"He was like me--he just yearned for there to be someone in the world like Leo, someone with a secret knowledge and a wisdom beyond his own. In fact, of course, there is no secret knowledge; no one knows anything that can't be found on a shelf in the public library. But I didn't know that then"
Early on, the narrator grows indignant at Ishmael's ad, since it reminds him of earlier disappointments. In his teenage years, the narrator sought a teacher who could tell him what was wrong with the world. He felt that he was being lied to about something, but could never articulate what that lie was.
As we discover both in this passage and through the novel, the frustration comes from the difficulty, and not the desire. In fact, much of what Ishmael teaches the narrator involves knowledge he already has - what is new is the way Ishmael arranges that information, the new perspective on it that he presents. So what is most frustrating to the narrator (in the passage above) is that he senses he has all the tools to discover this on his own, but lacks a system by which to properly use those tools.
Quinn uses this device to alert readers to the fact that everyone has the ability to change the world; it does not depend on finding new information or wisdom. It depends on evaluating the status quo, and rethinking the way that society is currently living.
"I could look at nothing else in the world but his face, more hideous than any other in the animal kingdom because of its similarity to our own, yet in its way more noble than any Greek ideal of perfection."
Here, Quinn uses the Freudian concept of the uncanny, which occurs when something is simultaneously familiar and foreign, and thus frightening. The uncanny creates a cognitive dissonance that sometimes leads us to outright reject it. This concept explains the way in which the narrator is unnerved by Ishmael's human-like features when they first meet.
This prefigures an important theme that continues to resonate throughout the novel. The narrator recognizes things that he is already familiar with (like the Big Bang theory), yet with Ishmael views them in a way that is unfamiliar to him. The narrator's enlightenment comes from first recognizing what he sees, then realizing that Mother Culture has discouraged him from approaching those things in a new way. The way the narrator approaches Ishmael here serves as a good model for the way he approaches almost of all of Ishmael's lesson.
"It's certainly not always unspoken. The religions of your culture aren't reticent about it. Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself."
Here, Ishmael illustrates the attitude that most civilizations adopt regarding man's relationship to the world. This sentiment is central both to Ishmael's understanding of the world today, and his suggestions for how the world could potentially change for the better.
He is unambiguous about criticizing this philosophy as dangerous. Man has evolved by belonging to the world, but Taker society has effectively ceded the evolutionary process by acting as though humans are distinct from the world. The hubris is more than unattractive; it also causes an imbalance between population and food supply that is spiraling the world towards imminent disaster. The world's resources are not limitless, and man is headed towards a catastrophic end if it continues to treat the world as though he controls it.
Ultimately, man's attitude that he is the end result of creation and evolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which both explains and justifies destructive behavior.
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."
Here, Ishmael has reached an important point in his argument. Civilization essentially dictates that the only way to make the world a better place is to conquer it. Anytime that man is faced with a challenge from the planet, he reacts as an adversary would. Even natural disasters are viewed as a slight against mankind, the earth fighting against humans. Droughts and floods both have a negative effect on food production, so they are viewed as bad. For Leaver civilizations, on the contrary, they are merely viewed as unfortunate events that must be adapted to in order to survive, part of a natural cycle. Takers get upset when these things happen because they are beyond their control.
What is also implicit in this argument is that man operates under a self-fulfilling prophecy. By empowering Mother Culture to teach us a destructive story, we continue to enact that story. If this dangerous story was once in our power, then the adoption of a new story is also within our power. We simply must wake up enough to realize it.
"In effect, you're saying that if you knew how to live, then the flaw in man could be controlled. If you knew how you ought to live, you wouldn't be forever screwing up the world. Perhaps in fact the two things are actually one thing. Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn't know how he ought to live."
Here, Quinn addresses the common belief that mankind is flawed. This fallacy stems from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve - Adam was flawed and gave into temptation, and essentially released evil into the world.
However, Quinn doubts this assumption, suggesting that the belief merely gives man license to practice destructive behavior without holding himself responsible for it. Perhaps, Ishmael argues, man is not flawed, but simply mis-led. Instead, man lived harmoniously with the Earth for thousands of years, not harming it at all, and following the peace-keeping law. What shifted came not from an inherent flaw, but from a choice to pursue a different path. In this sentiment is an innate optimism that man is inherently capable of living in harmony with the Earth, so long as he chooses to learn its lessons.
"Filmmakers understandably love footage of gore and battle, but any naturalist will tell you that the species are not in any sense at war with one another. The gazelle and the lion are enemies only in the minds of the Takers. The lion that comes across a herd of gazelles doesn't massacre them, as an enemy would. It kills one, not to satisfy its hatred of gazelles but to satisfy its hunger, and once it has made its kill the gazelles are perfectly content to go on grazing with the lion right in their midst."
