Today, we’re looking at chapter two from Daniel Quinn’s first novel Ishmael. I’d suggest you read part 1 first, which is about living in captivity without realizing what to do get out. We’ll get right into chapter two.
Ishmael starts out with asking Alan how he thinks the Germans in the Third Reich were being held captive, since they either went along willingly or unwillingly, no matter what. Why did everyone stay inside their prison, why did they join these actions and commit crimes against other people? Alan suggests terror or Hitler’s charisma, but Ishmael explains that it was something else: a story. Hitler told the Germans a story about themselves that made them feel understood and which seemed to make sense of their dire economic situation. And while much of this story was nonsense, people wanted to believe in it, forcing anyone who was skeptical to go along because you just couldn’t escape this story.
Even if you weren’t personally captivated by the story, you were a captive all the same, because the people around you made you a captive. You were like an animal being swept along in the middle of a stampede.
Why is this relevant? Because, as Ishmael explains, the members of our culture also follow a mythological story which keeps them going, which keeps them hurting themselves, others, the planet, because the story is so, well, captivating. It’s not a story people are really aware of because it is a constant background noise that everyone, East or West, child or adult, man or woman, hear all the time, everywhere. Ishmael calls it the voice of Mother Culture.
Before he gets to our cultural story, Ishmael explains something that is incredibly true, but also a good sign how open you are to his ideas.
Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, ‘How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’ And if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you’re talking about. In other words, if you take this educational journey with me, you’re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you—friends, family, past associates, and so on.
That means there is a certain risk involved and I can safely say that this is absolutely true in my experience of the last 17 years. On the other hand, if this happens to you, chances are you often have felt a bit like an outsider anyway.
Ishmael then lays out some definitions for this journey. One is the distinction between Takers, people of our culture (what we consider to be civilized), and Leavers, people of other cultures (neutrally called indigenous or tribal people but mostly seen as primitive). Some people have some issues with those terms but they have proved to work well in order to talk about our culture especially, since it is hard to define and often gets misunderstood as the West or the Industrial World, because it is much bigger and broader than that.
The story about us we still hear (Ishmael was published in 1991 and while things have changed, this hasn’t changed much) is that humans lived as Leavers for two or three million years until, about 10,000 years ago, we got to the next chapters, starting with the so-called Agricultural Revolution, that is generally seen as the origin of civilization as we know it. It’s a story of progress, from primitive to civilized. Maybe you see now that this is a story, few people would doubt or deny believing. We think of people who live in tribes or “in the jungle” (as many like to say) as people living in the past who just haven’t moved on yet.
The power of the story we are hearing by Mother Culture has the power to believe in what we’re doing and not be too worried about the trouble we’re getting ourselves into. Yes, many bad things are happening, wars and climate change and terrorism and so on, but no one seems to freak out about it or seems to have a strong urge to do something. Because we believe that this is how things are supposed to be, so there is need in changing anything. It’s who we are. I talked about this many, many times here and it’s really the most integral, essential aspect of our culture, the power this story has to make us accept all the misery we’re living in.
Ishmael calls the story our “creation myth” and Alan, the narrator, says we don’t have such a thing. That marks the end of chapter two and since I’ve written more already than I had planned (and since those chapters are convenient in their length), I’ll stop here for now and get to that story in the next installment.