Thursday, April 12, 2012


This is another book review that for some reason I never posted.

At the beginning of last year, I wrote a post on Daniel Quinn's book, Beyond Civilization (see Beyond Civilization, 1/3/11). Daniel Quinn has written a bunch of books but the one that first got him some attention was Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 aqnd was published in 1992. Having seen dozens of references to it and having heard from several people how important it was to them, I have just read it.

Ishmael is the story of a guy who answers a personal ad for a teacher seeking a pupil and finds that the teacher is a 500 pound gorilla who communicates telepathically (yes!) and describes two cultures, one that Ishmael (the gorilla) calls 'the Takers' and one that he calls 'the Leavers'. The Takers believe that they are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process and are meant to rule the world, where the Leavers (or tribal folks) are content to just be another part of the natural world. All this is teased out of Ishmael's pupil by means of Ishmael's questions--most of the book is a sort of Socratic dialogue.

It's not the best written book. The style of this story reminds me of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories that I used to read when I used to read mysteries. The voice of the anonymous narrator seems to me a lot like Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the Wolfe stories. (And there is the fact that, like Wolfe, Ishmael has considerable weight.)

But it's an important book. Not because it's unique, but because it has been so widely read.

I doubt that Daniel Quinn would think of himself as an ecofeminist--nor do I think most ecofeminists would think of him as one either. For one obvious thing, Ishmael uses the term 'man' to refer to human beings throughout the book. Nevertheless, I was reading Ishmael at the same time as I was reading various ecofeminist authors and felt like there was a strong similarity of emphasis. As it says in the novel: "The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'" "In order to make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it." "Man is conquering the deserts, man is conquering the oceans, man is conquering the atom, man is conquering the elements, man is conquering outer space." Many ecofeminist writers have written very similar things, even including the use of the word 'man'--although in an ironic sense that Daniel Quinn doesn't use.

The point of this book, and, I believe, the point of most ecofeminist writing, is that in trying to rule the world we are destroying it, and we cannot live without the world. Thus the book suggests we need a new story and that we can learn much of that story from 'the Leavers', the tribal peoples of the world, who live as a part of nature rather than trying to dominate it. The book in many ways reminds me of Chellis Glendinning's book My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (see my review in One with Nature 1: Recovery, 12/26/08). Like Chellis, Daniel Quinn looks at hunter-gatherer tribes as a model for re-learning how to live in harmony with the natural world.

I know that Ishmael has been very influential for many people. And it really doesn't matter that many other writers (including most of the ecofeminists, and the permaculture people, too, for that matter) are saying the same things. This is a message that needs to be put out again and again and again. It's not just about climate change, or rainforest destruction, or peak oil, or whatever issue you want to name. We are dealing with a systemic issue and we need to rethink everything. We need to think--as I would put it--how we can live simply, sustainably, equally, cooperatively, and even communally. Yes, and we need to think how we can live tribally. Because we are on the verge of destroying the planet and minor reforms are not going to cut it. (Not to mention that people are treating each other very badly, and it's about time that changes too.) As Daniel Quinn puts it, "You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live." Well, as Quinn and many other people are insisting, it's time to create a different system. It's either that or say goodbye to everything.

Quote of the Day: "The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated..." - Daniel Quinn

No comments: