A Review of "Ishmael", By Daniel Quinn

I first read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, after giving it to my sister as a birthday present. Actually, I read it before she did. I was impressed, and told her it was an incredible book. She read it, and agreed with me completely. A short time later, with my sister's permission, I loaned it to a favorite teacher of mine. She read it, and promptly ordered 30 copies for her classes to read. My "Literature of The Third World" class read it, and spent just about the rest of the year in discussion of it. Ishmael has an effect on people. It makes them think about the way they live their lives and how their society functions, and it makes them question.

Quinn gains a unique perspective on humanity through the main character of the novel, Ishmael. Ishmael is a gorilla. And Ishmael is a teacher who communicates with humans telepathically. On the surface, this hardly seems to be a character who would appear in a serious book; more likely a children's story, a fable, or perhaps a bad science fiction novel. Yet Ishmael is none of these, and Ishmael is a strong character, with a powerful intellect and a serious purpose. The character of Ishmael needs to be non-human in order to be effective. Looking in on civilization from the outside gives him a perspective from which to criticize humanity without hypocrisy. To hear the oppressor repent is not nearly so effective as to hear the voice of the oppressed demand freedom and restitution.

As Ishmael opens, the author writes of a day in his life when he found what he thought a truly ludicrous advertisement in the personals section of a newspaper:

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
Investigating with the purpose of exposing fraud, he came upon Ishmael in Room 105 of a nondescript office building. Ishmael was sitting calmly, nibbling on a slender branch. Momentarily shocked, Quinn stumbled towards a chair. He glanced into the gorilla's eyes, and much to his disconcertment the eyes calmly spoke to him. Nodding in answer to an unuttered question, Ishmael spoke silently "I am the teacher."

In language of the sort one might expect from a well educated man speaking with a friend, Ishmael told Quinn the story of his life. A large portion of it was spent in captivity, before a wealthy elderly man befriended and educated him. At the end of Ishmael's tale, Quinn was still somewhat befuddled.

I sat there for a minute, then I said, "I'm trying to figure out what this has to do with saving the world."

Ishmael thought for a moment. "Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?"

"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."

"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."

"Yes, that's so."

"Why don't you stop?"

I shrugged. "Frankly, we don't know how."

"You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."

"So. You are captives - and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it? - your captivity and the captivity of the world."

This dialogue is but a prologue to the topics the book examines, a foundation on which Ishmael's theories are built. It may not seem meaningful out of context, but it is vital to the ideas proposed later in the book. Quinn wrote that at this point he still had a great deal of doubt about what Ishmael had to say. Many ecological or sociological books are urgent, bombastic, overflowing with dramatic exclamations of forthcoming disaster. Quinn avoids this and Ishmael is the stronger for it. By maintaining doubt in the reader's mind, Quinn ensures that if an idea is to be accepted it must pass through rigorous examination on the part of both the characters in the novel and the reader.

It is impossible, in an essay of this length, to fairly represent the multitude of ideas Ishmael presents. They range from fundamental laws of ecology to a relevant examination of two biblical stories as historical documents; from the effects of modern civilization's megalomaniacal science-as-morality attitude to the cause of society's epidemic of cultural amnesia. Ishmael is a critic of human civilization, but not of the human species itself. Humans existed for about three million years without "civilization," and only became globally destructive after 10,000 years of it. Ishmael, then, sees ecological damage as a result of modern society, not human nature. For this reason, Ishmael turns to what "primitive" societies remain, and compares "civilized" and "primitive" cultures. From an ecologist's point of view, he attempts to discern which differences between the two could be responsible for the potential for ecological destructiveness characteristic of one.

It is important that Ishmael does not believe the solution to the world's woes is a return to a hunter-gatherer existence. It seems impossible that any attempt to solve global problems would succeed with the support of only those who were willing to dismantle every element of society. Ishmael also does not rely on technological advances to solve the most important ecological problems we face. It was important to me that Ishmael did not represent technology as having any inherent flaws, he did not attempt to persuade me that science should be abandoned. He instead presented a clear argument as to why it was simply not the appropriate tool for the restoration of the environment. What Ishmael does argue is necessary for the continued survival of the species is something much subtler. He asks for humans to begin to look at themselves without the distorting lens that "civilization" has placed before their eyes. Ishmael removes this lense. The view is astounding.

The Ishmael Companion Site

Miles Morgan Shuman
California Institute of Technology

Email to miles@cco.caltech.edu