It’s been a while since a book left me feeling so ineloquent. Not due to the complexity of the ideas put forth, rather, it’s an exciting mixture of astonishment, guilt and disbelief. Mother Culture must have done a thorough job on me. One whiskey please.
It’s hard to come to a conclusion whether or not I like Ishmael. It surely made me think, and think hard about my own partaking in this community of life. It’s never through comfort that we grow, I’m constantly reminded.
I’m just not sure how to take Daniel Quinn’s ideas. Are they facts or are they powerful opinions masked over by a very persuasive narrative? Given this the question, would a defined answer from someone of authority on the topic, like a renowned anthropologist, or a biologist – help me navigate my own suspension? Maybe what really happens here is me knowing my answer already but hoping to hear a voice that says, it’s all bullshit, it’s unvalidated, you’re good, you’re fine, the world is fine, go back to Spotify and Netflix and don’t forget to pay the subscription. Use birth control when you can. Thank you for thinking, though, it means that you care. Turn off the lights when you leave.
And I know too damn well whose voice this is.
The scary thing for me when I’m done reading Ishmael is, I feel like I should be thinking: oh shit so this is what we’ve done to the planet. Pure crime. Instead I immediately thought of something else: it’s hard to fathom the idea that so much of what gives life beauty and meaning for thousands of years: the paintings, the appreciation of these paintings, the art galleries, the music, the love letters, the lovers, all the souls gathering at Les Deux Magots in the 1920s, the myths and the gods and the prophets, the poetry and the films, Rome and Rembrandt and Ed Sheeran and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Batman … all of that, every single one of that – happened and celebrated because everyone was fixating on a false premise. Madness.
Isn’t all of the things we declare beautiful and existentially meaningful the very reason we believe in our own godliness? Isn’t that why life worths living? Isn’t that why we so immediately and so strongly reject the idea of coming back and embracing a tribal lifestyle? What good is that? What is there to embrace?
And then I see my problem.
It’s not about me. Or us.
How narcissistic. How I want to justify my narcissism, our collective narcissism and cannot. Another whiskey please, maybe a whole bottle.
Let the drink take its course. Meanwhile, let me think about what I can do about this. A few points came to mind:
- Again, narcissistically, I know for sure that whatever I do, it will not add up to anything meaningful unless it’s a collective effort on a global scale. Aha! There’s denial of responsibility there, see? Just because my intentions and actions might not amount up to anything, I might as well just give up trying? “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” (yeah I’m the person who saw a chance to abuse Cloud Atlas and took it).
- Now. What can I try?
- Let me try to, say, everyday, be aware of the fact that for everything I do, I eat, I drink, I buy, I consume, or every breeze from the air-con I receive, every percentage of battery that drops and gets recharged; each of that is being done at the very same expense of another living creature. It is a use of resources in an ultimately zero-sum game, I mean a zero-sum battle; and at the end of the day a step furthering to exhausting the planet. Let me try to be mindful about it. No more whiskey, thank you. Enough for today.
- I’ll try to give it more thought about having children. I’ve always challenged the people I meet, (or rather I was hopeful that someone would provide me with a persuasive counter-argument) that there really is no unselfish reasons for having kids of your own. (If you have an argument for that I’d love to hear, although I doubt that anyone reads this blog). Truth is, I was still open about it as an idea, and viewed it as something to contemplate on later in life when the question came into picture, something to put off, you know, like death. Well. Here I am and maybe after Ishmael I can arrive at a clearer conclusion of my own on whether it’s not just selfish but also unethical to have kids at this point in time.
- I’ll try to re-examine my definition of impact. Doing something, anything, is surely leaving an impact. But, doing nothing is still leaving an impact, as weird as it might sound at first. All the things I’m working on, and all the things I choose not to; what do they promote? Give me some time.
I realized, that words are words and actions are actions, and “only the ideas we actually live are of any value”. So let me start by embedding these ideas into my very living. Let me start here.
To make this post not entirely about me, I thought I’d share a thing or two about the book as a novel.
I’m not sure I like Daniel Quinn’s didactic tone. I had the same feeling to reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I get it that you have some lectures for me, but let me come to it on my own!
The narrative itself was a page-turner for me until about a half of the book, the rest felt dragging to me due to a lack in the development of the characters and the course of the story (not the ideas). I wish there was more to it about how the story ends. I wish there was more to it about their teacher – pupil relationship. I anticipated so much tears and felt nothing afterwards. An opportunity wasted, perhaps? And say all you can about how that is unnecessary, it matters as a story for me. I believe I’d feel just the same about the content of the book had it been non-fiction, which is to say that the narrative buildup didn’t help.
Still, Daniel Quinn’s ideas remain intact, and might have even been presented more powerfully this way – emotions sometimes are just distractions to what matters. It could have been his intention all along. About this, though, I’ve come to learn that guessing a writer’s intentions is just as helpful as mourning for a past love now gone. Art always seems to come first, and explanation later. Ultimately, it’s meant to make you think, and I think Ishmael achieved that beyond acclaim.
I’ve never felt so heavy yet so grateful about my existence. This book is weird. I don’t recommend it (and by that I mean I highly recommend it).
P/S – a long P/S: As I read, a few personal questions also managed to arise, and though I don’t have the answers yet – I doubt I ever will – that’s alright. Having a different set of questions is beautiful per se – that’s the very thing that drew me to reading in the first place. Through reading and exploring the grandeur ideas of the writers, we readers relate to them in a smaller and more personal way. How with these notions in hand we apply to our life that might lead us to a better living? Is it ego-centric to think this way? Is egocentrism sometimes allowed given that it makes us a bit less ignorant about life and the people and the world around us? And I’m waiting for the permission from whom? Anyway, I’ve gone astray. I’ll save that for a brighter day.
Since when did we start to become so obsessed over meaning? Since when we insisted that there IS a void within us and each man must strive to fill his own with whatever he finds and grants the task? Do we ever stop and question – not the rule but the very premise of this rule? What if in fact we don’t have to have a meaning to live life well? These questions jumped up when I reached the below paragraph in the novel, and they never ceased to leave my head that I had to put the book down for a moment or two. This I’ll save for another post too, someday (the tomorrows that always and never come, you know).
“The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn’t a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it doesn’t give them power. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them. This is what you’ll find if you go among them. They’re not seething with discontent and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way, not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or something to believe in that will make their lives worth living. And—I repeat—this is not because they live close to nature or have no formal government or because they’re innately noble. This is simply because they’re enacting a story that works well for people—a story that worked well for three million years and that still works well where the Takers haven’t yet managed to stamp it out.”
May the force be with me. With you. With us.
Or maybe they shouldn’t.