Friday, May 16, 2008

Ishmael—Friday Feature

Ishmael, the allegorical novel by Daniel Quinn, examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. This story’s premise and its relationship to sustainability intrigued me so much, it appears in today’s Friday Feature. I found the discussions on evolution and ecology fascinating, particularly as they related to human ethics.

The novel starts with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." When a man responds to the ad, he finds himself in a room with a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael. The story continues as a socratic dialogue between Ishmael and his student as they discuss what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind.

Ishmael uses the example of Nazi Germany to show how the people of his culture are in much of the same situation: either held captive with the mythology of being superior, or "an animal swept up in the stampede" of the captivity of those around them.

Before proceeding, Ishmael defines:

  • Takers as people often referred to as "civilized." Particularly, the culture born in an Agricultural Revolution that began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East; the culture of Ishmael's pupil.

  • Leavers as people of all other cultures; sometimes referred to as "primitive."

  • A story as an interrelation between the gods, man, and the Earth, with a beginning, middle, and end.

  • To enact is to strive to make a story come true.

  • A culture as a people who are enacting a story.

The premise of the story enacted by Takers is that they are the pinnacle of evolution (or creation), that the world was made for man, and that man is here to conquer and rule the world.
Ishmael explains that life is subject to immutable laws and it is possible to discern them by studying the biological community and an evolutionarily stable survival strategy for all species called the 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." Species follow this law or go extinct. Takers believe themselves exempt from this Law.

Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone. Living in this manner (in the hands of God), Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity. The Takers, who practice Totalitarian Agriculture produce enormous food surpluses. "When you have more food than you need, then God has no power over you."

"Takers are 'those who know good and evil' and the Leavers are 'those who live in the hands of the gods'."

According to Ishmael, by living in the hands of God, man is subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place. According to the Takers' story, creation came to an end with man. "In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself."

"The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'"

As a writer, I enjoy allegories for their metaphoric narrative descriptions of subjects under the guise of another having similarities to it (e.g., Pilgrims Progress, which describes life as a journey). The socratic, polarized imagery of Ishmael counterpoints humility with hubistic endeavor; self with others; compassion with greed. I'm sure it wasn't lost on Quinn that the Ishmael of the Bible was a rather troublesome and quarrelsome character, who lived in the wilderness and according to God "shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen." Both the biblical Ishmael and Quinn's Ishmael were "outsiders" and, as such, more likely to be in the position to make commentary.

Ishmael, from the Hebrew word meaning God hears, was the son of Abraham and Hagar, the Egyptian maid of his wife Sarah. When Sarah found herself not having children, she arranged to have a child with Abraham by Hagar acting as a surrogate mother (Genesis 16:1-4), even though God had specifically stated that a child would be born to Sarah in due time. The result was bitter conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, and their descendants, that has gone on right to the present day. Ishmael was born at Mamre, when Abraham was 86, 11 years after Abraham's arrival in what would become the land of Israel (Genesis 16:3). He grew up to be a man of the desert wilderness, with a wild and hostile attitude toward people.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A deeply-researched and well written feature, Nina. I learnt a lot.

sfgirl said...

I always liked the name, Ishmael, but I never knew why... Then I stumbled onto this book... and also discovered the meaning of the name: "God hears". Wonderful.

You and me, Jean-luc. We both learned a lot! So... in the meantime, you should be working on getting the next World Fantasy Con into England, Birmingham, particularly! :) I'm counting on you... "Make it so!"