Here, Ishmael addresses a common fallacy that Takers adopt in order to denigrate any lifestyle different from their own. Because the Takers enact a story in which mankind and Earth are antagonists to one another, they see the wild as dangerous and unpredictable, a place where predator and prey are natural enemies. However, Ishmael's sense of undisturbed nature is far more harmonious. The story that nature enacts is not one conquest, but simply of survival at the most basic level. Before man practiced totalitarian agriculture, putting every available foot of land under cultivation, he was subject to the natural food chain. In other words, nature provides a model of how to live in harmony, but Takers have come to ignore these lessons, instead choosing to view nature as a natural battleground. Quinn is suggesting that the need to wage war on everything that is not a source of food is extremely detrimental to the planet, and to man's ultimate longevity on earth.
"The story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years is not only disastrous for mankind and for the world, it's fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It's a megalomaniac's fantasy, and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime and drug addiction."
Quinn adamantly suggests that many of mankind's most pernicious problems have arisen from Taker culture, and are not inherent qualities of human beings. The Takers enact a difficult, antagonistic story that ultimately makes life not easier, but instead more anxiety-ridden. Ishmael believes that humans realize subconsciously that they are living a life without great meaning, and hence do they fall prey to things like greed and mental illness. These flaws in man are not as prevalent in Leaver cultures, suggesting that the Taker mentality is not only bad for the Earth, but for humans in general. It is yet another reason it would behoove us to strip Mother Culture of her power.
"What does it matter that I'm weary of living as a murderer of all the life around me? I know good and evil, and this way of living is good. Therefore I must live this way even though I'm weary unto death, even though I destroy the world and even myself. The gods wrote in the world a law for all to follow, but it cannot apply to me because I'm their equal. Therefore I will live outside this law and grow without limit. To be limited is evil."
Here, Ishmael considers a situation wherein the gods imagined how the pretense of the knowledge of good and evil might affect man. In truth, this is the mentality Ishmael believes that Takers have adopted. Because Takers have assumed the power of life, death, and food production, they feel equal to the gods. No matter what hardships the planet may present, man has found a way around them, which creates a dangerous hubris. By ignoring the peace keeping law that otherwise guides all life on Earth, man has continued to grow in a way that is both destroying the world and robbing his life of meaning. The irony, of course, is that man does not actually understand good and evil - he merely has the pretense of it. He uses this pretense to justify his behavior, viewing what cedes his growth as "evil." To change the world and ensure our survival, Ishmael argues, we must first recognize our limitations.
"But that's what all our lawgivers gave us--inventions. Contrivance. Not things that had proved out over thousands of generations, but rather arbitrary pronouncements about the one right way to live. And this is still what's going on. The laws they make in Washington aren't put on the books because they work well--they're put on the books because they represent the one right way to live."
Quinn's view of human society and justice is quite harsh. In effect, he believes that we are so dependent on laws (and religion) because they provide us a semblance of order, a definitive clue to how we "ought" to live. However, these laws are arbitrary and meaningless, often based on problems that have only arisen because of the Taker culture itself. Ishmael believes that the 'right' way to live is provided by nature itself, its laws that have been tested for over three million years. The issue is that Takers are reliant on definitive proclamations that they believe must be accurate for everyone. That we rely on "contrivances" only allows us to relinquish responsibility for our actions, claiming that we are seeking the 'right' way, when a much simpler guide lies in the peace keeping law, a law which can be applied in a variety of ways for different civilizations. Tolerance and open-mindedness is crucial towards destroying the prison of thought in which Takers live.
"You must change people's minds. And you can't just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something as meaningful as what they've lost--something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn't serve his needs directly or indirectly."
This is Quinn's suggestion on how to move forward. First, change will have to come in small ways, through individuals who encourage others to break free of the prison of Taker thought. However, we cannot simply expect people to get rid of our lifestyle - we must find a better alternative. Luckily, Leaver culture offers this alternative. In order for man to survive the impending catastrophe, we have to act as leaders, but not as lords. Because man was the first species to truly gain self-awareness and logical intelligence, we should pave the way for other species to do the same. Allow evolution to continue, and the planet could someday be full of species that have intelligence. To Quinn, it does not make sense that evolution should stop with humans. Instead, we should relinquish our control over nature, and let it take its course. If man continues on the path he is currently following, more and more species will be wiped out and the planet will be devoid of resources, making it impossible for life to continue.
Ishmael Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ishmael is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.