Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael - Paradigms of Yesterday Essay

"Come with me if you want to live," was all that Arnold Schwarzenegger said in his movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and after reading Daniel Quinn's masterpiece Ishmael, one might well receive the impression Quinn echoes such sentiments. Few books have as much relevancy in this technological, ever-changing world as Ishmael.

In the beginning, according to Ishmael, God created Man to live peacefully on Earth, sustained by the fruitful bounties of Earth and subject to God's control. That is, until Man ate of the Tree of Good and Evil in the Garden Of Eden, and conveniently forgot all the rules God had so graciously placed in front of him. From that point on, the Caucasian race, full of vanity and pride for having seen so clearly what was good on the Earth and what was not, decided to subjugate the Earth to its will. During this turn of events, totalitarian agriculture was born. And God just shook his head.

Fortunately, there are creatures on the Earth still willing to teach Man about his roots, and at the same time save Man from his selfdestructive impulses. Enter Ishmael, a gorilla with a conscience. Yes, a gorilla. Caged and controlled by man, Ishmael developed a self-awareness of his situation and of man's. Realizing that his destiny is intertwined with man's, he decides to save man from himself. Placing an ad in the papers, Ishmael finds a willing if disillusioned student, and presents a course of education guaranteed to save the world. Makes one wonder if the sign in Ishmael's office reads true, "With gorilla gone, will man survive?"

The pupil finds that all he has learned about history is a lie, created by power hungry men two thousand years ago intent on ruling the world. Unfortunately for present day society, they succeeded. The Christian myths of today are simply a vehicle to train and control the children of tomorrow as they venture on their "holy" quests, that of destroying the world in the name of progress. Throughout it all, Ishmael leads his pupil through his trials with wit and wisdom, even while leading him towards solutions for world hunger and environmental destruction. Makes one wonder how it is that Quinn, as he claims, arrived at all of the conclusions in the book by simply going to the library and doing a little research. Part parable, part myth, and totally compelling, Ishmael leaves one hungry and wondering, waiting for the next chapter of humanity's tale to play out. As any good book does, Ishmael leaves readers with more questions than answers, and demands that the reader figure out the solution for himself.

As one critic put it, good books generate a "healthy confusion," a curious combination of "pleasure and disquietude." Ishmael is no different. Much of the confusion present in this work stems from the assertion by Daniel Quinn that most of the lessons taught by the monotheistic religions of the world have gaping holes in them. They provide a shaky framework for a self-sustaining culture, and soon man will pay for his ignorance by the destruction of the environment. Quinn goes on to say that most of the world revolves around totalitarian agriculture, a way of life that bleeds the land dry of fo~,.) Since this type of agricultural abuse is good at producing food surpluses~"o supports the growing world population.

Yet, the real shocker arrives when Quinn says that "Mother Culture," the generic name for industrialized society, provides justification for environmental destruction by convincing everyone that not only is their Christians, this book might create significant doubts about whether their religion is a wise course to follow. Of course, most classics question the very fundamentals of society.

Quinn continues creating disquietude by formulating cogent hypotheses that explain the relationship between biblical myths and world history, dating from the split between the two great social orders of the Earth, the "Leavers" and the "Takers." Using the Socratic method of teaching, and rarely straying from the point, Quinn uses Ishmael as a mediator between the two societies. The reader can readily understand Quinn's arguments so comprehension is not a problem in developing the story. However, at points, the disquietude Quinn produces can be overwhelming.

Still, as Quinn often points out in the book, hope remains for the inspired pupil. Expanding on the story of the Leavers and Takers, Quinn identifies modern-day society with the Takers, and the virtually extinct primitive societies of Indians and the like with the Leavers. Two thousand years ago, apparently, the Takers evolved into being, bringing with them agrairian society. The Leavers on the other hand, were mainly hunters and gatherers. As the Takers population grew with the food supply, they eventually infringed upon the Leaver's territory. Of course, it wasn't the Leavers who precipitated the resulting wars and conflicts; greedy for more land, the Takers began to exterminate Leaver society, a job carried to the present day through missionary work. In addition, these wars are the basis for the Cain and Abel myths in the Bible. As time m~A.~A A ~

Leaver populations dwindled, so too did much of the wisdom of the Leavers. For, as the Leavers knew, man could not remove himself from the rule of competition indefinitely, and so could not control the food supply indefinitely. The Takers failed to understand that one could compete for food to the best of one's ability, but not to the point of denying your competitors access to food, or exterminating them. If one does, one ends up fragmenting the entire food chain. Ecologically speaking, the Taker way of life was doomed from the beginning.

However, the reader experiences a sense of pleasure as Quinn points out that many of the primitive societies have a great deal of wisdom they can teach the world on how to live in a self-sustaining society. Of course, new ideas will mean that the paradigms of yesterday will have to be discarded. However, if innovative solutions to today's ecological problems can be found, and the wisdom of ages is preserved, man has a shot at not committing cultural suicide. In trying to control all other life on the planet man has overstepped his bounds. In the end, man must realize that he is interconnected to all other life on Earth. Just consider, for a moment, the reverse side of Ishmael's office sign. "With man gone, will gorilla survive?" 

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