Without Gorilla, is there hope for Man?
As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished reading the book Ishmael by Danielle Quinn. I found it a joy to read, and continue to find it both joyful and challenging to consider what it has to offer. Ishmael is a short book about a young man who’s almost given up his search for finding a teacher – until he finds an ad in the newspaper for a teacher looking for a pupil who is eager to save the world. Disenchanted and refusing to admit that he’s actually interested, the young man goes to see this ‘teacher’ on a lark, and finds, to his astonishment, that the teacher is a gorilla with a very captivating life story.
The gorilla, called Ishmael, and the young man carry on a dialogue about the origins of humanity, about the mythology of our own culture and the mythology of cultures we would consider primitive. At first, the young man finds it difficult to believe that modern, civilized culture has any unified mythology to speak of, but as Ishmael encourages him to unearth his own most latent assumptions about what it means to be human and where humans come from, the myth is slowly brought to light.
The myth essentially says that Takers (in a world of Takers and Leavers – civilized cultures and primitive cultures), who have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, are enacting a story that says the world belongs to them, well, us. Stories like the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel came to us from the Leavers, who originally created those stories in order to understand why the Takers lived so differently, killing people just to take the land and live one way, almost as if they thought they knew what the Gods know – who should die and who should live.
Ishmael relates these stories, and the concept of Takers as being those who think the world belongs to them and Leavers as those who think that they belong to the world, to the very recent global crisis. In the end, Ishmael offers a very frustrated young man this, when asked what on earth can be DONE to “save the world”:
“The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world – not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is more than one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.
“Teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire them to teach a hundred.”
-Ishmael, by Danielle Quinn
This is a very loose summary, missing half a dozen points and, more than anything else, the pure delight of reading the book itself. However, I think the summary is necessary in order for me to have grounds for explaining some of my thoughts, which are (in no particular order):
-Ishmael being a captive gorilla particularly predisposes him to come up with the unique worldview he is offering.
-The interpretation of the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel are endlessly fascination to me – they beautifully illustrate the point, and I believe the unassuming nature of its offering – that it has no more or less basis than many other interpretations – illustrates the emphasis on there being no one right way to live as well.
-The dialogue on human xenocentricism (…is that a word? Does it mean what I think it means? Like ethnocentricism, but for the whole species) was not a new concept for me. At various points I have struggled with the idea that we are anything more or less than simply another one of Earth’s creatures. I have struggled to fathom to what degree others believe this idea as well.
-I feel a need, a desire, to re-examine some of my own thoughts and feelings about human nature. I have said things like, “It’s clear we’re different from other animals. We’re… weird.” There does seem to be something distinctly unique about us. But I have struggled with this strictly because I can hardly find any sense in it. Ishmael has given me a possible interpretation for my own struggle – we’re different, but not Different – but the idea if one I like a lot – which means interpreting this old thought entirely in the light of this new thought may be clouded in self-grandeur and thus suspect.
-It did feel really obvious in some ways. Obviously not the interpretation of Genesis, which was totally new, but the idea that we’re the only species truly capable of murder is old – and in some ways, not one I’m entirely sure I believe. Dolphins will kill sharks just for fun, won’t they? But there are still distinctions. This murder Ishmael speaks about isn’t even ‘killing for fun.’ It’s literally killing for the sake of the ‘one right way to live.’ These aren’t new ideas but, offered in the context of the stories we live by, they take on a deeper, more immediate meaning.
-Danielle Quinn gets my vote for understanding that you cannot overemphasize the importance of stories in the human psyche.
-This new world we ought to be striving towards? I wonder what specifically it means. There’s never been any question in my mind that we ought to be striving to “change the world” – in fact, a lot of my frustration stems from a) feeling like it’s impossible, b) only having vague impressions of what I’m trying to change and why I’m trying to change it, and c) having no clear terms for what I’m looking to become – what the change actually consists of. So while Ishmael definitely provides (at least the beginnings of) a framework for b) and yet another spark of hope and inspiration for a), Quinn intentionally leaves c) up in the air.
So, I do hope to inspire people to read this book, or at least to visit Ishmael.org and read some of the material there, as it is all very fascinating – especially the Question and Answer sections.