Ishmael: Cultural Dialogue


“TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

Thus begins Ishmael, a compelling exploration of our shared assumptions about the world. Winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, awarded for fiction that offers creative and positive solutions to global problems, Ishmael is a powerful inquiry into the far-reaching implications of our cultural “story.”

As Ishmael, the teacher, explains to his student, the narrator, “Mother Culture, whose voice has been in your ear since the day of your birth, has given you an explanation of how things came to be this way. You know it well; everyone in your culture knows it well…. As we make our journey here, we’re going to be reexamining key pieces of that mosaic…. And when we’re finished, you’ll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that’s happened here.” As you read through Ishmael, you take part in that same journey, participating in a conversation between a man and a gorilla that may profoundly change the way you view the world.

From Events to Interrelationships

A pragmatic view of systems thinking is that it is a body of tools and methodology for solving difficult, highly interdependent problems. But ultimately it is about expanding our worldview.

Recently, the historian Tom Berry asked, “By improving our organizations, are we simply making them better at destroying the earth or such questions cannot be ignored if one truly takes a systemic perspective, yet they are profoundly challenging because they cause us to inquire into deeply held cultural assumptions. The book Ishmael speaks to this deeper purpose.

I believe that the larger environmental crisis that threatens us cannot be averted without profound changes in the predominant patterns of thinking and interacting within our institutions. This shift in orientation—from objects and events to interrelationships—must infiltrate broadly and deeply if it is to start to have a real cultural impact. Ishmael is one way to begin that shift.

The latest Chapter in an Ongoing Story

The late physicist David Bohm, a leading thinker about dialogue, believed that human beings began to lose their capacity for thinking together long ago. He believed that the progressive fragmentation of the social order that started with the agricultural revolution has led to a progressive fragmentation of thought, which has increasingly characterized the last 10,000 years of human civilization.

Strikingly, Ishmael takes the same perspective: “So you see that your agricultural revolution is not an event like the Trojan War, isolated in the distant past and without direct relevance to your lives today. The work begun by those Neolithic farmers in the Near East has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It’s the foundation of your vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the first farming village.”

According to Ishmael, our current social problems stem from our disconnection from nature that began with the agricultural revolution—the belief that our job is to dominate nature and make it subservient to our will. Over the past 100 years, the consequences of that belief have become increasingly severe as we have developed the power to implement this perspective on a global scale. Beyond the obvious impact on the global environment, we now have the ability to alter the genetic code. As Ishmael points out, we human beings are the first species in the history of evolution on this planet that systematically destroy other species. In essence, we are toying with the basics of the evolutionary process.

Underlying these actions is a belief that evolution ended with the appearance of humans. Instead of acknowledging that we are just the latest chapter in an ongoing story, we humans think the story ended with us. This assumption has set us, in our minds, outside of the evolutionary process. We are literally “outlaws,” living outside the laws of nature. This attitude has dire consequences: by pretending that evolution doesn’t exist for us, we are actually taking actions that may make it true. Evolution may indeed end with us, or at least the evolution of our species.

Cultural Inquiry

The gorilla, Ishmael, begins his teaching by asking the question, “On the basis of my [personal] history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?” When the narrator is unable to answer, Ishmael responds, “Of course you do. My subject is ‘captivity.’ ”

Although he was captured and sold to a zoo as a young gorilla, Ishmael does not seek to teach about the captivity behind bars, but one of a more subtle and far-reaching nature. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?” he asks. The narrator responds, “As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”

“And yet,” Ishmael continues, “you do destroy, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world. Why don’t you stop?”

The narrator shrugs. “Frankly, we don’t know how.”

“You arc captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”

Herein commences a process of deep cultural inquiry between Ishmael and the narrator. This inquiry is not into corporate culture or Western versus Eastern culture, but an exploration into our prevailing industrial culture (which is increasingly becoming the global culture) and how it differs from the traditional cultures of pre-industrial and pre-agricultural societies. The simple goal of this inquiry: to become aware of the nature of our continuity. As the narrator gradually realizes, what prevents us from freeing ourselves is, first and foremost, not realizing that we are prisoners of our own beliefs of the “story” we have been telling ourselves throughout history. What keeps us imprisoned is that we’re “unable to find the bars of the cage.”

As Ishmael explains, “Two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of man. One began to be enacted here some two or three million years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call Leavers and is still being enacted by them today, as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call Takers, and is apparently about to end in catastrophe.”

It is very difficult for people to inquire into their own culture. Culture, by definition, is what we see through, not what we see. Because we do not perceive our culture, it is extraordinarily difficult to sustain an inquiry into our shared cultural assumptions. Certainly it would be difficult for two members of industrial society to explore the deepest assumptions of their culture, for they share those assumptions. In many ways, such a conversation requires another perspective that differs radically from our own.

Ishmael, the gorilla, represents the entirety of what humankind is trying to control. By making man the student and Ishmael the teacher, Quinn reverses the relationship of dominance that has characterized our approach to nature. In addition, by asking us to suspend our disbelief that a man can talk to a gorilla, the author is, in some sense, metaphorically challenging our belief that we are separate from other species.

In this way, Ishmael is a striking illustration of what I believe real dialogue is about. We often think of dialogue as a group of people sitting in a circle, but in fact the root diet logos simply refers to a deep inquiry that opens up a new flow of meaning. In that sense, dialogue can occur within an individual, in a group of a thousand people, or in any setting where there is a deep movement.

The method of inquiry that Ishmael uses for his student are like Zen koans—puzzles that cannot be resolved by our normal ways of thinking and require a totally different framework. “What is our culture’s creation myth? What is the meaning of our world?” These are the types of questions that the student in Ishmael struggles to answer. Because of this structure, the reader can jump in at almost any point and get a sense of the nature of that inquiry. I carry a copy of Ishmael with me, and often just pick it up and start reading on any page. Within 10 or 15 minutes, I’m back into that flow of inquiry.

just pick it up and start reading on any page

Strutter and Meaning

In evaluating a book, we tend to judge content and process as if they are separable. Such an assumption is, however, part of the deep fragmentation that pervades our culture. Literature is not just about presenting compelling ideas. In a great book, the method of exposition is as compelling as the ideas themselves. The power of Ishmael is that its method, process, and content are so tightly integrated. The very premise of the book engages people at a level beyond any mere exposition of its central issues.

For this reason, I believe Ishmael may indeed contribute to the very type of cultural change Quinn believes is necessary. By opening us to a whole different type of dialogue about our culture, it may create an opening in that culture.

Ishmael raises a central paradox about culture: no individual by herself or himself can change culture, yet culture can’t change without individual changes. I don’t know of any other book that stimulates us to think in such new, different, and much clearer ways about our cultural dysfunction as does Ishmael. This is a book that appeals to each of us as individuals, and challenges us to begin making the individual changes necessary to create a collective cultural transformation.

Peter M. Senge is the director of the MIT Organizational Learning Center and author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Daniel Quinn, the author of Ishmael, will be a keynote speaker at the 1994 Systems Thinking in Action Conference in November. Ishmael is available through Pegasus Communications, Inc. (617) 576-1231. Editorial support for this article was provided by Colleen LannonKim.

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