Of Talking Gorillas and Deep and Subtle Points
Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 16, 2010
Daniel Quinn “does not identify himself as an ‘environmentalist,’ arguing instead as his central thesis (and throughout his works) that humans are not separate from but part of the so-called ‘environment’ (which, like ‘nature,’ is typically conceived of as being out there somewhere, and somehow distinct from us).” (Copied from Wikipedia.)
He published Ishmael, his most famous book, in 1992. He has also written two related books The Story of B (1996) and My Ishmael (1997).
Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael is subtitled ‘An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit’. The only reason I noticed this important reason not to read it only halfway into the book was that I knew I wanted to read it as soon as one of my friends told me about it – he said that it was our worldview from the point of view of a gorilla –, before I’d ever seen the cover. To be honest, when I told him to get his copy, I expected to receive a heavy tome written in a gorilla’s first-person voice. What I found instead was a thin little ‘novel’ written in the first-person point of view of the human the gorilla is talking to which was such a breezy read that I finished today after beginning yesterday, but which made points of depth and subtlety, even if it got a few of its facts wrong.
The first question I found myself asking – around twenty pages into the book – was why it was structured as a novel and not an essay. There’s a narrator who feels philosophically empty. He sees an ad in the newspaper, “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” He answers to find a large room with a gorilla on the other side of a glass pane. The gorilla starts telepathically telling him his own story, and then moves on to explaining (this is why it was so important to have the narrator, I eventually figured out) why mankind is destroying itself, for the first time I’ve seen convincingly framing the answer in culture rather than technology.
That word ‘convincingly’ is possibly the most important word in the last sentence. For years, I’ve been bombarded with nonsense about how it’s actually consumerism that’s at the root of our environmental problems. Ishmael, or – if you prefer to think of it as the ape rather than the book – Ishmael, goes deeper, rooting the problems in the reason we are so consumerist.
In fact, a majority of the book is spent in Ishmael showing the narrator to that very reason. Now, my only major quibble with Ishmael: he doesn’t factor in evolution properly into his whole view. He does, but there are a few holes, of varying size; the biggest one is his assertion that the Leavers – the ‘primitives’ who are content to stay so – lived like lions and wombats, killing only what they had to. The truth, however, is that humans from around the time of the ‘creativity revolution’ (as articulated by Jared Diamond in his The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, which would make a perfect companion piece to Ishmael) around forty thousand years ago, when we suddenly started inventing a lot more tools after a long stop of I don’t remember how many years, have left a trail of extinctions and such-like wherever they have gone, for the simple reason that we have the power but don’t really know how to control it properly; our dying out is our natural fate in natural selection terms, if we don’t save ourselves. Not solely due to Ishmael’s assertion that our ‘Taker’ culture tells us we are gods, though it does tell us that and that is clearly very wrong.
That said, however, I’ve never read a writer who I’ve thought understands so perfectly what’s going wrong as Daniel Quinn, though honestly I have to admit that I do most of my arguing after I read the essay/book, when I’m up against real-life situations. In fact, even if six months down I’ve discarded what Ishmael says as mostly well-intentioned but wrong, I think it’s worth it because of the new perspective it offers, and new perspectives are always welcome.