In a short, remarkable novel that reached cult status in the 1990s, a disillusioned child of the '60s comes across an ad in the personals. The ad slaps him awake, like a newborn gaining a whole new perspective on life. The book has had a similar impact on generations of readers since.
The ad reads:
"TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."
It's a pretty bold invitation, the saving the world bit, and that boldness is not lost on the disillusioned man. Disaffected, alienated and a bit cynical, the narrator of this novel by Daniel Quinn answers the ad because his desire to save the world still burns, albeit faintly, and despite the disenchantment from the changes that the '60s promised but never delivered.
Arriving in Room 105 of a nondescript office building, the narrator meets his new teacher: surprisingly, a 400-pound gorilla named Ishmael (which also serves as the book's title). By some magical gorilla-to-human telepathy, Ishmael proceeds to recount the history of the world from the point of view of a gorilla.Ishmael, as you might imagine, does not look kindly on the great sweep of human progress. He finds our species' view of evolution -- with Homo sapiens at the top of the evolutionary ladder -- to be anthropocentric in the extreme; he views man's appropriation of land and resources and the accompanying destruction of habitat and diversity, as dangerous. For Ishmael, who had been caged much of his life, humanity is captor and the world its captive. A note hanging on the wall behind Ishmael identifies a central dilemma:
"WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR THE GORILLA?"
The narrator wonders whether this hope "lay in the extinction of the human race or in its survival." Later Ishmael opines, "The world is not going to survive very much longer as humanity's captive."
For Ishmael, humanity's fall from grace came from appropriating the earth for our own uses, by treating the world as property to be owned and exploited, by, in effect, setting ourselves apart from (even above) the rest of the natural world.
On one level the book is an environmentalist's manifesto, a warning that humanity must stop appropriating habitat as if the world were a subdivision ready for development. In fact Quinn's book and its sequels, like so many transformational works of art, have inspired activist organizations (e.g., Friends of Ishmael and Culture Change). But "Ishmael" also operates on another, perhaps more profound level. It starts with "the Other."
Facing "the Other"
I find a real resonance between Ishmael's diagnosis of our species' ills and the work of noted French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, specifically his notion of "the Other." Tautologically, the Other is simply someone else, or, to use a term common to theology, "that which is not us." Throughout history, otherness has triggered fear and violence and has been used as justification for slavery and imperialism.
But to Levinas, the Other provides a path to transcendence, a way to find meaning, indeed ecstasy. In Totality and Infinity Levinas writes, "Meaning is the face of the Other." Face-to-face relations with the Other imparts knowledge, creates connection. As Levinas scholar Adriaan Peperzak writes:
"When Levinas meditates on the significance of the face, he does not describe the complex figure that could be portrayed by a picture or painting; rather, he tries to make us 'experience' or 'realize' what we see, feel, 'know' when another, by looking at me, 'touches' me: autrui me vise; the other's visage looks at me, 'regards' me."
From this notion flows a responsibility we all share for the Other.
Strictly speaking, Levinas viewed the face-to-face relationship as the purview of human-to-human interaction, which would leave Ishmael and his ilk in the Other category. But Ishmael is a special case -- come on, the guy can communicate with a human, and there's the whole parable thing. So, as other writers such as Barbara Jane Davy have done before, allow me to pull Levinas's philosophy into the realm environmental ethics.
The Other and Environmental Ethics
I see Ishmael's story as the story of humanity relegating the natural world to the Other and seeking to subjugate it. But instead of subjugation, Levinas writes we should encounter the "Other" face to face.
In Quinn's world that is precisely what happens: the narrator meets Ishmael face to face. And at first, though he seems almost repelled by the gorilla's size and smell, he immediately perceives a connection to Ishmael's face.
He was terrifyingly enormous, a boulder. ... His sheer mass was alarming in itself, even though he wasn't using it in any menacing way. ... I could look at nothing else in the world but his face, more hideous than any other in the animal kingdom because of its similarity to our own, yet in its way more noble than any Greek ideal of perfection.
Levinas's face-to-face encounter has already begun. And this early commentary helps chart the narrator's journey. The more he comes to know the gorilla, the more he comes to love and respect Ishmael and in the process becomes considerably wiser.If we were to adopt this construct, we can think of our subordination of nature as having relegated it to Other status. To reconnect with nature, to free it from our subjugation and free ourselves, we must begin with a face-to-face encounter. Like Quinn putting a face to nature in the form of Ishmael, we must put a face to the living world around us. Therein may lie the path to meaning and transcendence.