The Daniel Quinn Files: Ishmael (1)

I’ve mentioned Daniel Quinn too often to not have gotten into his work yet here, so finally that’s what I’m starting now. Daniel Quinn is the author of many books and the first one, Ishmael, is the one that changed my and many other people’s lives. My plan is to work through his books step by step, discussing his ideas in each of them. Nothing I say can substitute actually reading them, so if nothing else, you can see this as a very long recommendation series. Maybe you know some of his books and find it interesting to hear some thoughts, maybe you don’t and my discussion encourages you to check them out or maybe you generally don’t read books and attain some of his ideas anyway through this.

A quick overview: Ishmael was published in 1990 and is basically the story of Alan, who is looking for someone to teach him how to save the world, which he finds in the Ishmael, a gorilla who has the ability to communicate with him.

In the beginning, Ishmael explains that his teaching concept deals with “captivity” because we are “captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels [us] to go on destroying the world in order to live.” This basic idea (which is really at the start of the novel) should resonate with anyone in our culture because so many people feel like a captive, imprisoned by the circumstances they live in, the expectations they have to fulfill, school, job, family, laws, values, morals etc. And when it comes to destroying the world, many people think that it is inevitable for us to survive. The important difference, though, is that we need to do that to sustain our lifestyle not our actual lives.

What keeps us from getting out of this prison? We are “unable to find the bars of the cage.” While most people feel captive in some way, they are normally not aware of their captivity or their cage. They tell you “Life sucks” or “That’s just the way things are” or rhetorically ask “What can you do?” If you don’t know where your prisons begins and ends, there is no way to get out.

Alan tells Ishmael a story of why he came to him. It’s the story of a world in which the Nazis conquered everything, so that there is nothing left but Aryans. The textbooks don’t talk about anything else but Aryans, Germans and National Socialism until no one remembers anything else. One of them, Kurt, can’t shake the feeling that there is something no one tells them, “that there is some small thing that we’re being lied about.” Alan explains this is how he feels in our culture and that is a feeling only a small (but growing) number have. It’s certainly how I felt as a teenager, which is why this book was so important to me. Alan says he realized that there is no point in trying to find out what the lie is, because it doesn’t change the fact that we have “to get up and go to work and pay the bills and all the rest.” That is a sentiment you’ll hear from many people if you talk to them about changing something. Ishmael’s point to that is what still keeps me going: “If you alone found out what the lie was, then you’re probably right—it would make no great difference. But if you all found out what the lie was, it might conceivably make a very great difference indeed.”

That’s Ishmael’s goal: to teach people so that they can teach others. That’s my goal as a teacher and as a writer.

That’s basically chapter one of Ishmael. I want to keep these brief, so we’ll get to chapter two next time.