In his Chicago Tribune article “Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and the movement it inspired” Pete Reinwald takes a new look at Ishmael ten years after his first reading of it.
‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn and the movement it inspired
By Pete Reinwald
July 13, 2013
This is a story about a blue crab killed for no good reason.
It is a story about birth and rebirth, law and life, nature and nurture, cooperation and connection, cultivation and civilization, production and destruction, seed and greed, Adam and Eve.
It is a story about “Ishmael.”
“Ishmael,” a 1992 Daniel Quinn novel, sounded an alarm on civilization’s war on Earth, embarked on 10,000 years ago at the beginning of the agricultural revolution. It illuminated the way in which that revolution continues with blindness and madness, killing or swallowing all life — plant, creature or human — that stands in the way of its appetite for expansion. It urged us to wake up.
The book inspired discussion groups worldwide through The Friends of Ishmael Society, and it prompted schools and teachers to include it in their curricula. Some still do.
I came upon the book almost 10 years ago during a time in which my heart — perhaps remembering a life-inspiring lesson from childhood — beat for books about the natural world, especially those that carried a historical, cultural or spiritual component. Thoreau’s “Walden” begot Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older than Words,” which begot Riane Eisler’s “The Chalice & the Blade,” with some Barbara Kingsolver mixed in. The latter two books beautifully bemoaned loss — “Language” the loss of our connection to the stars and streams, “Chalice” the loss of our connection to the sacred feminine. Both books explored an insane world run by men.
“Ishmael” featured an inviting subtitle: “An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.” It also carried on the cover this blurb by Jim Britell of Whole Earth Review: “From now on, I will divide the books I have read into two categories — the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.”
I now divide the books I have read into two categories — the ones that slap me in the face and the ones that don’t. “Ishmael” slapped me in the face: Humanity isn’t destroying the earth. One culture that now rules the globe is destroying the earth. That is our culture, whose objective is to bulldoze everything in its way and to put everybody at the wheel. The objective is food production and growth, and the target is any forest and any life — plant, animal or human — that occupies it. This is true whether in Brazil, China, Russia or the United States. Our culture won’t stop until it devours everything, including itself.
My grandparents passed this culture to my parents, who passed it to me. I passed it to my kids, who no doubt will pass it to theirs. We do so unwittingly, much the way we commuters sleepwalk en masse from the train to our office buildings, unconscious but of our iPhones. As the book points out, we’re on a crash course.
I’ve been thinking about “Ishmael” lately because of a new book I just finished: “Life’s Operating Manual,” by Tom Shadyac, director of films such as “Bruce Almighty” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” I read it because of the story of Shadyac, who sold his Hollywood mansion and moved into a mobile-home park. He writes in his book that he did that and gave away money because “it felt like the right thing to do.”
Shadyac’s book, broader in its cultural message and more spiritually focused than “Ishmael,” told me little new. But it did offer strong reminders on ideas that resonate with me, such as the value of true wealth over material wealth (“I do not wish to redistribute wealth; I wish to redefine it,” Shadyac writes); the problem of a cultural mentality that inspires competition and profit over cooperation and people; and the importance of our culture to recognize and embrace our connection to all things — each other and nature.
The book also pays tribute to “Ishmael” and to Quinn, its author. Shadyac writes: “Ishmael” grabbed “me by my throat in a literary vise grip. Quinn’s chokehold is rooted in a simple idea: that our culture has seduced us, hypnotized us really, into wholeheartedly embracing a way of life that may have little to do with reality.”
Shadyac’s book prompted me to read “Ishmael” again and to write about it.
Early in the book, a man, the narrator, answers a newspaper ad that says:
“TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”
The narrator meets the teacher — Ishmael, a thousand-pound gorilla who communicates telepathically. Using the Socratic method, Ishmael implores the narrator to think for himself on “how things came to be this way” and to come to the understanding that our culture has been enacting a story from the book of Genesis: that Man is here to conquer the earth.
Ishmael separates humans into two groups — “Leavers” and “Takers.” “Leavers” formed cultures that thrived for thousands of years before the agricultural revolution — hunters and gatherers, herders, indigenous societies. Those cultures lived lightly and took only what they needed. “Takers” are us — the people who killed or annexed those cultures and continue to do so; logging and farming in the Amazon threatens some of the last uncontacted tribes on Earth.
“Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be,” Ishmael tells the narrator. “Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story. This is the story man was born to enact [according to the mythology], and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself. . . . There’s no way out of it except through death.”
Unlike “Leaver” societies, which sustained themselves and the natural world for thousands of years, our “Taker” society will run out of things to kill and will die. Quinn likens the agricultural revolution to humans’ first attempts at flight. Those attempts failed because we tried to mimic a bird. Only when we discovered the law of aerodynamics did we learn to fly.
