21 December 2007

2 stars = 3 stars for exploring interesting ideas; 1 star for writing a really bad novel

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn
Bantam, 1995

I've been trying to encapsulate all my feelings about this book, and I have concluded that it is basically a written version of the film Mindwalk.

Let me explain. (And please don't comment that the written version of Mindwalk, or more accurately the book upon which the film was based, was Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point--I know that already. I'm speaking metaphorically.) While the ideas discussed in that film were oftentimes incredibly fascinating and very urgent, the film itself, as a film, sorta sucked. Not an idea picture you want to make most folks sit through more than once, if that, in other words. So it is with this book. The ideas that it explores, sort of like deep ecology for beginners, certainly put it in the 3-star ("good") category. As a novel, though, it just isn't that good. The two characters in the book are merely mouthpieces for the pseudo-dialogues comprising the bulk of the book, and one of the two, the narrator, isn't much of a mouthpiece at that. It is not a surprise to me that many publishers passed on this novel.

The story, such as it is, begins intriguingly enough with a classified ad advertising a teacher for those who earnestly want to save the world. Our narrator, being an earnest, spiritual "seeker"-type, applies in person, only to discover that the teacher, Ishmael, is a gorilla who can communicate telepathically--not exactly what we expect of a guru! The two enter into a series of pseudo-dialogues that go on for the majority of the book's 250+ pages and which are interspersed with a few rather pedestrian interludes whose sole purpose seems to be to make this book a work of fiction, rather than a series of nonfiction lectures.

Many reviewers have asserted that these dialogues echo a powerful and respected format used by philosophers from Plato to Hume, but I disagree; instead of being authentic dialogues, in which every position is examined from many angles and by many voices, what appear in this novel are frustrated (and frustrating) lectures on the part of an overbearing, know-it-all silverback. They reminded me of high school lectures by a bad teacher who asks overly general questions and then snaps at the students for not immediately intuiting the expected answer. In addition, because these aren't authentic dialogues, Ishmael basically outlines his thesis without any critical feedback or counter-theses from the narrator, and so the reader is left accepting or rejecting the gorilla's expositions on intuition.

So much for the book's failings. Its success is in its ability to articulate clearly both a deep ecological critique of "civilization" (i.e., the worldview that has come to dominate the globe since the Agricultural Revolution began) and a vision of an alternative cultural paradigm within which humans can live harmoniously with the rest of the world. Using the terms "Takers" and "Leavers" (derived from the phrase "take it or leave it") to describe the two general types of human culture, Ishmael explores a subject with which he, as a gorilla, is quite familiar: captivity. Takers, who now make up the majority of the human species, are captives to their culture, which Ishmael defines as the story that they enact every day. For Takers, this story "casts mankind as the enemy of the world" (p. 75) and makes absolute mastery over the planet (nay, the universe!) the overarching cultural imperative. Human uniqueness and dominion over creation is "the manifesto of the [agricultural] revolution on which your culture is based. It's the repository of all your revolutionary doctrine and the definitive expression of your revolutionary spirit. It explains why the revolution was necessary and why it must be carried forward at any cost whatever" (154). Ishmael's description of the barrenness of the Takers' inner landscape rings true to those who see the consumption and control don't bring happiness: "The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness" (146). Those who find the works of Morris Berman and Derrick Jensen, (among others) compelling will nod their heads in agreement with much of what Quinn, and Ishmael, have to say about "Taker" culture.

"Leaver" cultures, which Ishmael roughly equates with "primitive" or "indigenous" cultures, are those who engage in "limited competition" (which complements Piotr Kropotkin's idea of "mutual aid"). This means that they do not exterminate their competitors and they don't deny their competitors access to food, so that biological (and cultural) communities maintain a healthy diversity and sustainability. Ishmael's challenge to the narrator, and to the reader, is to find a way to infuse the Leaver mindset (i.e., the intuition that there is no one right way, no need to have total control, and no way that we can continue to determine who lives and who dies) into our 21st century civilization.

(This review was originally written on June 25, 2007.)

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