Ishmael proceeds with his first lesson for the narrator. He points out that the narrator, like Ishmael himself, is obsessed with the history of Nazi Germany. How could it be, he asks the narrator, that millions of Germans accepted Hitler’s proposal to murder the Jews? His answer is that Hitler told a story: the story of how Aryan people everywhere would rise up to inherit the world. Every German became “swept up” in this story, even if they didn’t believe it to be literally true. Ishmael proposes that the modern world is “swept up” in another story, one that holds them captive. When the narrator points out that he can’t think of any comparable story, Ishmael says that this is proof of the story’s power: the story of civilization is as invisible to the citizen as water is to the fish.
Ishmael begins by establishing some commonalities between himself and the narrator. This is important, because the teacher-student relationship hinges upon trust and connection—the narrator won’t listen to Ishmael if he considers him utterly alien. It’s here that Ishmael establishes one of his most important ideas, the “water/fish” analogy. The most powerful lies, he suggests, are those, which we can’t identify as lies—or can’t identify at all. There’s a famous quote that reinforces this idea: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Ishmael brings up an important concept: Mother Culture. Mother Culture is the voice in the narrator’s head, telling the narrator that all is well, and that the status quo is the “way things should be.” There is almost no way for the narrator to escape Mother Culture altogether, because culture is everywhere. The narrator’s only option is to understand the “story” that culture secretly tells—when this happens, he’ll never be seduced by it again.
Ishmael uses personification to illustrate his point: there’s a things called culture, which at times seems to be self-consciously keeping the narrator in a state of ignorance. Again, this point isn’t literally true—it’s just a convenient fiction, useful for the narrator’s education.
Ishmael goes through some terminology before he gets any further into his teaching. Ishmael will divide the human world into two groups: the “Takers” and the “Leavers.” These two groups correspond to the “civilized” and the “primitive” peoples of the world. The narrator objects that it’s too facile to divide the world into only two categories, but Ishmael points out that civilization itself does so: everyone on Earth is either considered civilized—usually a member of Western civilization—or primitive—a member of some residual tribe or Stone Age culture.
This section reinforces an important point that Quinn has already alluded to—in order to gain wisdom and get anything done, it’s necessary to reduce life to its simplest factors—in short, to tell fictional stories about it. An example of this is Ishmael itself—a fable that aims to condense a lifetime of wisdom into only 13 chapters. Thus, while it’s not, strictly speaking, “correct” to simplify the world into Takers and Leavers, it’s necessary to do so for the purposes of the lesson.
Ishmael next tells the narrator that the journey of education will be more important than the destination. In other words, Ishmael could tell the narrator the basic “lesson” he’s going to teach, but it wouldn’t mean anything to the narrator. Instead, Ishmael outlines the basic “lesson plan” he’ll be using. Ishmael will aim to prove to the narrator that culture consists of a vast, fictional story that’s repeated millions of times every day. People like the narrator have absorbed this story in many different forms—art, religion, family, etc. Ishmael will show that this story is a fiction, and replace the story with a new “perception of the world.” The narrator accepts all of this.
For the narrator to learn properly, he must actively participate in his own education—he can’t just sit and absorb what Ishmael tells him. The narrator must struggle and “work through” his own feelings and prejudices about culture, in order to arrive at a conclusion that 1) he recognizes to be the truth and 2) he can’t forget about or dismiss. Ishmael’s teaching strategy of asking leading questions is called the “Socratic method.” This places the novel in a similar genre to philosophical “dialogues” of Ancient Greece—like those of Socrates.
Ishmael next defines some of his terms. A “story” is a scenario about god, man, and the world. “To enact” means to convert a story into a reality—thus, Hitler was trying to “enact” the story of the Aryan people’s supremacy. A “culture” is a group of people enacting a story.
In this brief expository section, Quinn outlines some necessary terms that he’ll use throughout the rest of the novel. This is another example of simplifying and reducing complex realities in the search of an overarching truth.
Ishmael outlines the basic story of the narrator’s culture. History begins with the Leavers, a highly unsuccessful group of people who died out. Humans only became successful because of the emergence of the Takers—the humans who founded agriculture and developed civilization. Ishmael proposes instead that history is not the history of the Leavers, followed by that of the Takers, but rather the simultaneous history of the Leavers and the Takers, and the way these two groups enacted two different stories.
Ishmael’s project is to show that history isn’t teleological—it doesn’t have an “end” or ultimate purpose. History isn’t just the story of some old, weak people (Leavers), followed by the rise of new, intelligent people (Takers). Instead, the Takers and the Leavers have two different conceptions of how to live, and they “enact” these simultaneously. Ishmael leaves it to the narrator to judge for himself which worldview is better.
Ishmael tells the narrator that the lesson is essentially over for the day. He says that the narrator should spend the rest of his day thinking about what the one defining story of his culture is. The narrator isn’t sure what this story could be: surely there’s no one story that everyone in civilization believes. Ishmael insists that there is such a story, and the story is used to explain away every bad thing that culture causes: pollution, war, etc. This story is, naturally, very difficult to think of. Just as an ancient Greek would never have been able to answer the question, “What are your myths?”, so the narrator can’t think of his own culture’s myth.
Ishmael gives the narrator his first “homework” assignment. It is a difficult one, and in fact, it seems to be the crux of Ishmael’s lesson itself. In other words, Ishmael is asking the narrator to identify the central myth of Taker culture—the very thing that Ishmael has promised to reveal to the narrator. This reminds us that the narrator isn’t here to listen to Ishmael lecture—he’s here to work hard, challenge himself, and “re-wire” his brain through reasoning and dialogue.
Ishmael insists that the narrator’s culture has a story, and moreover, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning of this story is the culture’s “creation myth.” In response, the narrator can only say that his culture has no creation myth whatsoever.
Here we see the extent of the challenge the narrator faces—he’s so conditioned to see the world in Taker terms that he can’t step back and see the limits of his own ideology.