Ishmael: The Gorilla PhilosopherNov 7th, 2012 | By Paul | Category: Fiction
Written in 1977, “Ishmael” the story of a self-aware yoda-esque Gorilla and his pupil, the college-aged narrator still comes across as fresh and modern. It should be required reading for high school today (Catcher in the Rye was such a downer, wasn’t it?) for it’s pure ideological stance and straight ahead arguments for what’s wrong with western society and how we got here in the first place. It’s hard to re-write an interpretation of the Book of Genesis without veering dangerously towards pretension, but author Daniel Quinn remains a sober, logical and (most importantly) non-judgmental writer in his work.
Ishmael is a short, easy read. Almost purely dialogue-based, it’s like a late night philosophical conversation with a good friend (and maybe a few beers). It’s a discussion about human beings (their purpose, place and responsibilities), culture and the Universe as it relates to you and I. There’s no doubt the narrator is coming from a pretty liberal place, but it’s a good argument too. It’s pro-environment, but not from the go-to “hippie” viewpoint. Yes, there are hints of being “one” with the Earth, etc., but presented in a professional manner with observational talking points. And it’s anti-war too, but not because of any “free love” preaching. Reading Ishmael reminded me of my freshman year “cool” philosophy professor, his conversational approach to deeper questions and asking you to come up with your own solutions (and share them with others). Quinn is intelligent and straight-to-the-point, remaining on course all throughout. There is no glaring, brow-beating overtones or high minded elitism. And that’s what separates Ishmael from more earnest but naive works.
Of course, a gorilla laying out the good and bad of the human condition (telepathically, no less) certainly represents something here. Evolution, and how it relates to mankind is one of the more prominent themes (creationist beware!), along with the idea that mankind is inherently doomed to destroy itself. And really, this book can be life affirming (even inspiring), but there’s an open-ended feel to it as well. “It’s up to us”, it seems to say, and that’s the best part of the story. While genuine in it’s proposed possibilities, Ishmael is also thankfully free of any naive idealism. The focus and flow of the book is smooth, accessible(I didn’t scare you off with the philosophy reference, did I?) and clear headed.
You get the sense that somehow, someway, this telepathic gorilla (he had Professor Xavier’s voice in my head) has pinpointed the root causes of man’s desire for conquest, power, and self-determination in a way that philosophers have struggled to do for centuries. The power of a story (and it’s ability to extract self-fulfilling prophecies) is the focal point of this book. This is why Quinn keeps his story simple and clear. Unlike Karl Marx or John Smith, Quinn is presenting an understanding of how societies work, what agriculture leads to, along with the disparity of wealth and influence, but without a clear direction to achieve the goals we seek, only a destination. And it’s a fun, assured journey to say the least.