This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
I thought about rereading it before writing this piece. And then I realised that I had neither the time nor the inclination. I also realised that it was probably better that I didn’t, as this review is a consideration of the book’s lasting effects on me, not of the specifics of the plot or the quality of the prose. Briefly though, on those points, the plot seemed irrelevant and the prose was middling to poor. The whole premise was ludicrous in fact. And although I ‘get it’, the attempted irony of a supposedly inferior being explaining the complexity of the human situation to a human, helping them to understand, in the end it’s still about a talking gorilla.
So that aside, it quickly became clear that Daniel Quinn’s ‘Ishmael’ was not about people and places, it was about ideas. Very broad, fundamental ideas. Ideas that bypassed all religious, political, cultural and emotional allegiances by going deeper (having said that, it does actually pretty much trash the Christian creation story, but anyway). ‘Ishmael’ dares to question whether civilization as we know it should exist at all! Now, I should say that this was one of a number of books that I read in quick succession, others being ‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein, and ‘Hegemony or Survival’ by Noam Chomsky and that its impact may therefore have been amplified by the effects of these others. But it is the disruptive and disturbing message of ‘Ishmael’ that sticks with me and has found its way into my dreams, my poems, my existential conversations (whatever, you know what I mean), and my current brand of nihilism.
Over the course of the book, Daniel Quinn presents a vision of human history and development that suggests that, at certain pivotal moments, we have collectively taken drastically wrong turns which have led us over an ecological precipice. Near the end there is, I think, some vague attempt at inspirational, motivational, transformative challenge, like, “it’s not too late, we can make better choices” or, “act now and avert your fate!” But really, anyone with even an ounce of realism knows that humans are incapable of change until it’s way too late, and so the resounding tenor of the book is one of incredulous dismay. The book’s protagonist, who’s name I can’t remember (I’m not being coy, its not Ishmael, that’s the Gorilla), is portrayed as one awakening from a beguiling and powerful dream that had him sleepwalking to his death. As I said above though, my impression was very much that he came to just after throwing himself off a cliff. This drew me to inevitable conclusions.
I had already sold a lot of my earthly goods and moved to an organic coffee farm in Hawaii, I had recently completed a theology degree in which my final thesis coupled Christian spiritual development with Anarchism and Existentialism, and as has been the topic of other posts, I had then, as now, a depressive personality. It’s fair to say I was primed for a message of thoroughgoing doom and gloom.
What this book really did for me was to give me a perspective that seemed truly to come from outside of history. Indeed, Quinn himself says that the book was inspired by a childhood dream and the line of inquiry it led him on (involving Catholic monastic vows, psychoanalysis, tribal animism).
Having lived either in big cities, or in fairly rural and remote areas, the book’s juxtaposition of our seemingly transcendent ‘Taker’ civilization with the natural laws that govern every other living thing was poignant. That we had usurped power and terribly abused it, that we had fooled ourselves into thinking we were masters and dominators and that our actions would therefore lead to our demise suddenly seemed obvious. To this day the city seems like a nonsense, and all life there to be only half lived, dysfunctional, deformed. I have often compared the city to a ravenous beast crouching in a field, because, after all, every city is built in a field. Moreover, I take issue with every institution I encounter, not because of its particular policies or failures of policy, but because of the nature of an institution. Further, I find in every self-proclaimed ‘individual’ the hallmarks of community and the longing for it. These prejudices all have their roots further back than my reading of Ishmael, but were all enlightened by it.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly, but not without the warning that unless you are a recklessly positive person, its logic and prophesy may leave you feeling a little naked and afraid.