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Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ishmael, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon

On the first page of Ishmael, a newspaper ad asks the narrator to come to a mysterious building in order to “save the world.” When the narrator arrives at this building, he is amazed to find that no one else is there. Throughout Ishmael, it’s suggested that people have already tried to save the world, failed, and given up altogether. The narrator argues that the last great attempt to save the world occurred in the 1960s, and ever since, people have lived in the cynical certainty that the world is beyond saving. One might say that the “ghost” of the 1960s hangs over every page of Ishmael—so it’s important to understand what Quinn is talking about when he refers to the radicalism of the 1960s, why he thinks these radicals failed, and what errors of theirs he hopes to fix in Ishmael.

During the 1960s, millions of people throughout the world organized populist movements that fought for freedom, equality, and human rights. Notable examples of 60s radicalism, to which Quinn implicitly alludes, include the American Civil Rights Movement, feminist movements, and anti-war movements, including the radical protests of 1968, when people across the world demonstrated against their governments in support of peace and equality. (See Background Information.)

Quinn’s principle criticism of the radicalism and political movements of the 1960s, expressed largely through the narrator, is that they didn’t go far enough in their aims. While the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement could identify specific problems with American society, they couldn’t address the root causes of injustice and unhappiness—in Quinn’s view, the fallacies and contradictions of the Taker story of the world. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equal rights for black Americans, but he was unable to change the fundamental spirit of acquisitiveness, domination, and aggression that characterizes Taker society. As Ishmael puts it, 60s radicals lived in a vast Taker prison—they tried to make their lives in the prison better, but they didn’t know how to get rid of the prison itself.

The failures of 60s radicalism are enormously relevant to Ishmael—indeed, the atmosphere of cynicism and misanthropy that pervades the early chapters of the novel represents the narrator’s direct reaction to what Quinn perceives as the failures of the 1960s. Quinn wants the same things that earlier civil rights and feminist leaders wanted: peace, love, and equality. However, he believes that the only way to truly achieve these things is to dig to the root cause of war, hate, and inequality, and he attempts to do exactly this throughout Ishmael.

Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s appears in each chapter of Ishmael. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Quotes in Ishmael

Below you will find the important quotes in Ishmael related to the theme of Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s.
Chapter 1 Quotes

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator of Ishmael reads these words in the newspaper, he's at first dismissive, then thoughtful, then a little inspired. The narrator finds the notion of "saving the world" ridiculous—surely only children and crazy hippies would ever commit to something as silly as saving the world. And yet the narrator begins to see that his own contemptuousness is what's shallow and silly; rather, it's the people who try to save the world who are most earnest and admirable in their earnestness.

It's also important to notice that the teacher (later revealed to be Ishmael) is requesting a student—not the other way around. The reversal in student-teacher roles (i.e., the fact that for once, a student is asking to be taught) tells us a lot about the way that the narrator will go about learning from Ishmael. The hypothetical student mentioned in the newspaper ad could never ask a teacher for his services, because he could never know what he's supposed to be learning. By the same token, the narrator, as we'll see, cannot simply be told the information Ishmael has acquired over a lifetime; instead, the narrator must grasp the information step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson.


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Then one day when I was in my mid-teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn’t been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator explains his history and how he sees the world. In the 1960s, he was young and idealistic, and like many people of the time he felt that the sincere, earnest people could heal the world of its fundamental problems, such as poverty, war, and racism. Over the next few decades, however, this idealism waned and the "revolution" just never happened. Now, the narrator argues, the desire to make the world a better place is a mere affectation; in other words, the people who claim this desire for themselves aren't really concerned with helping others—they just want to seem "hip."

This quotation outlines a basic problem (the decline of radicalism and earnestness in society) to which Ishmael reacts. As Ishmael will argue, the radicalism and politicization of the 1960s failed because it didn't address the root cause of society's problems. Every measure the hippies of the 1960s proposed was just another form of "lipstick on a pig"—i.e., a superficial change that ignored the real problem with the world. (What this "real problem" is won't be made clear for hundreds of pages.)

