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
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Quotes in Ishmael
TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
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?
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.
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
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.”