Ishmael

Ishmael Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Ishmael and the narrator meet to discuss the rest of the story of culture. The narrator is confident that he knows how the middle and end of the story go, and he begins to speak into the tape recorder.
The narrator seems to be catching on quickly as he spends more time with Ishmael, but whether he’s really understood Ishmael’s lessons, or only thinks that he has, remains to be seen.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
The narrator begins his story of culture by observing that for thousands of years, man didn’t know that the world was made for him. He lived at the mercy of his environment, no different from the animals. Then, eventually, he discovered the solution: he had to live in the same place, rather than wandering through the world. Thus, man could no longer be a hunter-gatherer—he had to become an agriculturist. When man discovered how to manipulate the environment enough to farm on it, everything else came easily: agriculture led to settlement, division of labor, class, trade, science, art, etc. This is the middle of the story of culture, the narrator concludes.
Quinn will return to this story many times in the course of the novel, each time telling it in a slightly different way. Here the narrator introduces a key event in history: the Agricultural Revolution. This is a society’s transition from hunting and gathering its food, to cultivating and growing its food. In reality there were many “agricultural revolutions” at different times and in different parts of the world, but again Ishmael simplifies things in search of a basic truth. In many ways, the remainder of the novel consists of the narrator trying to perceive all the ramifications of the Agricultural Revolution.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael is impressed with the narrator’s work: he agrees that agriculture represented the beginning of the narrator’s culture. The premise of the story of the culture is that the world is a machine built to be used by the Takers: those who are clever enough to use agriculture to shape their environment. Ishmael asks the narrator what the purpose of the Earth is: in other words, what is man’s destiny? The narrator is unsure how to answer.
Ishmael’s style of teaching is effective but frequently frustrating. He compliments the narrator for his work, then immediately pushes him to go further, working out the conclusions of what he’s just discovered. This style is convenient for Quinn’s purposes, since he seeks to explain so much in less than 300 pages.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
To answer his own question, Ishmael asks the narrator to imagine life without man. The narrator does so, and finds that he’s visualizing a savage jungle, full of dangerous animals. From this image, Ishmael makes a provocative point: the world exists for man, and man’s destiny is to rule the world—that is, to make it tame, safe, and controlled. This is the second part of the myth of the narrator’s culture. Ishmael is surprised and saddened that the narrator isn’t more amazed by what he’s saying. In response, the narrator compares himself to an iceberg: he’s capable of recognizing the error of his thinking, but he can’t force himself to be excited by this new information.
Ishmael is essentially asking the narrator to describe the Taker “stereotypes” of Leaver society. The narrator has no real idea about what Leaver life consists of, and so he’s forced to fall back on his preconceptions—preconceptions that have been passed down to him through stories of Taker culture. We also see the extent to which the narrator must overcome his apathy. He’s been so desensitized and worn out by Taker culture that he can’t muster any enthusiasm for his education.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
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Ishmael goes on with the lesson. Mankind didn’t immediately develop agriculture: on the contrary, there were thousands of years where humans had to contend with other animals, and the elements, in order to survive. Thus, in order to prosper, humans had to “conquer” the world. The narrator is amazed when he realizes how pervasive this idea is in his society: he’s always hearing about humans “conquering” the skies, the seas, space, etc. Ishmael seems pleased with the narrator’s amazement and excitement at this idea.
The notion of the Takers conquering the world is hidden in plain view: it’s so common that everyone takes it for granted. This is the first of many examples of Quinn’s theory that to identify a problem is, in a sense, to solve the problem. When one notices how pervasive the rhetoric of “conquering” is to Taker culture, one can no longer be seduced by it.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
As the lesson draws to a close, Ishmael brings up the concept of a bargain or a contract. The myth that mankind was made to conquer the world, much like the myth of the world being made for man, is designed to rationalize injustice, pain, and evil. In other words, people believe that pollution, war, poverty, etc., are in some sense justified because they’re necessary byproducts of having a civilization: of having “air conditioning and automobiles and all the rest.” But on the contrary, Ishmael concludes, the evils of the world aren’t caused by human nature: they’re the result of enacting the specific story that the narrator’s culture believes.
Many of the greatest Western philosophers (or Taker philosophers, as Ishmael would say) believe that man is inherently evil or imperfect—we see this idea in Christianity, Romanticism, deconstructionism, etc. Ishmael disagrees strenuously with this idea—it’s not that mankind is flawed; it’s that Taker culture is inherently wrong. We wrongly conflate human nature with Taker culture, because the Takers have come to dominate the world.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets 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