After some stressful hectic weeks – company annual conference, and a “learning experience” in US temporary-resident house-buying – Sylvia and I decided we’d have a quiet holiday weekend after work on Saturday. After checking the boys were surviving OK with end of year exam progress – just one of them has one to go – we went to Barnes & Noble and sought out a few books to read quietly, at some of our favourite local locations.
I picked-up my first Kurt Vonnegut (see previous post) and my first Daniel Quinn – the first of the “Ishmael” trilogy originally written in 1977 – and Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife” – both the latter on my reading list for quite some time, since blogging references some years ago.
Anyway, having read Cat’s Cradle right though, practically in one sitting pausing only to sleep, I started Ishmael this morning, and I’m now through that too.
Very interesting. All bar one scene so far, there are just the two characters in conversation, Ishmael (the 1000 pound gorilla in the room) and the author – in a philosophical journey similar to Sophie and her tutor / correspondent, though like Pirsig’s ZMM and Lila, it is infinitely better than Sophie’s World because it contains it’s own philosophical speculations, rather than just a potted history of the accepted philosophy of our culture.
I was expecting something pretty new-agey and cultish – there is after all a www.ishmael.com and a “Friends of Ishmael” out there – but I’m pleasantly surprised and impressed. The writer, as opposed to the unavoidable dryness of Ishmael himself, is the professional journalistic writer in his own story, with plenty of opportunity for wit.
Like Pirsig the point is that our “western” culture – the “Mother Culture” in Quinn – has become wedded to a misunderstanding – the correct view of life the universe and everything having an evolutionary explanation, but a failure to appreciate that what passes for correct “intellectually” is simply mythology and not some god-given absolute truth or reason.
Ishmael’s metaphor is the Takers and Leavers. The “Takers” being those tillers of the land – with the mark of Cain – who believe right supports their might to dominate the “Leavers”, the hunter-gatherers and nomadic herders of Abel. Our metaphors – the fall of Adam eating from the tree of (true) knowledge – are according to Quinn really the myths of the Leavers created to explain why the Takers thought they might be right. The real message is “diversity is key” to successful long term evolution. No one culture can assume it is right in a any absolute sense over others. There need to be many cultures, with boundaries and interdependencies, just as there needs to be bio-diversity in the gene pool.
Memetic diversity. Like Pirsig, there is a tendency to progress through layers of evolution, we just happen to be the most evolved intellects we know about so far, but we may not necessarily be the ancestors of the most evolved intelligencies in future – let those dolphins through. The only thing special about humans is that we may be the first to learn this fact and ensure we don’t get in the way of progress, and pass this message on to future cultures, rather than mistakenly assume we can take over as managers of the cosmos, whilst leading it to our certain extinction along with the terrestrial corner of the cosmos we feel we have control over. Influence yes, control no.
Also like Pirsig, much is made of the anthropology of plains Indian culture and of the (then recent) failure of hippies to make a go of alternative culture – a reminder that this is nothing to do with a nostalgia for noble savagery – simply that the “leaver” culture naturally accepts that it is one of many interacting cultures doing what works best for them, rather than “the” culture with the best riposte to all other cultures. Freedom and competition yes, but with pragmatic limits. This knowledge Quinn calls “wisdom”.
Probably worth reading “Providence” as well as the others in the Ishmael trilogy – “The Story of B” and “My Ishmael”