Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book 6 of 52: Ishmael

I actually finished Daniel Quinn's Ishmael about two weeks ago.
I've spent the intervening time trying to decide what to say about it. I've been trying to find something positive to say because it came to me on the recommendation of a friend, and because a quick Google search turns up positive review after positive review.

I hated it. I kept trying not to, but I hate it the way I hated the Star Wars prequels: a good idea that so wildly misses the mark from development to realization that a project I should support becomes one I oppose.

Let's start at the start: Ishmael is a novel/ philosophical tract in a hybrid dialogue-diary form a la Plato's dialogues, following the unnamed narrator (perhaps Daniel Quinn, the narrator is a writer; perhaps an Everyman) as he meets and learns from the gorilla Ishmael, who communicates via telepathy.

That's not the tough to swallow part.

Ishmael teaches the narrator about the sins of the human kind, about how our lifestyle is destroying the planet, about another way of interacting with the universe.

Ishmael divides the human race into two categories of people: Takers and Leavers, a play on the expression "take it or leave it." The "it" in question is agricultural society. Already, I have alarm bells going off. Any time we view a world through dichotomy (black or white, male or female, liberal or conservative) we limit our vision, and we exclude an array of alternatives (shades of gray, transgender, a political science class worth of political middle grounds).

The Takers destroy the planet because they want to control it. Their fear of the unknown compels them to seize their destiny away from "the gods" (nebulous forces I'll talk more about in a minute). Leavers live as one with the planet because they are more accepting of the limits of nature's bounty, never demanding more than the earth can provide.

Quinn's Leavers are utopian: they work very little; they suffer from no crime, no depression, no fear; they do not destroy the planet as they take from it what they need but only what they need. We Takers are aggressive, violent, and intolerant of anyone who does not accept our lifestyle. Quinn spins the story of Cain and Abel into his Leaver-Taker mythology, as the Taker/agriculturist (Cain) kills and drives of Leaver/hunter-gatherer. Quinn never mentions any of the history of warfare between hunter-gatherer societies, since that would introduce some counterpoint into his argument, and he isn't interested in nuance. Just because the hunter-gatherers Quinn views as our guiding stars are hunter-gatherers, doesn't mean that they are exempt from the feeling of materialism, of greed, of desire that motivates so much of the Taker lifestyle.

Quinn blames our consumerism on a thing he calls Mother Culture, but which I recognize as social assumptions.

There are four kinds of knowledge:
things we know we know,
things we know we don't know,
things we don't know we know,
things we don't know we don't know.

The things we know we know and the things we know we don't know are the obvious. Everything we are aware of falls into one of these two categories. I know how to tie my shows, I know that pi is the constant of a circle, I know the distances down both foul lines at Yankee Stadium. I don't know the density of wood, or the stages of mitosis, or how to program a computer.

Mother Culture is wrapped up in the things we don't know we know. Gender roles, racial biases, the limits of our vocabulary, assumptions about how the world works; all of these happen subconsciously and influence the way we interact with the world. I know that the word "definite" means certain, clear, solid. I didn't look it up, and I don't remember ever learning it at school. I've always known the meaning of the word. Until I meet someone who challenges my knowledge of the word and its limits, it might never move from the category of a thing I don't know I know to a thing I know I know (or a thing I don't know I know!).

When Quinn writes about Mother Culture, she is an enemy. She tricks us into accepting as certain facts about the world we would do well to question: what are the limits of the earth's ability to sustain human life? what responsibilities to we have to keep the earth from that limit? how can we do this?

I like this part of Ishmael. For all my dislike of the book before and after the introduction of Mother Culture, this is the section I come back to (over and over again) in my effort to find something to like. In confronting Mother Culture, Quinn finds traces of another way to live that doesn't involve the materialism that threatens to absorb and destroy the world.

It seems to me that a pursuit of "the well examined life" may be our highest purpose. If we question ourselves deeply on what we know, why we know it, and what more we need to know, then I see no way we could not because fuller human beings, capable of ever greater acts of empathy and compassion to the world around us. In chapter 2 of Genesis, God gives Adam stewardship of all world, of all the plants and animals, of his wife and (eventually) his children. This rings true to me, that our greatest responsibility is to each other.

This responsibility to each other is not what Quinn draws out of his examination of Mother Culture. His examination of Mother Culture ends with the conclusion that the agricultural lifestyle is the wrong one, and that it must be abandoned at all costs. Even if it means allowing the majority of the population of the planet to starve to death whenever population outstrips the limits of the uncultivated earth's production. It's easy to imagine how simple life would be if we were a race of 1 million instead of 7 billion, but Quinn actually advocates it. Let 'em die off. He says it explicitly, repeatedly, and remorselessly. Let 'em die off until our numbers are reduced to manageable levels, and if drought comes, more shall die. It is unconscionable, and it overshadows and diminishes every part of Quinn's treatise.

In this section the of Ishmael, Quinn writes quite a bit about "the gods" and their will. These are not a pantheon or a stand in for any divinity that I recognize, but seem to be the capriciousness of the climate and  weather and soil composition anthropomorphized. Quinn has built an entire logical argument that ends with a shrug that says, "if the gods will."

Ultimately, Quinn's argument falls apart for me when he attributes perfection to the Leavers and assigns blame for all the world's woes to the Takers. Quinn argues that the Leavers, as evidenced by their lifestyle, live in greater harmony with the world; we can see clearly that this lifestyle and that lifestyle are different, but I am unconvinced that the manifest differences are born from intrinsic differences, rather than the social differences of opportunity, education, and experience. The fact that the hunter-gatherers haven't built a city doesn't tell me that none of them might want to.

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