Ishmael (novel)

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Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product, the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts that modern civilization is enacting that myth.

Ishmael was awarded the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award. The book is the first of a trilogy including The Story of B and My Ishmael.


Plot summary

The story begins with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The narrator responds at first with disgust because of the absurdity of "wanting to save the world", but decides to answer the ad out of nostalgia for his adolescence during the 1960s children's revolts. Upon arriving at the address, he finds himself in a room with a gorilla. He notices a sign that reads "With man gone will there be hope for gorilla?"

To the man's surprise he finds that the gorilla, Ishmael, can communicate telepathically. At first baffled by this, the man learns the story of how the gorilla came to be this way and he accepts Ishmael as his teacher. The novel continues from this point as a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael and his student as they hash out what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind.

Ishmael's life, which began in the African wilderness, was spent mostly in a zoo and a menagerie, and since had been spent in the gazebo of a man that extricated him from physical captivity. He tells his student that it was at the menagerie that he learned about human language and culture and began to think about things that he never would have pondered in the wild. Subsequently, Ishmael tells his student that the subject for this learning experience will be captivity, primarily the captivity of man under a distorted civilizational system. The narrator has a vague notion that he is living in some sort of captivity and being lied to in some way but he can not explain his feelings.

Ishmael uses the example of Nazi Germany to show that men are either held captive with the mythology of being superior, or "an animal swept up in the stampede" of the captivity of those around them.

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