Ishmael

Ishmael Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When the narrator returns the next day, he’s surprised to see Ishmael waiting for him on the other side of the glass window (the narrator’s side now), sitting on some cushions. This sight makes the narrator realize how important the glass between them had been. As he sits down near Ishmael, the narrator feels a little wary, but he notices that Ishmael seems to look at him in exactly the same way as before.
As the narrator proceeds with his education, he gets closer and closer to Ishmael, both literally and metaphorically. Ishmael is no longer behind glass, disconnected from his student—now he’s sitting alongside the narrator, trying to solve the same problems of life and the environment. Thus Ishmael isn’t, properly speaking, a prophet—instead he’s trying to lead the narrator to make up his own mind about the world. We are also reminded that Ishmael, the teacher, is still a potentially dangerous animal—a fully-grown gorilla—so his physical proximity to the narrator adds a new element to an otherwise cerebral, philosophical novel.
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Ishmael begins the lessons by drawing a simple diagram. The diagram shows the timeline of human history, beginning three million years ago. For the Leavers, life is virtually the same now as it was in the past. For the Takers, however, the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred approximately 10,000 years ago, changed the quality of life enormously. There is no specific end to the Agricultural Revolution, Ishmael concludes. It’s still spreading all over the world.
Ishmael believes that the Agricultural Revolution is constantly being enacted throughout the world. This suggests a kind of stasis in the world of the Takers—no true progress is being made, but only a continuous repetition of the same major breakthrough.
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Ishmael moves on with the lesson. About 2,000 years ago, he says, the Takers began to believe in a story. This story had been told by the Leavers for many thousands of years beforehand—in fact, the original purpose of the story was to explain why the Takers left the Leavers behind. The narrator says he can’t imagine what Ishmael is talking about. Ishmael seems annoyed, and says that he will tell the narrator a different story until the point is clear.
At times there’s tension between Ishmael and the narrator, especially when Ishmael thinks the narrator has said or done something stupid. It remains to be seen what the result of this tension will be. For the time being, however, it’s mildly humorous to see Ishmael annoyed with his human student.
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Ishmael explains that Takers believe that they have a special knowledge of how to rule the world. They also believe that the Leavers do not have this knowledge—this is precisely why they don’t rule the world. The story that the Takers tell themselves unites Takers, Leavers, and, most importantly of all, gods.
One important aspect of the Takers’ culture is that they have their own theory about the Leavers. This makes sense: in order to understand themselves, the Takers need to convince themselves that those who don’t share their philosophy are wrong.
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Ishmael tells a story about man and the gods. The gods created a vast, complicated world, full of diverse species. One day, the gods were surveying their work, when they noticed a fox hunting for food. Some of the gods wanted to send a quail in the fox’s path, feeding the fox. Others wanted to save the quail from death. The gods began to argue among one another. They realized that no matter what they did to manage the vast world they’d created, some animals would live and some animals would die. There was no way to please everyone.
It’s impossible to tell where Ishmael is going with this story, but it’s a “story” in the sense that he’s already explained: it unites man, the world, and the gods. The dilemma that Ishmael explains in this story is the dilemma of life. It’s impossible to please everyone, because life is a competition between the species—life for one species depends on death for another.
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Eventually, Ishmael continues, the gods found a way to rule their world. They found a Tree of Knowledge, containing a special fruit. When the gods ate the fruit, they gained the knowledge necessary to run the garden: the knowledge of who lives and who dies. The next day, they sent a quail to be eaten by the fox, but as the quail died, they told it to be calm—the gods were looking out for it. The day after, they sent no quail to the fox, and the fox went hungry—nevertheless, the gods consoled the fox and told it to continue believing in their power. In this way, the gods ruled the world, pleasing some species one day and other species the next day.
The story Ishmael is telling bears a deliberate resemblance to the Adam and Eve story found in the Biblical Book of Genesis. Unlike the Adam and Eve story, however, in reality there can be no “terrestrial paradise” in which everything lives in perfect harmony. On the contrary, the “harmony” that the “gods” create is a compromise: sometimes animals die, and sometimes they live. Because nature is inherently a place of competition, it’s impossible for all life forms to live together—everything must eventually die in order to feed something else.
