Fiction Review: Ishmael


Hmm, a book starring a telepathic gorilla giving ecological lessons. It certainly is an interesting hook. Once I saw that I had to read the darn thing...

The novel, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael (the teacher) and the  unnamed narrator. The narrator is a somewhat cynical middle-aged man who, as a child, was disappointed that the movements of the sixties never did change the world. He feels something is wrong but doesn't quite know what. Answering a newspaper ad, he becomes a student of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael.

I'm not quite certain how much I should do to avoid spoilers, so be warned I will be spoiling their dialogue though I will steer clear of discussing details of their lives, fates, etc. Ishmael leads the narrator through a variety of questions to explore the assumptions and origins of society. Ishmael's premise is there are two types of societies, the Takers and the Leavers. The Takers represent most of the modern world, heirs to the agricultural revolution that gave birth to civilization as we know it. The Leavers are representative of the pre-agricultural  hunter-gatherer societies. This does not preclude the Leavers from farming but Ishmael points out they are not dependant on it.

Ishmael is further of the opinion that the society of the Takers is endangering the world while that of the Leavers is what is required to have a sustainable society. The Leavers obey his law of limited competition - "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war." It is the Takers refusal to obey this law, to consider themselves outside of nature, that has the Earth at risk.

What did I think of the novel as a whole? It certainly maintained my interest. Despite my internal chuckling at the premise of a gorilla teacher, I found Ishmael to be a rather interesting and engaging character. The narrator was, likely as a matter of literary necessity given the format, somewhat obtuse, allowing for Ishmael to provide insight. I do feel that the nobility of the Leavers to be a bit overstated - I'm unconvinced that historically such societies have obeyed the law of limited competition outlined above. I'm currently reading War Before Civilization to better understand what we know of such societies and to test that premise.

Despite those criticisms, the novel does deliver an important point - the Leaver societies, as Ishmael calls them, did have far more ecologically sustainable societies than those of the Takers. Ishmael points out that there were some very advanced societies developing in the Americas before contact with the Taker societies of the Old World and it was unfortunate that we never learned what they would evolve into.  It's not, for example, that the Lenape and Wampanoag lived as slaves to their environments - such peoples did make changes to the environment.

Ishmael also points out, and this is something I've read from other places, the work week of hunter-gatherer societies tended to be around three hours. Not a bad life. At the very least, I would have to consider myself intrigued by the premise enough to research if further. Some of the questions I have are along the lines of how much of our technology is compatible with such a society. Could there, for example, be a Leaver society with access to the medical technology we have today? Like I said, I'm not 100% convinced of the premise but intend on further educating myself. Which, to be honest, is a sign of a good read.

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