Anybody ever heard of Ismael? The 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn is a self-described “adventure of the mind and spirit” and, I gather, something of a cult-classic among the environmentalist and population-control crowds. I first encountered it in high school, where a leftist English teacher shared an excerpt with us. It was utter crap, so laughably bad that, as Dennis Prager would say, you’d have to be an academic to buy into it. Ishmael found its way back into my life again a couple weeks ago, when I came across a copy at a rummage sale. I’m about halfway through, and it’s every bit as bad as I remember.
Ishmael is the story of a disaffected man who desperately wants to “save the world,” and soon meets the titular Ishmael, a wise teacher who promises to show him how. Oh, and did I mention Ishmael is a talking gorilla? It seems the world’s troubles are all due to the fact that Earth’s “community of life” has become divided by two competing mythologies: the Takers (i.e., civilization), who believe in using Earth’s resources to their hearts’ content and dominating over all other species; and the Leavers (i.e., primitive tribes and every non-human species on Earth). Taker belief that “the world was made for man” has thrown the ecosystem off balance and led to an ever-expanding human population unsustainable by an ever-diminishing food supply.
The section we read in high school concerned a drastic re-imagining of the Book of Genesis (this version’s, er, polytheistic) as a Leaver story that, instead of boring crap about morality and human nature (incredibly, Quinn has the characters befuddled as to why anyone would think its message was along these lines), was really about the roots of Taker arrogance.
For more on just how off-kilter the world of Daniel Quinn’s imagination is, check out this piece by Professor Allen B. Downey (Olin College of Engineering).