Don’t call me Ishmael, I’ll call you
Recently, on the prompting of our own recently wed Sarah Kraybill Burkhalter, I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. For those of you not familiar, Ishmael is an influential novel recounting a series of conversations between a man and, well, a telepathic gorilla. Many environmentalists consider it a formative work. (As I was reading it on the bus a girl next to me pointed wide-eyed and said, “I love that book!” Her friend nodded and murmured, “it changes your life.”) There is a longstanding web community centered around it.
I want to tread somewhat carefully. In the review quoted on the book’s cover, some guy says he will divide the books he’s read in his life into two categories, those he read before Ishmael and those he read after. There was a time in my life when several books had that effect on me. I guess it started with the works of Tom Robbins (on which I wrote my undergrad thesis), and continued through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There was the Illuminatus Trilogy and other Robert Anton Wilson stuff. A bunch of stuff by the Beats. Several things by Timothy Leary. Just about everything by Alan Watts. The Tao of Physics. That kind of thing. All the hippie classics.
In the 18-28 years, I was searching and dissatisfied. I felt — like, I suspect, many bright young people — like Neo in the Matrix, like everybody was walking somnolent through a shared illusion. I was hungry for new ways of looking at and thinking about life. The things I came to believe in that period still serve as a kind of backdrop to my intellectual life, even though I’m sure many of those books, if I re-read them, wouldn’t stand up very well.
I would never denigrate that experience, the feeling of being transformed by a new set of ideas. So nothing I say should be taken as disrespectful of anyone’s intellectual or spiritual relationship to Ishmael.
But the first thing to say about Ishmael is that it’s a terrible novel. Taken purely as fiction, it is lacking. The central problem is that it’s a book-length specimen of the most irksome rhetorical device known to man: the Socratic dialogue, in which a teacher imparts wisdom by asking and answering questions of a student. I hated it when Plato did it, and I’ve never enjoyed it since. The last time I ran into the device was in Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which as you likely know, I didn’t enjoy.
The fatal flaw of almost all Socratic dialogues is that the students, the alleged spiritual/intellectual seekers, are written as dopey naifs whose main function is to exclaim “I don’t understand, tell me more!” and “I never thought of it that way!” They are limp noodles, not active, skeptical intellects. It’s just not honest human dialogue. When I read it I yell responses. “Ask him this and this! Don’t let him get away with that!” Ultimately the students are just vehicles, gimmicks for a writer who’s got an ideology to share and thinks there’s something deep about conveying it via fictional conversation.
For my part, I would almost always prefer a simple treatise of about a quarter the length. The dialogic convention does nothing but bloat the book unnecessarily.
So, there’s that.
What about the substance? Perhaps I’ll split that off into a separate post, lest I bore you too much all at once.