heidegger tells a similar story in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in which he claims that the present worlding, the world we are bringing  into existence, treats nature as standing reserve, that which stands in reserve for us to use and use up. Quinn’s version of the story sis far less pompous than Heidegger’s and far more entertaining.

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