Review: Ish­mael

Ish­mael by Daniel Quinn
My rat­ing: 5 of 5 stars

Any sto­ry that explains the mean­ing of the world, the inten­tions of the gods, and the des­tiny of man is bound to be mythol­o­gy. You think of mythol­o­gy as a set of fan­ci­ful tales. The Greeks did­n’t think of their mythol­o­gy this way. Sure­ly you must real­ize that. I’m talk­ing about liv­ing mythol­o­gy. Not record­ed in any book — record­ed in the minds of the peo­ple of your cul­ture, and being enact­ed all over the world even as we sit here and speak of it. So you see that your agri­cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion is not an event like the Tro­jan War, iso­lat­ed in the dis­tant past and with­out direct rel­e­vance to your lives today.

As we, the Tak­ers, see it, the gods gave man the same choice they gave Achilles: a brief life of glo­ry or a long, unevent­ful life in obscu­ri­ty. And the Tak­ers chose a brief life of glo­ry, bring­ing the whole thing to the point of col­lapse in only five hun­dred gen­er­a­tions. Man is the trail­blaz­er, the pathfind­er. His des­tiny is to be the first to learn that crea­tures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and per­ish in the attempt — or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest.

I had to face it: I did­n’t just want a teacher — I want­ed a teacher for life. Over the next decade, he taught me all he knew of the world and the uni­verse and human his­to­ry, and when my ques­tions went beyond his knowl­edge, we stud­ied side by side. Some­one has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire. Is it real­ly so impos­si­ble in an age when a stand-up com­ic on tele­vi­sion reach­es more peo­ple in ten min­utes than Paul did in his entire life­time? In my expe­ri­ence, you nev­er real­ly know how you’re going to han­dle a prob­lem until you actu­al­ly have it. —Daniel Quinn

A hum­bling account of the extant homo species’ extent of mythol­o­gy in its every­day lives and it’s blind­ing unaware­ness of it. The sto­ry we tell our­selves about us, maybe dif­fer­ent than we pre­sumed and may be coloured by hubris. A sense of con­trol is always what we desired, but in there lies a big assump­tion; that we can sim­ply keep on tun­ing things with­out let­ting the inter­play of sys­tems set­tle in their bal­anced states. Like Icarus, the man that should not fly too high in the sky because of the heat of the sun, nor too low near the sea, because of the damp­ness that clogs his feath­ers. The sun’s heat in the atmos­phere gets ever warmer, slow­ly melt­ing our wax. So too, is the damp­ness of the sea reach­ing greater heights with ris­ing water lev­els and more evap­o­ra­tion. All that makes the zone where Icarus can still fly with­out per­ish­ing to com­pla­cen­cy or hubris speed­i­ly small­er, until both he and we meet one of those lim­its. A good exam­ple of how fic­tion­al­iz­ing sto­ries can help us exam­ine our naive nar­ra­tive, to see where it will leads us and lets us choose whether we want to take cor­rec­tive action or that we rather enjoy our the brief moment of glory.

I give “Ish­mael” five stars.

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