Monday, March 5, 2007


I picked up a copy of "Ishmael" yesterday, and started to reread it after, what? fifteen years since I first read it. The pages of my paperback edition have turned brown with the years, but it's still an amazing read. A novel of sorts, by Daniel Quinn, it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue about the relationship between us humans and the planet we inhabit. The participants are two characters, a teacher and a student. I know it sounds kind of boring when I desribe it that way. Perhaps it will help when I add, for the benefit of those who have not come across this marvelous book, that the teacher is a gigantic, full-grown gorilla whose name, of course, is Ishmael. Since his physical configuration disallows the command of human speech, he communicates through a kind of mental telepathy whose vehicle is the eyes.

A strange premise? Let me quote a passage from the beginning of the book which conveys some sense of its tone, its content, and the quality of thought. Ishmael starts out with a question: "Among the people of your culture...," he asks,

"... which want to destroy the world?"
" As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."
"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."
"Yes, that's so."
"Why don't you stop?"
I shrugged. "Frankly, we don't know how."
"You're captives of a system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."
"Yes, that's the way it seems."
"So. You are captives--and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it?--your captivity and the captivity of the world."
"Yes, that's so. I've just never thought of it that way."

Which, so far as I'm concerned, is what the Buddhist meditation practice is all about. It's about learning to recognize in what ways I am captive to systems that control the way I think and the way I act, and learning to free myself from them. It's about learning to be human, and to live in as enlightened a manner as possible. Ishmael will soon begin to instruct his student about the difference between the culture he calls the Leavers and the culture he calls the Takers. The people of our culture--the one that is destroying the world--are the Takers. The Leavers are those who leave no footprint where they walk, and for whom all resources are renewable. We Takers, believing unquestioningly in the myth that this our god-given right, are busy taking the planet from them.

"Ishmael" was first published in 1992. Its warning was already obvious by then, to anyone who wished to see. But in the world of power politics, Al Gore's was the only voice in the wilderness--and look what happened to him. The fact that we have begun to resurrect him now from the oblivion to which we sought to consign him does not compensate for the ridicule to which he was subjected for so many years. It's sad that Quinn's voice, one of the relatively few, along with Gore's, was not more widely heard, or at least more widely heeded, fifteen years ago. We have squandered a good deal of the precious time that has been granted us to save ourselves, and save the planet Earth--if not for our own species, then for some future species on the evolutionary path.

In the meantime, may we all learn to leave more and take less. May we all learn to free ourselves from those systems we have designed for our own destruction. May we all be more conscious of what it is we do.


Mark said...

Good post. Very thought provoking. Thanks.

carlY said...

P: I think that book was a precedent to Pi. The author acknowledged it in a NPR interview.

And in art as well, people are captive to systems that control what they will accept or like. I was just re-reading Herbert Read's Philosophy of Modern Art. Opened serendipity style to the very page I needed. Chapter, Constructivism, one page in....(1952) "..further explanations may be offered for the contemporary revolt against naturalism....increasing distrust of spiritual and intellectual insecurity....Underneath these social and political tensions lay the wider and deeper disease of a civilization which was rapidly losing its dogmatic assurance. Christianity was in a rapid decline and the philosophies which provided some sort of substitute (Bergonism, Pragmatism, Nietzcheism) created by their emphasis in change, on plurality, on eternal recurrence, and atmosphere of flux and impermanency. The inevitable reaction to such and atmosphere, in art, is away from any associations with the organic, the biologic, the natural, and towards abstraction.

This general 'weltansichtlich' tendency was re-enforced by a more concrete influence-the rapidly increasing mechanization of civilization. We cannot go on inventing machines, constructing machines, using machines, without in some degree, being mentally influenced by machines. The extent to which a machine-imagery already dominates, for example, the minds of our children is not sufficiently realized. The machine is the universal and coercive symbol of our age......
(describes meeting of the Suprematist Group)

This group was united in its anti-realism, which at first took the form of a simple revolt against easel-painting, which was regarded as the idiom of a pre-industrial age.......the suprematist work of art might be described as a machine to live with."

!!!! Take this same route, applied to today's atmosphere, and see what the current prejudices are!

carlY said...

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Gerard said...
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