Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
reviewed by Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster
Department of Religion and Philosophy
Have you ever experienced the pleasure and awe-inspiring presence of a silverback gorilla? Their sheer mass, obvious wisdom and eerie likeness to “us” in their physical and mental presence is wild! Ishmael, a lowland gorilla and the central character in this novel, draws us into his unorthodox view of human history—and destructiveness.
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
A teacher seeks and advertises for a student with the desire to “save the world” (one might find this a bit presumptuous and hokey). But when we are introduced to Ishmael and find that he does indeed exhibit all the skills of the most brilliant of teachers, in both content and method, the journey into this intriguing story begins. Ishmael, winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship in 1992, is one of those rare books that tells a good story (a particularly enjoyable read when leaning on a tree) while suggesting complex, provocative, even disturbing ideas for readers to ponder and ponder again. One could even find oneself a bit transformed.
As Ishmael teaches his pupil to see the world’s current dominating, rapidly expanding monoculture as a dangerous anomaly in the earth’s (and humanity’s) history, moments of insight abound. And the student, a young man who is seeking something though he doesn’t know what that might be, becomes energized as moments of insight burst into his life.
For example, Ishmael explains to his student that animals in zoos are “almost always more thoughtful than their cousins in the wild…because even the dimmest of them cannot help but sense that something is very wrong with this style of living.” Well, we (human beings) are the ones in a cage, in captivity, knowing that something is very wrong though we aren’t quite sure what it is.
Ishmael leaves few systems unexamined: economics, religion, politics, education, science. As we learn about his perspective on humans as the sole “takers” in an ecosystem where “leavers” provide the only sustainable option, all of our hierarchical assumptions, particularly “speciesism,” are called into question and called what they are—the pathway to the end of life on this planet. Biodiversity and cultural diversity provide hope, but our current, dominant cultural system focuses on monoculture in all areas: the agricultural, the economic, the religious. Our quest to control will lead to our own demise.
The provocative themes may sound a bit “heavy” for a summer read, but the story flows and the dialogue (though sometimes a bit contrived in its Socratic predictability) keeps you reading—and wondering, “how do we save the world from ourselves?”
(One note about Quinn’s use of the word “mankind” throughout—I always employ and encourage students to use inclusive language and wish that Quinn had done so as well.)