Ishmael uses a fictional plot and characters to put forth philosophical ideas more commonly found in a work of nonfiction. This brings up an important question: why does the author of the novel, Daniel Quinn, use fiction to communicate his message? (Why didn’t he write a philosophy book instead?) What’s the relationship between fiction, storytelling, and truth?
In an early chapter of Ishmael, Ishmael argues that human beings feel an irrepressible need to tell stories that explain and justify their place in the universe. A story, as Ishmael defines it, is a relationship between the gods, the world, and mankind. Ishmael believes that there is a story at the “center” of every culture. This story is repeated so often that the members of that culture lose sight of it. In Taker culture, for instance, Takers are no more conscious of the “story” of their society—according to which, the world was made for mankind to dominate—than a fish is conscious of water. Put another way: the Takers’ story of humanity’s power is so pervasive that they don’t even realize how they are influenced by it. And yet no one story is completely “true” or “false”—even the story that Ishmael tells, about the Takers and the Leavers, isn’t, literally speaking, the truth. Like Ishmael itself, it’s a necessary fiction, a deliberate simplification of human history that helps the narrator wrap his head around Ishmael’s complicated lessons.
It’s worth asking why Ishmael doesn’t simply tell the narrator the truth about Taker society on the first day—if Ishmael knows what’s wrong with the Takers’ story, why couldn’t he spell this out for the narrator and save them both a lot of time? The answer is that it’s not enough to explain why a story is wrong. The stories of Taker society are so powerful that one can’t simply “disprove them”— it’s impossible to replace a story with the truth. Rather, one can only replace a story with a different story. Thus, as the novel draws to a close, Ishmael leaves the narrator with a difficult assignment: tell a new story about the Leavers to replace the flawed, harmful story that’s told by the Takers. What this story will be—or whether it gets told at all—is largely left up to the reader to decide.
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth ThemeTracker
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Quotes in Ishmael
As I say, there were many in Germany who recognized this story as rank mythology. They were nevertheless held captive by it simply because the vast majority around them thought it sounded wonderful and were willing to give up their lives to make it a reality.
And when we’re finished, you’ll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that’s happened here. And it won’t matter in the least whether you remember how that perception was assembled. The journey itself is going to change you, so you don’t have to worry about memorizing the route we took to accomplish that change.
You didn’t believe me when I said that this is ambient in your culture. Now you see what I mean. The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it. Of course man is conquering space and the atom and the deserts and the ocean and the elements. According to your mythology, this is what he was born to do.
“It’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with humans. Something that definitely works against paradise. Something that makes people stupid and destructive and greedy and shortsighted.”
“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed.”
Though the Takers don’t know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubs and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and deer and lions and jellyfish. They did not exempt him from this law any more than they exempted him from the law of gravity.
If you go among the various peoples of your culture—if you go to China and Japan and Russia and England and India—each people will give you a completely different account of themselves, but they are nonetheless enacting a single basic story, which is the story of the Takers. The same is true of the Leavers. The Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Navajo of the United States would each give you a different account of themselves but they too are all enacting one basic story, which is the story of the Leavers.
“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 the same, Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don’t need it?”
“You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it’s your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, ‘Not me, goddamn it I’m not going hungry, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my own hands now!’”
“The premise of the Taker story is that the world belongs to man.” I thought for a couple of minutes, then I laughed. “It’s almost too neat. The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world.”
“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.”