Book Review: Ishmael

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Ishmael, #1)Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A hugely condescending gorilla bullies the narrator about his affiliation with civilized society and the mythology perpetuated by agriculture.

The titular Ishmael puts out an ad in a newspaper encouraging starry-eyed idealists who want to save the world to come to his darkened office, whereupon he talks down to them both for the ongoing ecocide of their species and their mistreatment of the Jews.

The narrator is a monke masochist and eagerly returns day after day to receive another telepathic lambasting from a pompous gorilla who, we are repeatedly assured, smells “meaty”.

Ishmael tells him that every society has a creation myth, and humanity’s prevailing myth of evolution, while correct, is organized so that creation is complete with the coming of man. Man is the reason for the creation, the world is man’s to conquer, and these are the reasons man is such an absolute asshole to ecology in general.

That’s the Takers mentality, or the people who opted in to the agricultural revolution and all the grody little kinks to our individual and collective psychology it brought with it. The Leavers are the isolated bands of humans who opted to keep living in accordance with nature, and they’re doing just peachy keen, as they had been for 2 million years. At least, they were peachy keen, until the Takers’ unrelenting destructive grabassery threatened (and continues to threaten) an extinction-level event.

There was a cool little Biblical analogy spun in there, where the story of Genesis is an allegory written by the Semites (Leavers, nomadic herders) and co-opted by the Caucasians (Takers, agriculturalists from the fertile crescent. Don’t be alarmed, this is before Caucasian was synonymous with white) after the smoke cleared.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the belief that the eater can distinguish exactly that, which was otherwise left up to the gods. When the first farmers started stockpiling grain, they were no longer at the mercy of the fates. They knew what was right. Their way was right, and anybody who disagreed was in for a good old fashioned reckoning.

Like any good fledgling empire, they expanded recklessly. They ran across the Semites, ancestors of the Hebrews, who were pastoralists, and they started killing them because they needed the land. The Semites, as you can imagine, were baffled.

This brings us to Cain and Able. Able represents the Semites, favored of God, his very chosen people, and Cain represents his murderer, the increasingly militarizing Caucasians, decidedly not their brother’s keeper for the first time in recorded history. And guess what that makes the mark of Cain?

The gorilla teaches the narrator that every civilization before us has crashed and burned, empires keep turning to ash, and we’re next in line, with the added bonus of destroying most of the environment.

“What do we do?” pleads the narrator.
“Knock it off,” says his instructor.
“How?”
“Destroy industrialized society and go camping again.”
“No,” says the narrator, “I mean what do I do, personally?”
“Teach 100 people.”

Cop out! Raise awareness? Come on, Ishmael. Nut up and advocate ecoterrorism. We’re all thinking it.

In the end of the book, Ishmael dies of pneumonia before the narrator can rescue him from the carnival sideshow. This was the masterstroke, in my opinion, because he didn’t need to die. When the narrator offered to help him, he insisted he wouldn’t live “off anyone’s largesse”. He didn’t even tell the narrator that he was sick.

He was trying to ignore it. He was too proud to change what he was doing, too proud to reach out for help, and it wound up killing him.

The same way we’re killing the world.

Hooooo, don’t it just give you chills? Five monke out of five.

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