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Ishmael continues with his story. One day, a creature named Adam was born in the gods’ world. The gods weren’t sure what to do with Adam. Some feared that Adam, too, would eat from the Tree of Knowledge. If Adam were to do so, he wouldn’t gain any real knowledge of who lives and who dies—worse, he would falsely believe that he had this knowledge. As a result, he would conquer the entire world the gods had created, killing off other animals. With this in mind, they decided to tell Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
Ishmael argues that the Tree of Knowledge is a kind of placebo—by eating from it, Adam thinks he has gained wisdom, when in reality, the tree gives no wisdom of its own, but only the illusion of wisdom.
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The narrator has been listening to Ishmael’s story, fascinated. He notices a Bible sitting on a shelf behind him, and opens the Bible to Genesis. He points out to Ishmael that the Bible says nothing about why the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden to Adam. Ishmael says that this isn’t surprising: Takers have never been able to figure out why knowledge of who lives and who dies is anything but beneficial to them. The Adam and Eve story was originally written from the point of view of the Leavers—those who realized why it was wrong for mankind to decide who lives and who dies. If the Takers had written the story, they would have called the Fall the Ascent or the Liberation.
Ishmael’s analysis of the Bible makes an important point: there’s no convincing reason in Christianity that explains why it was evil for Adam to eat from the Tree. All the explanations of this “sin” are unconvincing, hinging on an arbitrary association of knowledge with evil. Ishmael’s conclusion is that Christians themselves don’t understand the true meaning of their own ideology. In reality, the Adam/Eve story is a coded history of the environment, and mankind’s relationship with it.
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Ishmael makes an important clarification: the Takers don’t have a monopoly on agriculture. There were, and always have been, Leavers who practice agriculture. The Agricultural Revolution did not merely consist of the discovery of agriculture, but rather the Takers’ insistence that everyone of the planet must also practice agriculture. There was a Native American tribe, the Hohokam, who once practiced advanced agriculture, but eventually gave it up. Such an action is essentially forbidden among the Takers. For them, everyone must practice aggressive agriculture, now and forever.
Ishmael has made this point once before, but because he seems to be attacking agriculture, it’s important that he remind us. Agriculture, it should be remembered, isn’t inherently bad—that is, it isn’t inherently a violation of the laws of life. On the contrary, agriculture is just another way of altering the environment. It’s only when agriculture becomes dogma, to be spread around the world, that it becomes dangerous.
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Ishmael asks the narrator where the story of the Fall comes from. While the authors of the story might appear to be Hebrew, Ishmael insists that the story of the Fall was already well known long before the Hebrews wrote it down. The narrator says that he has no idea who wrote the story. In response, Ishmael dismissively tells him that it was the Semites, the ancient ancestors of the Hebrews, and the narrator feels a flash of annoyance.
Here there’s another brief conflict between Ishmael and the narrator. It’s as if Ishmael has been thinking about these issues for so many years that he expects everyone else to follow along with him as quickly as they can. Quinn’s book is a work of fiction, but also a partial re-interpretation of Biblical history.
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Ishmael draws the narrator a map, showing the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution. In the Fertile Crescent, there were agriculturalists (the Takers), while surrounding this area there were nonagricultural peoples (the Leavers). Ishmael then draws a second map, showing the same area a few thousand years later. By this time, agriculture had spread throughout the continent. Nevertheless, it had not yet spread to the south of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Semites, the ancestors of the Hebrews, lived as herders.
The conflict between the Takers and the Leavers is often understood in metaphorical terms. Here, however, Ishmael suggests that at one point in history, it was a literal, violent conflict—a full-fledged war between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists.
