Daniel-Quinn-IshmaelMichael Ray De Los Angeles
The Royal Flush Review: Literature
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July 12, 2016


A few thoughts on Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

            What would the world be like if it were made for Jellyfish? Ismael, asks his pupil, in their opening dialogues about the interconnectivity of species. In a Socratic dialogue of teacher and pupil, they talk about “Taker” culture, “leaver” culture, and the traumas that can occur when nonhuman nature is not treated as an interconnected web of species– marine life, amphibians , and great apes alike. In a fascinating narrative about human co-existence, ecology and conservation, the dialogues between Ismael and his student are eye-opening and thought provoking, especially when you consider that the teacher is a telepathic silver-back gorilla.

            American history, has oppression, ecological destruction, and civic tragedy interwoven into its pages; while some cultures co-exist with Earth, there are others that take from the pale blue dot and its inhabitants. Throughout his novel Ishmael, Daniel Quinn uses an eco-critical lens for his Socractic dialogue about the qualities of “taker” and “leaver” culture; emphasizing humans’ interdependence with non-human nature: Colonialism as well as Imperialism left a trail of war, death and destruction in their path, and today industrial agriculture is contributing to planetary destruction through deforestation. Quinn’s main character Ishmael is telepathic Gorilla that advocates for interconnectivity between humans with non-human nature. His advocacy is in an attempt to teach his homosapien pupil that the world is not meant solely for man. On the contrary, the world was meant for jellyfish, for great apes, for biodiversity, for cultural diversity, for co-existence among species! “Taker” culture’s mythologies generate war, and deplete natural resources, as a result all life, from jellyfish, to great apes are affected. As teacher, the silver-back gorilla makes the observation that the world has been polarized into two dominant cultures, “Takers” and “Leavers,” each subscribing to a different mythology.

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Photo: Vampyrohtechnix Media

            Ishmael’s defines the Taker culture as a culture that subscribes to a mythology of conquest, and in doing so have neglected ecology’s first law; through conquest and war Takers threaten “the stability of the community” (Quinn 144). A dialogue around natural law is interlaced throughout the lessons. The rise of “Taker” culture takes place at about 8,000 B.C.E with the birth of the agricultural revolution. And Ishmael needs his pupil to see that there is another way. And this is the importance of “Leaver” culture a culture of “those who live in the hands of the gods” (Quinn 229). The gods being the Earth, and surrounding life. The novel is inclusive of indigenous and aboriginal cultures that demonstrate the “Leaver” ethos, such as the Alawa, Bushman, Kayapo and the Navajo. Ishmael also points out that “Leaver” culture is not bound by time or location and that it is alive today and has been for the last several hundred thousand years.

Ishmael p. 49
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.”

            Both cultures have shaped American history as well as world culture. Ishmael states that “any story that explains the meaning of the world, the intention of the gods, and the destiny of man is bound to be mythology” (Quinn 45). American history is ripe with stories of conquest over savagery, as is British and Spaniard history. Across the globe it is the mythos of conquest that man has chosen to follow and this narrative that subscribes to war, ecological pillaging, and inhumane destruction is what Ishmael cautions against. The dehumanization relationships of abuser/abused are highlighted in his discussions of the Holocaust. Ishmael states, that when you give people a “story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world” (Quinn 84). Which is what has happened in during the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s-40s, the Japanese of invasion of China of the 1930s-40s, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia in the 1970s, Rawanda in the 1990s, and Iraq and Afghanistan well into the new millennium. Today, the subdivides occur along the lines of religion, family, gender, social class, sexuality, ethnicity, and physical and non physical attributes.

            Published in 1992, Quinn’s novel reflects an individual’s need to be responsive, to meditate, to listen and to co-create: it is a book that has something for the Baby Boomers, Generation X & Y, as well as the Millennial. You don’t need to read Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring or  Watch An Inconvenient Truth to know that we only have one planet, and the conservation and preservation of our natural resources, and co-inhabitants should be a number one priority. As an author Quinn offers the concept of “civilizational flight” (Quinn 107), the process of walking away from a system that is not working. In the context of the narrative, Ishmael is telling his human pupil that they current system is not working and that it has even imprisoned man– even if he cannot see the bars.

            Ultimately Quinn does not leave the reader with a sense of closure because there is none to be had, in the very real world of today we are still addressing oil spills, clear-cutting, drought, and animal abuse–including poaching, vivisection and slaughter. What Quinn’s book Ismael does accomplish is that it lays the groundwork for future generations to dive deeper into a dialogue (and actions) that cannot be taken out with bullets. As a silver-back gorilla inside of a zoo, Ishmael is an imprisoned teacher, point out the bars and walls built around humanity. The tragedy is that he is a prisoner because of humanity, and will surely die if humanity does not come to its senses.

            All in all the book can offer great realizations, harsh clarity, and talking points for ongoing environmental dialogues. Back in 1992 the eco-movement as it stands today was not yet visible but without question, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael helped to shape it by holding a mirror to world culture and providing it with an honest reflection of itself. I’m optimistic that the selfie loving Millennials are ready create a new world cultural climate that is more embracive or nonhuman nature, movies like Dirt, and groups like the 13th Floor Art Society, Beautify Earth, Lorax Community, Bonoboville, Broadchester Farms, ElectricCocoon’s Stargate events there is definitely hope on the horizon. That said, happy reading.

Blue Stargate -- Vampyrohtechnix Media


MRDLAMichael Ray is a California-grown, native Angelino, hailing from Virgil Village; and is an advocate for public green space, edible gardens, and animal rights. As graduate of Humboldt State University, this artisan has worked alongside the Humboldt Student Food Collective, the Campus Center For Appropriate Technology (CCAT), The Humboldt Circus, Broadchester Farms, Burkart Organics and  The California Environmental Legacy Project, creating ecologically conscious art in the forms of live theater, documentaries, paintings, zines, and essays.
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