Saturday, April 28, 2007


I recently finished reading a book that has changed my life; Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It's a timeless classic that's extremely well written, and nearly impossible to put down. The novel really makes you re-examine the way we perceive the history of mankind, and presents edgy and thought provoking concepts that will question the way you live your life. I have provided a quick summary of some of the key concepts in the novel to give you a little taste and refresh my own memory.

Takers vs. Leavers: Quinn presents the idea that the world is separated into two types of people; Takers and Leavers. He argues that in modern society, "Mother Culture" refers to these people as civilized and uncivilized. Quinn is pro-Leaver throughout the novel, and eventually defines them as the "ones who live in the hands of the gods."(229)

Taker Mythology: We (the Takers) are living a myth. This is a pretty strong statement, but Quinn elaborates by explaining that Takers are living the myth that "the world was made for man, and man was made to rule it."(72)

The knowledge of the gods: The knowledge of the gods is the knowledge of 'who should live and who should die.' This encompasses the control of food supply, agriculture, captivation of animals, and everything... basically everything the Taker society needs to sustain itself. Quinn implies that we have conjured up this knowledge ourselves and imposed it on the world around us.

Agricultural Revolution: This time in history (also known as the Neolithic Revolution) was the transition of early human societies from hunters and gatherers (who were Leavers) to agriculturalists. It started approximately in 8000 B.C. in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, and Quinn claims that it has never ended. The revolution was also the birth of Taker culture because agriculture was the first sign of humans taking "the knowledge of the gods" into their own hands.

Biblical References: Quinn links two biblical stories to his concepts, and actually argues that his interpretations are the true meanings of the stories. The first is the story of Adam and Eve. He says that the forbidden fruit was actually the "knowledge of the gods" described earlier. Therefore, when Eve ate the forbidden fruit, it represented the birth of the Taker Culture. Quinn also takes this one step further, and states that the story of Cain and Abel was the story of the Takers killing the Leavers "so that more land could be put under cultivation."(173) The details and arguments backing this theory are quite intricate, but very well communicated. According to Quinn, these stories are still being enacted by today's world because "Adam is still chewing the fruit of that forbidden tree, and wherever Abel can still be found, Cain is there too, hunting him down, knife in hand."(216)

This novel really does a good job in presenting these arguments. The only problem I had was that there is no real solution expressed by Quinn. The novel is pretty negative (with reason) but does not give you a real direction in which to head if you want to fix the problem. The only solutions presented are to "teach a hundred what [Quinn] has taught you, and inspire them to teach 100."(248) He also suggests to stop killing off the Leavers because they are the only ones that can "show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live."(248)

I spent a long time pondering what I could do to make a difference, and implement something I've learned in this novel. Surely, Quinn is not suggesting that mankind completely back-track and return to hunter-gatherer he? Then I started looking at what others have done...Pearl Jam’s entire "Yield" album was inspired by this novel, and the premise of that album was that mankind should give in to nature... interesting, but once again, what does that even mean? Surely the band hasn't given into nature, or they'd be living in a jungle somewhere. This is what is suggested by the movie "Instinct" that was also inspired by Ishmael. In this movie, the protagonist (played by Anthony Hopkins) is an anthropologist that ends up finding solace with a bunch of apes in and African jungle.

Aside from the lack of a solution, no piece of literature has ever made me realize how fucked up the world is, and how we really have no right to impose our culture and beliefs on anyone. Maybe one day I will be able to look at this novel in a different light, and suggest a new solution to the world's problems, but until then, I will continue to search.