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Ishmael makes his point: the Biblical story of Cain and Abel is a thinly veiled metaphor for the first clash between Takers and Leavers: the agriculturalist Caucasians and the Semitic herders, respectively. In the Cain and Abel story, Cain, a farmer, made God an offering of agricultural products, while Abel, a herder, offered livestock, animal pelts, and other objects common to the herder lifestyle. Because God preferred Abel’s offering, Cain was jealous. Thus, he killed Abel, his own brother. As punishment, God made Cain wander the Earth. The fact that God chose Abel’s offering over Cain’s, Ishmael argues, suggests that the Cain and Abel story was originally a piece of Semitic war propaganda, designed to show that the gods favored herders over agriculturalists.
The story of Cain and Abel begins when Cain and Abel make two different kinds of sacrifice in an attempt to please and honor God. Ishmael’s point is that God’s preference for Abel the herder’s sacrifice signifies the Semites’ preference for a simple herder lifestyle, in contrast to an agricultural lifestyle.
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The narrator suggests that the “mark of Cain” refers to the white, pale faces of the victorious Caucasians. Just as Cain was forced to wander the Earth, so the Caucasians, since defeating the Semites, have spread across the globe. Ishmael seems strangely indifferent to this information. He concludes that the Semites’ story of Cain and Abel was passed down to their descendants, the Hebrews, who recorded it without fully understanding it. Thus, a Leaver story became a fixture of Taker society.
It’s important that the narrator, not Ishmael himself, makes racial arguments about the meaning of the “mark of Cain.” This suggests that Ishmael isn’t interested in placing the “blame” for Taker dominance on any one racial group. Also (as we’ll see toward the end of the book), Ishmael doesn’t believe that racial politics are the best course of action for radicals looking to alter the status quo. On the contrary, altering Taker mythology would be a more effective route of tackling the roots of inequality.
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Ishmael goes on to explain how the Takers took up the Leavers’ version of history. In the story of the Fall, the acceptance of agriculture isn’t presented as a free choice, but rather as a horrible curse: God expels Adam and Eve from the garden of terrestrial paradise, forcing them to turn to farming and agriculture to survive.
Ismael’s explanation of the Adam/Eve story suggests that the Takers would never write a story that describes Taker culture in in such negative terms. Therefore the story must have come from a non-Taker culture.
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The narrator asks Ishmael where Eve figures in to the story of the Fall. Ishmael replies that Eve’s name means “life.” In general, he goes on, men and woman have markedly differently roles in population growth. This suggests that Eve is a symbol of the temptation that challenges all Leaver cultures. In a nomadic tribe for example, the population is always in danger of growing too large, to the point where it won’t be able to support itself. In a Taker culture, on the other hand, it’s supposedly feasible to have a large family with many children, because advanced agriculture and aggressive expansion provide the necessary resources for such an undertaking. In this way, the narrator realizes, Eve symbolizes the temptation of life itself. When Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge, he gives in to the temptation to have many children, certain that his knowledge will make his decision possible.
Ishmael’s explanation of Eve’s role in the Fall represents one of the first times in the novel that he discusses women and femininity in such specific terms. It’s also in this section that Quinn illustrates the inherent “bargain” that constitutes human culture. For instance, Adam has to choose between having a large family and surviving. The danger, Ishmael suggests, arises when Takers believe themselves to be exempt from the bargain—when they believe that they can, in fact, have their cake and eat it too.
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Together, Ishmael and the narrator sum up what they’ve found. The Adam and Eve story, quite simply, does not make sense: the Christian explanation is that Adam was in a state of blissful ignorance before he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and afterwards, it was knowledge itself that made him miserable. Neither the narrator nor Ishmael finds this convincing. The truth about the story of the Fall, they agree, is that it was written by Leavers, about Takers. From the perspective of the Leavers, the Takers sacrificed stability and peace because they believed that their knowledge of agriculture and technology would allow them to break the laws of life.
Quinn plays on the contradictions and ambiguities in the Book of Genesis, and regardless of whether one believes that his scholarship is accurate or “true,” it’s important to keep in mind that this reinterpretation of the Bible is merely an illustration of Ishmael’s theory of Takers and Leavers, not an end in itself. In other words, it wouldn’t weaken Quinn’s argument at all if a Biblical scholar disagreed with his interpretation—this chapter is simply a reshaping of one story into another.
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