Through “Ishmael,” Quinn argues that no law or theory underpins “Taker” culture — and that’s why it has been in free fall since its adoption.
Quinn emphasizes that the natural world, which includes “Leaver” cultures, sustains itself through what he calls the law of limited competition. Under this peace-keeping law, he says, you may not hunt down competitors or deny them food or access to it. You also may not commit genocide against your competition.
“And only once in all the history of this planet has any species tried to live in defiance of this law — and it wasn’t an entire species, it was only one people, those I’ve named the Takers,” Ishmael tells the narrator. “Ten thousand years ago, this one people said, ‘No more. Man was not meant to be bound by this law,’ and they began to live in a way that flouts the law at every point.”
People have asked me why I don’t just become a hunter-gatherer. I have no interest in becoming a hunter-gatherer — and I know my wife, who focuses on the good in our society, wouldn’t, either. I wouldn’t know what to do and especially where to go. My problem is less with civilization than the aggressiveness and mindlessness of this one. As Quinn points out in “Ishmael,” civilization isn’t against the law of limited competition; it’s subject to the law of limited competition.
While writing this essay, I took a break to go with my wife and son to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform at the Morton Arboretum. As I listened, I thought about all the beauty this culture has produced.
Yet I yearn to live in a civilization that blends less madness with its music. I yearn to live in a civilization that redefines not only wealth but profit. A new shopping center and fast-food restaurant turns up trees by the roots but lifts no spirit. A lawn built on chemical products kills the dandelion but misses the miracle. A daytime flight over Chicago anticipates the skyline but ignores the slaughter. I yearn to live in a civilization that aviates consciously.
I know of like minds who found inspiration in “Ishmael.”
“When I was a legal advocate for chemical victims, I was already well aware of the distorted values at work in our culture,” Earon Davis, a former Chicago resident who recently moved to Bloomington, Ind., wrote in an email. “‘Ishmael’ helped me to see that our entire society’s sustainability and adaptability were being jeopardized by corrupted group-think in our mainstream culture.”
Davis said he tried to establish a Chicago-based discussion group related to “Ishmael” but got limited participation. He continues to lead a Web-based discussion group, which sees little activity.
“I can see how most people who are initially drawn to ‘Ishmael’ need to back away from the message of Quinn in order to focus on earning a living, raising a family, and living a ‘normal’ life,” he wrote.
Barbara Ridd said she incorporates “Ishmael” into the curriculum of a course called Ecology of Personal Life at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. She said the book offends some students who feel it questions the Bible.
“I think that closes those people off to the greater message, that we have to take stock of ourselves,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when given such a blunt look at our existence as mankind, people don’t like that as well.”
Laura M. Hartman, assistant professor of religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, said she read “Ishmael” for two courses as an undergraduate at Indiana University. “The general concept of ‘Takers’ and ‘Leavers’ still resonates with me,” she said. Yet she sees a weakness in the book: Instead of providing instructions on how to change the world, Quinn appeals for changed minds.
“The clock is ticking,” she said. “We don’t have time to make these inner transformations.”
This essay serves as an attempt to inspire transformations, anyway.
Now, about that blue crab.
I was about 9 years old. My father had long left us, and my mother had met the man who would raise me. We lived on a canal in Florida. He liked hunting and fishing, and he had a tremendous love and respect for nature. I liked baseball and football. I couldn’t bear the sight of a dead fish or animal — and I especially couldn’t kill one. So I rarely would go hunting or fishing with him.
But I desperately wanted to please him. One day, I lost my childhood senses and, for a moment, all that I loved. I spotted a blue crab in the canal in about two feet of water. I grabbed the gig that my stepfather kept by the canal. I thrust the gig into the water and speared the crab though her core. I raised the gig from the water, the crab moving its claws and legs as if searching for food or for any sense in this.
I ran joyfully to my stepfather, carrying the gig and the mortally wounded crab at the end of it as my trophy, and showed him what I’d just done for him. I told him I thought he’d want it for dinner. I expected a “that’s my boy” and a hug. I got a scolding. I got a demand that I eat what I’d just killed.
I got the lesson of my life — a lesson and law that I’ve carried with me, passed to my children and hope that they pass to theirs: You may not kill any member of the community of life for no good reason.
Pete Reinwald is the lead editor on the Tribune’s e-books project and an editor for Printers Row Journal.
By Daniel Quinn, Random House, 272 pages, $18 paperback
“Life’s Operating Manual”
By Tom Shadyac, Hay House, 247 pages, $19.95
More Daniel Quinn
Quinn, who attended Loyola University Chicago, expands on his urgent cultural theme in “The Story of B,” which is every bit as good as “Ishmael” — some say better — and can be read first. He wraps up a trilogy of sorts with “My Ishmael.”
Click here to read the article on the Chicago Tribune’s website.
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