Chapter 7 Quotes

There was more to it than this, however, because I still felt depressed. A second bourbon helped me to it: I was making progress. That’s right. This was the source of my feeling of depression.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Painkillers
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation shows the Narrator grappling with anxiety and depression. He's deeply conflicted about the lessons he's been learning from Ishmael—he believes that they're true, and yet he also struggles to live by them. In other words, the Narrator finds it easy to recognize that Taker culture is based on lies, but he hesitates to abandon Taker culture, with all its luxuries and conveniences, altogether. In his depression, the Narrator turns to alcohol and painkillers to feel better—but of course, these substances only make him feel worse in the long run. Interestingly, the Narrator's behavior in this scene is also meant to suggest the broader failure of his society's idealism since the 1960s. The Narrator recognizes that in the 60s there were millions of people struggling to solve the world's problems and reform society. But most of these people's efforts were in vain, because they could never get to the root cause of society's problems. In their frustration, the hippies and reformers of the 60s turned to alcohol, drugs, and other substances, just as the Narrator does in this quotation.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“But it makes sense this way,” I insisted. “The mark was given to Cain as a warning to others: ‘Leave this man alone. This is a dangerous man, one who exacts sevenfold vengeance.’ Certainly a lot of people over the world have learned that it doesn’t pay to mess with people with white faces.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Quinn ventures into racial politics for one of the few times in his novel. Ishmael and the Narrator are trying to interpret the Biblical story of Cain, the first murderer in the world. Cain, in Ishmael's historical interpretation of the Bible, is meant to be a symbol of the Caucasian societies of the Middle East. The Caucasians were some of the first people on the planet to practice Taker culture; in other words, to hoard food and resources instead of living in harmony with nature. Interpreted in this way, the Cain and Abel story is an allegory of the dangers of Caucasian culture, and of the Takers in general. As the Narrator sees it, the Cain and Abel story is also a warning about the danger of white people. Historically, people who identify as white—mostly in Europe and the Americas—have definitely been responsible for some serious bloodshed and misery: imperialism, two World Wars, slavery, the Holocaust, etc.

It's important to note that the Narrator, not Ishmael, offers a racial interpretation of the Bible. As he makes clear later on, Ishmael doesn't believe that it's useful to blame specific racial groups for the world's problems (in fact, he implies, blaming specific racial groups was one of the reasons that the radicals of the 1960s failed to achieve their goals). Instead, Ishmael wants all races and peoples of the world to unite against Taker culture. Even so, the fact that the Narrator brings up a racial interpretation of Taker culture means that Quinn thinks the interpretation is at least worth considering, even if he doesn't wholeheartedly endorse it.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“All along, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘Yes, this is all very interesting, but what good is it? This isn’t going to change anything!”
“And now?”
This is what we need. Not just stopping things, Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of something that ... I don’t know. Something that…”
“I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 243-244
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ishmael and the Narrator lay out their vision for the future of the human race. At the same time, they're basically summarizing the structure of Ishmael itself. The novel began with, one could say, Ishmael scolding humanity for its problems—its greed, its cynicism, its reliance on drugs and other substances. Over the course of the book, however, the Narrator has learned how to study mankind's fundamental problems. But much more importantly, he's learned a true alternative to civilization: the way of the Leavers. Instead of selfishly claiming that mankind will dominate the planet, the Leavers accept that they're only one of millions of animals on Earth, and try to live in harmony with their surroundings.

The way of the Leavers, as described by Ishmael and the Narrator, reminds us that the Narrator (like human beings in general) needs a story to live his life to the fullest. The book Ishmael, which is now almost at its end, is precisely the "vision" of the future that Ishmael and the Narrator are discussing. By writing his novel, Quinn hopes to inspire millions of people to leave Taker society behind and live honestly and simply, without any delusions of superiority.

I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s a cause to which almost all of humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and they don’t give a damn that it’s destroying the world.”
Ishmael shrugged. “As always, you’re a pessimist. Perhaps you’re right. I hope you’re wrong.”
”I hope so too, believe me.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael and the Narrator discuss the future of radicalism in human civilization. The Narrator's conclusions are heavily pessimistic. He believes that there will always be people who want to make the world a better place—and yet these people, in spite of their good intentions, aren't really getting to the "root cause" of society's problems. The Narrator's remarks tie in with his thoughts about the failures of radicalism in the 1960s.

As the Narrator sees it, political revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Gloria Steinem, etc., wanted to give a certain group of people (African Americans, homosexuals, women) the same rights and luxuries as everyone else, without ever questioning whether these rights and luxuries were good in themselves. The rights to own property, to have enough food to last a lifetime, etc., might seem like good things, but as Ishmael has shown, they also reflect the Takers' arrogance and hypocrisy. In short, the Narrator believes that so-called radicals demand a fair "piece of the pie" but don't question whether pie is really worth eating.