From If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways:
Meet the Martian Anthropologist
Many readers have wondered where Ishmael and my other books
have come from. For example, they ask: “Was there someone like
Ishmael who served as your teacher?” To this I reply, “No, I had
no such teacher.”
I’m also asked to explain my “method.” By what process do I arrive
at insights so unfamiliar and alien they might have sprung from
the mind of a Martian anthropologist? After all the other books
had been written it occurred to me that it might be possible to put
together an answer to this question, but it seemed like something
that could only be done in dialogue with a willing student.
At last, in October of 2005, I received a letter from a reader who
was going to be in Houston over the Thanksgiving weekend and
wondered if she might spend some time with me to “nail down”
some of the ideas she had explored in my books. I agreed, with
the understanding that I had a purpose of my own: I wanted to
use our conversation, taped and edited, as the basis for a new
book I had in mind, a book I was sure she’d appreciate.
The first morning.
Daniel. A few months ago I had a telephone conference with a
group of readers in Tulsa. One young man made an observation
that seems quite commonplace but that had a telling effect on me.
He said, approximately, “What are we supposed to do? When we
talk to people, we’re each speaking from some conventional frame
of reference. What we don’t understand or share is your frame of
reference. Your frame of reference seems completely alien and
mysterious to us.” Suddenly I felt I had a handle on the problem.
Obvious as it seems in retrospect, it was my frame of reference that
was different. The young man couldn’t answer questions the way I
did because he didn’t share my frame of reference, and the corporate
group I just described were horrified because they were looking at
the matter under discussion from a frame of reference that was
completely different from mine.
Elaine. So what is your frame of reference? Or can you describe it?
Daniel. What I have is a shorthand for it. My frame of reference is
that of a Martian anthropologist. I’m like someone who has traveled
millions of miles to study a species of beings who, while supposedly
rational, are destroying the very planet they live on.
Elaine. Wow. Okay. And how do you describe the frame of reference
of a Martian anthropologist?
Daniel. I don’t really think a description would help you much—
even if I knew how to provide one. To learn how to swim, you must
swim. It’s not something that can be described. Someone has to
throw you into the water.