Wednesday, December 30, 2009


My mother mailed me a copy of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, with a note saying that as she read it, she imagined me as the narrator.

I had never heard of this book, and I'm only 79 pages into it right now, but it's kind of aggravating me. What bothers me, aside from the narrator's inability or refusal to see exactly where his teacher's leading questions are leading, is this notion that's been at the heart of much of what I've read, watched, and been taught since I graduated high school in 1990, and a little even before that: that western civilization, particularly European and American cultures, are inherently selfish and evil in a way that other human societies and especially other living creatures are not.

Maybe I'm just sensitive, being a white man whose childhood photos look a bit like the kid on the cover of Rage Against the Machine's album Evil Empire.

OK, to be honest, my brother looked more like that kid than I did. But you know what I mean: brown-haired, blue-eyed white kid. Evil Empire. So I'm a little sensitive.

Wait, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Isn't there something in the genetic mandate that all living things share that's a bit problematic at heart: the drive to successfully reproduce? I mean really, a genetic mandate NOT to reproduce wouldn't be passed on very far, would it?

I'm not saying that the culture whispering in our ears that we are the pinnacle of creation and that the earth is ours to use to our own short-term advantage isn't part of the problem, I'm just saying that I think maybe the cultural story is our way of explaining to ourselves the base biological impulse that we've become so successful in satisfying: spread the seed and do everything you can to see it grow to spread its seed, too. The notion that "a lion or a wombat" wouldn't have "conquered" the earth if a series of accidents in their evolution hadn't given them the massive reproductive advantages that would allow and even impel them to do so seems biased in a "humans are inherently different from animals" sort of way that's precisely the inverse of the one the book rejects. If that makes sense.


Purelight said...

Hmm, interesting, complex, and angry reaction to something I thought was simpler. I didn't see the whole evil white western culture thing. I thought it explained what it is about the HUMAN culture that drives us to continue the cycles that are destroying the place where we live. The simple analogy of the Takers and the Leavers showed me how "things got to be the way they are." With understanding of that, maybe we could do better? With no understanding, we'll never do better. I love your brain, but sorry I touched a hot button by sending the book. I thought the narrator was you because he worked hard to analyze and solve the questions put to him, like intelligent people do--meant no insult!

I, Rodius said...

I saw the Takers and the Leavers as a clear distinction in human cultures. And I wasn't angry about you sending the book; I like getting mad at things with which I disagree!

Purelight said...

I didn't think you were mad at me. I'm glad you see things differently than I do and that you like to argue philosophically. As for me, I just found it thought-provoking and entertaining. You might like to know that Pops leans in your direction and he hasn't even read the book!

anne said...

oh my gosh you look like Thumper in that picture!

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