A few people have recommended Ishmael by Daniel Quinn to me. Luckily, I don’t know these people very well, and it doesn’t matter whether I respect their intelligence or not.
If you’ve already read this book and you liked it, you may want to stop reading now because I’m probably about to insult you. If you haven’t read the book, continue on, and perhaps I can save you a few hours of pseudo-intellectual frippery.
On the book’s cover is a quote from the Los Angeles Times book review:
“Wonderfully earnest and engaging. Think of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or B.F. Skinner in Walden Two.
Indeed. As you read Ishmael you will definitely be thinking of Pirsig and how annoyed he must be to have his work compared to a piece of utter dreck.
The central character of Ishmael has the existential blues and finds a teacher who promises to help him find a ballast throughout the unbearable lightness of being. This teacher happens to be a gorilla named Ishmael, and proceeds to teach our protagonist via the Socratic method the reason why our world is the way it is and “how things came to be this way”.
Interesting premise, but I found the discussion throughout the book to be lacking in substance, although I could see how appealing they might seem for the intellectually weak. You know the type — the archetypal self-righteous hippie persona, who is convinced that veganism and candlelight vigils will save the world. This archtype has probably read books such as The Tao of Pooh or The Celestine Prophecy or indeed Ishmael and is convinced that therein lieth Truth and Beauty and if only the rest of the world could be convinced then we’d all live happily ever after singing kum ba ya or something. (aside: I actually own all 3 of those books and even somewhat enjoyed them to a degree. It’s the taking them seriously part that separates me from the morons.)
I suppose I should actually make a valid argument for not liking this book rather than some vigorous hand-waving and clever insults. The problem is, while easy to rip the entire book apart, it would also be tedious and wordy. Every single point that Quinn tries to make is just plain weak, and I can’t motivate myself to apply critical thought to his jumbled mush. So let me just say that he lost me very early on, and from that point, I was a very hostile reader.
Quinn spends the first 50 or so pages introducing the protagonist and giving Ishmael some backstory. Along the way, we learn that the human race is destroying the world, which is a problem recognized by our protagonist, except he doesn’t know why we’re doing it. It’s this question that Ishmael purports to answer, and he starts off in his Socratic method by asking the protagonist to describe the “modern creation myth”.
Obviously, the protagonist (and the reader) scoff at the possibility that We, the most enlightened creatures ever to walk the earth, could possibly have a creation myth. As the protagonist says, that sort of bunk is for the savages, who believe they were all descended from a giant turtle or something. No, not us. Even practicing Christians understand that the book of Genesis is merely an allegory. Most everyone believes that there was a big bang of some sort, everything cooled down, and out of the primordial soup came a few bacteria, and then lo and behold a few billion years later, we have man.
Quinn then practices his most irritating technique, which is to put words in the mouth of the reader. In other words, he prefers to assume that the reader isn’t applying critical thought, and when Quinn says, “this is what you believe”, the reader will respond, “yes, yes of course this is what I believe!”. Witness the following exchange:
“And so your account of creation ends, ‘And finally man appeared’.”
“Meaning that there was no more to come. Meaning that creation had come to an end.”
“This is what it was all leading up to.”
“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. The pinnacle was reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation.”
“When man finally appeared, creation came to an end, because its objective had been reached. There was nothing left to create.”
“That seems to be the unspoken assumption.”
“It’s certainly not always unspoken. The religions of your culture aren’t reticent about it. Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself.”
“Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn’t created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man.”
Ishmael fixed me with a sardonic eye. “And this is not mythology?”
“Well. . . the facts are facts.”
Now that he has established his “premise” that *all* humans believe that the world was created just for them, he spends the rest of the book explaining why this culturally selfish worldview is exactly what’s wrong with everything today. In case you were thinking to yourself that basing the rest of the book on this intellectual dissembling isn’t quite right, but you didn’t know how to describe what Quinn is doing, let me help you. It’s called the strawman argument, and any intro to logic and reasoning text will have a good explanation for it.
In any case, the entire rest of the book natters on and on like that, with the seemingly retarded protagonist being led to realization after realization by the all wise Ishmael. It was all I could do to refrain from puking, but I felt that I had to finish the book just so I could honestly say that I read it (but once) and never plan on purposely attempting to make myself dumber in that manner ever again.
Long post, but the takeaway message is this: in the future, the amount of intellectual vacuousness for any given person you meet is directly proportional to the level of credence he or she has lent to Ishmael.