Ishmael

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Ishmael Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, the narrator returns to the carnival to find Ishmael. It is raining, and the narrator has brought three warm blankets—one for himself, and two for Ishmael. As he and Ishmael settle in, Ishmael begins the lesson.
The narrator continues to go out of his way to continue talking to Ishmael. Though he’s a cynic, he shows more and more instances of bravery and commitment.
Themes
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Ishmael mentions the story of the Leavers—a story that Ishmael had promised to tell the narrator some time ago. Ishmael asks the narrator why he’s interested in learning this story. The narrator, noting that Ishmael is in a bad mood, replies that it seems like a natural way to continue the lesson. Ishmael dismisses this, demanding to know why the narrator wants to know the story of the Leavers. After some thought, the narrator replies: he wants to know the story of the Leavers because it’s the only way to move forward after learning that the way of the Takers is wrong. In the 60s, he explains, hippies and radicals abandoned the story of the Takers, but because they didn’t have a different story to fall back on, their movement failed. If the narrator is to change the world, he concludes, he needs to understand why the story of the Takers is wrong, but also what the right story is. Ishmael seems to accept this explanation.
Here we’re reminded of the defining story of the Leavers, and we wonder why Ishmael couldn’t have told the narrator the story of the Leavers before. One answer to this concern, articulated by the narrator, is that one can only understand the way of the Leavers after grasping the flaws in the culture of the Takers. This reminds us of the importance of storytelling in Ishmael. As the narrator knows very well, the goal of his investigations isn’t to grasp the literal truth—instead, it’s to construct a new story that interprets the truth in a markedly different way.
Themes
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Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael next asks the narrator how mankind became mankind. The narrator is unsure how to answer this question. To begin answering it, Ishmael tells the narrator another story. According to the Takers, he says, life before the Agricultural Revolution was miserable: people didn’t live long, and they were constantly fighting. Thus, the Agricultural Revolution was both a technological and a cultural event, according to the Takers. In short, Takers despise the lifestyle of the Leavers.
The story of the Takers isn’t just a story about the Takers themselves—it’s also a story about the Leavers, and why they’re inferior to the Takers. This brings us back to the philosophy of binaries, alluded to earlier in the novel. One can’t understand the Takers, Quinn suggests, without also understanding the Leavers, and vice versa.
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Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
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Ishmael asks the narrator about the plains Indians, the fiercest opponents of the American settlers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. He tells the narrator that the plains Indians were agriculturalists for centuries before Columbus discovered the New World. Then, as soon as they had access to horses—imports from Europe—the plains Indians returned to living as hunter-gatherers. The point of this example, Ishmael explains, is that the Leavers didn’t cling to their lifestyle out of ignorance—they chose to be hunter-gatherers because they genuinely preferred it to a life of agriculture. Ishmael tells the narrator that he’s getting closer to discovering the root of the Takers’ disagreement with the Leavers—the disagreement that gave rise to the Agricultural Revolution.
Ishmael’s example reinforces the idea that Leavers aren’t dogmatic—they don’t practice foraging or herding simply because their ancestors did so. On the contrary, they are practical and pragmatic—they’ll adopt whatever way of life they deem best at any given time. It’s difficult to see where Ishmael is going with his explanation of the Takers and the Leavers, but this is a good thing—it keeps us on our toes, waiting for new wisdom.
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Ishmael asks the narrator if the Agricultural Revolution was “necessary.” The narrator responds that it was necessary to give mankind the lifestyle to which it’s grown accustomed: air conditioning, opera houses, etc. Ishmael points out that millions of Takers live in poverty, but would never dare to become Leavers: there has to be a more basic and more irrational reason that the Takers abandoned the Leavers than their desire for material wealth. He tells the narrator that Taker culture trains people to be terrified of Leaver culture—Ishmael now wants the narrator to get to the roots of this terror.
One point that comes across very strongly in this section is that there’s nothing inherently “practical” about Taker ideology. While Takers might argue that their way of life is objectively better because it leads to prosperity, longevity, etc., the fact remains that the vast majority of Takers don’t derive any practical benefits from the Taker myth. On the contrary, they’re victims of Taker culture, because the accumulation of material wealth also leads to poverty and other kinds of sickness.
