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Ishmael:A Novel Paperback – May 1, 1995
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From Kirkus Reviews
Here's the novel that, out of 2500 submissions, won the ecological-minded Turner Tomorrow Award--and caused a mutiny among the judges when it was awarded the $500,000 first prize. Is it that good--or bad? No, but it's certainly unusual, even eccentric, enough to place Quinn (the paperback Dreamer, 1988) on the cult literary map.
What's most unusual is that this novel scarcely is one: beneath a thin narrative glaze, it's really a series of Socratic dialogues between man and ape, with the ape as Socrates. The nameless man, who narrates, answers a newspaper ad (``TEACHER seeks pupil...'') that takes him to a shabby office tenanted by a giant gorilla; lo! the ape begins to talk to him telepathically (Quinn's failure to explain this ability is typical of his approach: idea supersedes story). Over several days, the ape, Ishmael, as gruff as his Greek model, drags the man into a new understanding of humanity's place in the world. In a nutshell, Ishmael argues that humanity has evolved two ways of living: There are the ``Leavers,'' or hunter-gatherers (e.g., Bushmen), who live in harmony with the rest of life; and there are the ``Takers'' (our civilization), who arose with the agricultural revolution, aim to conquer the rest of life, and are destroying it in the process. Takers, Ishmael says, have woven a ``story'' to rationalize their conquest; central to this story is the idea that humanity is flawed--e.g., as told in the Bible. But not so, Ishmael proclaims; only the Taker way is flawed: Leavers offer a method for living well in the world ... A washout as a story, with zero emotional punch; but of substantial intellectual appeal as the extensive Q&A passages (despite their wild generalities and smug self-assurance) invariably challenge and provoke: both Socrates and King Kong might be pleased. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
“A thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel about the role of our species on the planet . . . laid out for us with an originality and a clarity that few would deny.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Quinn entraps] us in the dialogue itself, in the sweet and terrible lucidity of Ishmael’s analysis of the human condition. . . . It was surely for this deep, clear persuasiveness of argument that Ishmael was given its huge prize.”—The Washington Post
“It is as suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent as any fiction or nonfiction book you are likely to read this or any other year.”—The Austin Chronicle
“Deserves high marks as a serious—and all too rare—effort that is unflinchingly engaged with fundamental life-and-death concerns.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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In trying to persuade his readers, Daniel Quinn uses a style of argument which has become all too common in our world, a style which relies on psychological jujitsu rather than actual logic. This is the same style used by advertisers and many political pundits. Perhaps if Quinn had simply written a manifesto or a nonfiction book, I wouldn't be quite so bothered, but there is something sneaky about packaging one's ideology as a novel. After all, since it IS a work of fiction, he's not expected to provide citations, to be accountable for his information, or to present formal structured arguments. If someone criticizes the lack of hard evidence, supporters are quick to point out that it's not a scientific book. Yet if someone criticizes ISHMAEL's literary value as a novel, its supporters can fire back, "It's the message that's important." So if it's not a literary work or a work of science, what is it?
It's not an "adventure of the mind and spirit." It's an ideological sales pitch. And Quinn uses all the standard tricks.
First, there's the third party technique. We are meant to see the title character--a telepathic gorilla--as an objective observer to humanity's problems. But Ishmael is not really a character at all. He's a sockpuppet. His views and thoughts are precisely the author's views and thoughts. Does anyone honestly believe otherwise? Ishmael is not a "neutral outsider" to human culture, as one reviewer suggested. Ishmael is Daniel Quinn in a gorilla suit.
The second technique used is the straw man argument, a misrepresentation of the opponent's position. The unnamed narrator in this book is less a character than a prop who reacts in artificial ways to make Ishmael's viewpoints seem original and profound. There is no reciprocal exchange of ideas, no true meeting of minds. The book's "debate" format is a sham, since the narrator offers only flimsy arguments. He is portrayed as a stupid child who needs to be educated in Ishmael's superior way of thinking. When you consider that Ishmael is a sockpuppet for the author and the narrator is a sockpuppet for the reader (or rather, how Quinn imagines the readers will react to his arguments) the sheer narcissism of this presentation is rather astonishing.
The third technique used--psychologizing--is not typically recognized as propaganda. But I see it quite frequently. It involves making statements (almost always unprovable) about your opponent's subconscious motivations as a way of dismissing their arguments (Example: "You only believe that because you're bitter and angry.") The aim of this technique--like an ad hominem argument--is to shift focus away from the argument and to the person making it.
Quinn invents the figure of "Mother Culture," described as a voice whispering in people's ears or humming in the background. Whenever the narrator objects to something Ishmael says, Ishmael replies that it's just "Mother Culture" whispering in his ear again. The covert message to the reader is: "If you don't agree with me, it's because your culture is controlling you. You don't want to be a slave of your culture, do you? Then you'd better agree."
Portraying one's ideological opponents as brainwashed or controlled by others is quite common in political arguments. It simultaneously flatters those who agree (who can now perceive themselves as open-minded, independent, and better than the average person) and insults those who disagree (the unenlightened masses who simply believe whatever they are told.) Of course, the irony here is that this technique allows the propagandist to control the reader's thoughts by making them afraid of being controlled by someone else. Another such technique is employed when Ishmael asks the narrator why he isn't astounded at having his worldview so thoroughly rocked, and the narrator replies he's all numb inside.
The implication is that if you, the reader, are not completely astounded by this book, the flaw is not in the book but in you. The covert message: agree with Quinn, and not only agree with him, but be amazed at his wisdom, or you are a hollow, awful person.
And fourth, "black and white" technique. You are either a Taker or a Leaver. No other options exist. If you disagree with Quinn, you must be a "Taker," and thus responsible for ruining the world.
Quinn writes, "Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background...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?'" Ironically, that's a very apt metaphor for the novel itself. Once you see what you're reading here, you can't un-see it.
It's a shame, really, because the book does touch on real and important problems. Quinn could have chosen to explore these ideas in an open, thoughtful, and genuine way. Unfortunately, he chose to use a bag of tricks instead. I am not telling people to blindly dismiss the messages in the novel. Rather, I wish to encourage a more open and honest dialogue which does not rely on such tricks.
Read the book, but be aware of that voice "humming in the background."
(1) The central message is a hackneyed statement about saving the planet: All we have to do is this or that. We need to treat the earth better, or treat each other better, etc....
No, the author has no such message. He is not even concerned with saving the planet. He merely points out that, in the past, there were many ways a human could make a living in the world that did not threaten to render the planet uninhabitable. As George Carlin once said: "The planet isn't going anywhere. We are!" The author recommends that if we are concerned about our future, then we should find out as much as we can about these other ways of living in the world and what made them sustainable.
(2) This is communism.
No, this is tribalism, the cultural traits of which have been found to be conducive to sutainable ways of living.
So-called communist countries operate the same unsustainable lifestyle as so-called democratic countries and are just as hierarchical and corrupt. Nothing new, except the academic devaluation of the individual. In "democratic" countries, the devaluation is not openly professed, only practiced and theoretically implied. Progress means the same thing in both societies: the technological displacement of people.
(3) The ape is omniscient; skeptics beware.
Skeptics always beware. Ishmael is the ultimate skeptic. He takes nothing for granted. His arguments are based on information available to any human being with a library card. You'll remember that when the student enters Ishmael's room, he notices dozens of books on history and anthropology piled up on the shelf. You don't have to take Ishmael's word for granted. If you're skeptical, go look it up. The ape is not omniscient. He's well informed.
(4) The book proclaims: "There is something unnatural about the way we live."
I agree. There is nothing natural about the way we live. But there's nothing natural about the way any human has ever lived.
There's never been an all-natural people. We are and have always been all-cultural. Nature supplies us with the urges to satisfy certain life imperatives (i.e. nutritional, procreative, protective, etc...). But culture determines the way we go about responding to these urges; that is to say, there is nothing natural about the way we satisfy these natural desires. We may be at a loss to change our nature and the urges we feel, but we are capable of constructing a better, more sustainable way of responding to nature's edicts.
(5) Based on the arguments of the book, one could conclude that "we, as a species, are...."
Quinn has nothing conclusive to say about humanity or "we as a species," except that every human is dependent on culture and that the bulk of the information that constitutes human cultures is mythological. His main concern here is with the general evolution of two distinct ways of living on this planet. One is sustainable, the other is not. We as a species have not messed things up. One culture out of tens of thousands has managed to make a mess of things. By engaging in unsustainable behavior that threatens to destroy the ecosystems upon which humans everywhere depend (i.e., totalitarian agriculture), we - the people of a single culture - are precipitating the extinction of humankind.