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The narrator brings up an image of “primitive man” that just popped into his head. In the image, the primitive man is running as fast as he can, frantically searching for food and shelter. Ishmael points out that this image—as the narrator well knows—is nonsense: Leavers are every bit as capable of surviving in the wild as wolves or foxes. Ishmael gives the narrator a thought experiment. If the narrator were homeless, he asks, would he press a button that could give him training as a hunter and take him back to prehistoric times? After some thought, the narrator replies that he wouldn’t push the button, but he can’t describe exactly why. Ishmael nods and says that Mother Culture has done a good job on him—he’s been trained to crave Taker life without knowing why it’s preferable to the alternative.
Because the narrator can’t put his thoughts into words, he turns to picture and images. In an almost Freudian fashion, Ishmael is challenging the narrator to move outside his “comfort zone” at a very deep level. Thus, the narrator makes subconscious associations instead of trying to speak coherently. In this way, he bypasses the constraints of Taker dogma and approaches something like a basic truth.
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Ishmael proposes an exercise: he will play the role of a Leaver, while the narrator will play the role of a Taker, named Bwana. Ishmael begins by asking “Bwana” why the lifestyle of the Leavers is so horrible. “Bwana” replies that the Leavers’ lifestyle is miserable because they live at the mercy of the gods—they have no control over their sources of food. Ishmael laughs and says that the Leavers have perfect control over their food—they plant it themselves and wait for it to grow. “Bwana” tries to argue that growing food oneself, or hunting it, is often unsuccessful—sometimes, one doesn’t catch the animals one was looking for. Ishmael replies that Leavers don’t mind this at all—they can always catch different animals or look for different food.
This passage is, to say the least, very annoying. But this is precisely the point: Ishmael is trying to annoy the narrator, pushing him out of his usual patterns of thinking. Thus, the narrator quickly comes to see that the usual excuses for Taker culture—that their lifestyles are more practical, more sensible, etc.—are nonsensical. The reality, we begin to see, is that the Takers are motivated by something utterly irrational when they seek to spread civilization and conquer nature.
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Ishmael and “Bwana” (the narrator) continue with their exercise. Ishmael asks “Bwana” what the problem with the Leaver is, and “Bwana” tries a different strategy—he criticizes the Leavers for being weak, and at the mercy of the universe. They have no security from dangerous animals, the weather, or disease. Ishmael seems to agree with this—he asks “Bwana” how the gods could possibly give man so little. “Bwana” realizes that the gods give mankind enough to live like animals, but not enough to live like human beings. When Ishmael prompts him a second time, the narrator begins to understand: Takers accumulate food to prove that the gods have no power over them. They store and stockpile food so that when there is a drought or a storm, they can celebrate the fact that they are not animals, and that their lives are truly in their own hands.
The narrator now takes a different angle in arguing against the Leavers, saying that they are inferior to the Takers because their lives are out of their control—they’re constantly at the mercy of the elements, wild animals, etc. This is precisely why Takers become Takers: they can’t stand the thought of living in uncertainty. It’s important to remember how we’ve gotten to this conclusion, though. Ishmael used humor, analogy, and repetition to force the narrator to search for new answers to his problems. In the end, this interactive method of teaching proved successful, as the narrator has finally grasped the source of Taker culture in such a way that he’ll never forget it.
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Ishmael ends the exercise, and tells the narrator that he’s made great progress. The goal of the Takers, he explains, is to take control of the world into their own hands. Right now, Taker culture is trying to dominate the entire planet: to control the weather, the environment, etc. In this way, Takers aim to take all power away from the gods.
Takers, in Ishmael’s view, try to dominate the world because they want to have control over their own lives. By contrast, the Leavers of the world are content to live without controlling their environments.
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Ishmael then quotes Jesus Christ: “Have no care for tomorrow.” But only a few people in history have ever heeded Christ’s advice, he says. Instead of letting God take care of them, they insist on pursuing agriculture, sowing their own grain, and stocking up for the future. Takers are afraid of the lifestyle of the Leavers because they’re terrified of not knowing what will happen tomorrow. Ironically, Ishmael concludes, Leavers are far less anxious about the future than are Takers. Thus, the Takers are those who know good and evil, and the Leavers are those who live in the hands of the gods.
Ishmael pokes holes in Christian culture at several points in the novel, never more effectively than here. Although Western culture (“Christendom”) is supposedly influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ, Ishmael makes it very clear that the West (the Takers) has misunderstood Christ’s teachings. Christ, Quinn, believes, was a Leaver, one who was content to live in uncertainty and interconnectedness.
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Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon