When I was 16 years old, a friend loaned me a copy of the novel Ishmael, a 250-page Socratic dialogue between a middle-aged human man and a telepathic gorilla. Most of the novel unfolded in a sparsely furnished room smelling of menagerie, inside a “very ordinary sort of office building.” Ishmael, the gorilla, reposed behind a wall of glass and unpacked the history of civilization and the erasure of hunter-gatherer peoples by beaming his questions directly into the human’s head. In the final pages, the gorilla is sold into a carnival sideshow where he dies of pneumonia.
It would be difficult to overstate the influence this story had on me, everything that followed was, as Merwin had it, “stitched with its color”—a true conversion experience. Like most teenagers, alongside my negative assessment of my elders and the nightmare I felt they’d sewn in place of my future, I harbored the optimistic belief that the world could change for the better, if only people understood the problem. The problem, as Ishmael helped me to understand it, was this: What we call civilization is not, as most of us have been trained to believe, an evolutionary pinnacle at the tip of a human-advancement graph with our club-wielding antecedents at one end and machine-human-hybridism at the other. Rather, it is a single, unsustainable lifestyle that in ten thousand years metastasized over the earth, erasing from memory other forms of life in its path. And this slavery-dependent, earth-destroying civilization is doomed to collapse.
I persuaded my three best friends to read Ishmael, and they were similarly affected. At night we convened a kind of book club in a motorboat parked in my friend Matt’s garage, smoking cigarettes and stacking empties of Milwaukee’s Best Ice, discussing how best to spread the word about the Civilization problem. Days, we’d cut class and walk the streets of our suburb with oracular intensity, surveying the future ruins of strip-malls and car-lots and wondering if anyone else in those multitudes foresaw what was coming. Soon, we’d dropped out of high school and taken up a collection in a glass jar labeled “The Opening Minds Fund,” and within some months, pooled enough money to purchase a case of Ishmael, bulk. We brainstormed a dissemination campaign. Matt had the idea to rent a gorilla suit. He’d go to the public square and hand out copies from his large vinyl paws.
I recall the sensual thrill of opening the box, handling the smooth spines in duplicate. That we were essentially teenaged evangelists, no less annoying than the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses that plagued the bus mall, did not occur to us. Like all believers, we knew the actual Truth.
Ishmael’s author, Daniel Quinn, was once a true believer too. As a young man, he’d planned to become a monk, and even did a stint at the Gethsemane Trappist Monastery in Kentucky under the tutelage of Thomas Merton, but as detailed in his 1994 memoir, Providence, he was asked to leave shortly after confiding a vision in Merton. One morning, while gathering kindling, he suddenly perceived “the fire of life” that animates all things. He wrote, “Every blade of grass, every single leaf of every single tree was radiant, was blazing—incandescent with a raging power that was unmistakably divine.” Merton dismissed him a few days later on grounds that the interpretation of his Rorschach test indicated immaturity.
At Merton’s urging, Quinn took up the pilgrimage of the analysand following his expulsion from Gethsemane. Along the way, one of his analysts would tell him, “You will be your own teacher,” and he’d credit this intervention for his turn toward writing.
Daniel Quinn began the book that would become Ishmael in 1978. Over a period of twelve years, he produced eight versions before finally settling on the sage Gorilla. It was this iteration that won the inaugural (and only) Turner Tomorrow Award in 1991, a half-million dollars “for a book offering creative solutions to global problems,” one of the most lucrative literary awards in history. Since then, it’s been translated into twenty-five languages, taught in hundreds of classrooms, and sold over a million copies. Plenty of books sell on that scale, but few inspire such an obsessive readership. In the early days of the internet, fellow devotees gathered on the “IshCon” forum to discuss Quinn’s ideas, and what to do about them. Many of these threads became informal peer support groups for those who felt estranged from family and friends baffled by their sudden obsession, their dire warnings.
One of the more chilling assertions in Ishmael is that the civilized assault on the natural world would one day make the “Nazi Holocaust look like a limbering up exercise.” Our grandchildren, if any survived, would look back in horror at the monsters that allowed it to happen. It’s ill-advised to analogize anything to the holocaust, a display of what Quinn himself might call ethnocentric solecism, but I suppose his point was to take the very worst thing one could imagine, a situation in which one identifies with the victims by default, and superimpose it on an unimaginable future. If we could not feel for the dozens of species going extinct each day, as we did for Anne Frank, perhaps we could feel for the specter of our hypothetical grandchildren, their hypothetical starvation bellies and radiation burns. Sure, most of us didn’t feel like monsters, we sort of bumbled along in the received world, but that didn’t absolve us our complicity. I was 16, the specter did its work on me.
After we dropped out of high school, my friends and I ran away to a wilderness survival-training program where we hoped to acquire the skills necessary to form an egalitarian hunter-gatherer community on the frontier of the post-apocalypse. In 1998, most people I knew didn’t have language for widespread environmental disaster. For those who did, the “climate crisis” was still hypothetical, nothing more than a palsied line on a PowerPoint slide. They knew about Christian separatists, and they’d heard about teenagers being whisked away in the dead of night to wilderness rehab-camps, but if you weren’t huffing glue or preparing for His return, if you voluntarily spent your days making shelters from leaves and fire from sticks but were not otherwise a total yokel, people were stumped. Twenty years later, the notion that exponential growth on a finite planet is an unsustainable model is not uncommon, though most of us are still unclear on what to do about it.
In 2016, I was writing a book about these issues, when it occurred to me to check up on Daniel Quinn. In a Facebook post he wrote that he’d taken a spill in a rainstorm and fractured his hip. He’d been working on a new book for close to a year and his “misstep,” he said, triggered a shift in his thinking. “This is my most important book by far. Oddly enough, or perhaps one could say ‘providentially,’ this accident and forced hiatus made me realize that I was moving in the wrong direction.” Naturally, I was curious to know what this most important book contained. I sent a message through his website contact form, and Daniel replied. I was invited to Houston.
How I wished my old friends were around to brag to then. One had long ago moved to Baltimore, and one was dead. Only Peter and I remained close. Over the years, he’d lived off and on in the backcountry where he fashioned tools from stone, and made clothing from buckskin. His Toyota Tercel now smelled strongly of dead animal. In short, he’d achieved everything we’d imagined for ourselves back then.
Peter and I flew to Houston in the first days of November. Though it was autumn, the air was heavy and wet, buggy. Profusions of muscular vegetation pushed in. We walked from our rental to the Quinn loft in Montrose, already sweating from the humidity, and from the anxiety of meeting our hero in the flesh. Would we say something stupid? we wondered, and—even more nerve-wracking—would he?
The loft was a cathedral-like space with vaulted ceilings and enormous windows. The shifting light shattered prismatically across the floor. Daniel’s wife, Rennie, is an abstract expressionist, and the high walls were populated with fine, smeary art I’m unqualified to evaluate, and religious iconography, as well as several gorilla studies produced by other obsessed readers. I recalled the anonymous postcards I used to receive, images of gorillas in repose, and a message scrawled in the sender’s left hand: AM TEACHING. love, Ish.
Good to know we’re not the only obsessives, I said, appraising a stone gorilla bust.
The four of us sat in a circle, on plush sofas the color of saffron, and talked for a couple of hours. On the subject of obsession, they told us, Ishmael had broken up marriages and made them. Superfans exhibiting varying levels of derangement had washed up on their doorstep intermittently throughout the years. “And there was this woman who vowed that she was going to commit suicide with a copy of Ishmael on her chest,” Daniel said, thoughtfully. “I didn’t ask her what that meant.”
The book had inspired many people, but its ideas did not easily transfer to other mediums. A truly terrible film was made starring Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. called Instinct (Roger Ebert, a man not normally allergic to sentimentality, described it as “groaning under the weight of heartfelt speeches.”) Pearl Jam wrote an album inspired by the book featuring a track called “Do the Evolution.” The best of these inspired-bys came from a graffiti artist using the handle “Ishmael,” who’d adorned several industrial abandonments in the Carolinas with a series of gorilla-themed murals—but in the end, alas, Daniel Quinn’s dream of a “new tribal renaissance” just didn’t take, and this was profoundly disappointing to him.
There he was, in the flesh, on a saffron couch, just like his author photo: bearded, bald, serious of mien, Dr. Spock-meets-Jean-Luc Picard. It was only when he spoke or moved his body that his decline became evident. According to his surgeon, anyone over 80 was likely to experience cognitive diminishment following general anesthetic. More than a month had passed since the surgery, but he still frequently lost his train of thought and his speech was subtly labored, as if he were working over a hunk of nougat. Peter later described the effect as “sweet, like a geriatric cat.” It’s shameful, I know, what we do to the elderly, our impatience and condescension—not least because their fates are so obviously our futures. Every one of us, fastened to a dying animal.
When I inquired about Daniel’s new project, the book he claimed would be his most important by far, he grew pensive. One of the central ideas in Ishmael, borrowed from Thomas Malthus, is that every increase in food production invariably causes an increase of population. As a solution to this problem, his new book proposed stepping back the global food supply to delimit the human population until there were only one billion people on the planet—or so I gathered from an email.
“It’s funny that you come at this very strange time,” he said, sadly. “24 hours earlier we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Rennie went to one of the desks and retrieved a newspaper clipping. She handed it to me. It announced an Obama-era food security initiative called “Feed the Future.”
“Of course, you realize the sixth extinction is directly caused by the human footprint,” Daniel said. “We are it. We are the cause. And so what they are proposing to do is, in effect, increase that footprint by about 20 percent, hastening the end. And they’re cheering and patting themselves on the back. Do they know what the sixth extinction is? No, no they don’t, they sure don’t . . . ” He shook his head, tearful. “It’s simply a catastrophe. And my book is—was based on this premise . . . people, given the choice, in making it attractive enough, somehow or other, that they would choose for the sake of the tens of thousands of generations to come, to give up their lives. I was willing to undertake that for six billion. For nine billion? No. I couldn’t do it. So this book is actually destroyed.”
That afternoon, Peter and I left the apartment feeling shell-shocked. The whole thing seemed preposterous. I didn’t understand. Someone mailed them a newspaper clipping and now all hope was lost?
“I mean, six billion, nine billion, who cares?” I said. “One thousand people are not going to volunteer to starve to death.”
“I hope he never writes that book,” Peter said, “for his own sake.”
Some naïve flicker of hope we hadn’t known survived our twenties, gasped and snuffed finally out. Of course, we were merely learning what Daniel Quinn himself had learned, so many years before. Pain is the price of individuation. We would become our own teachers.
We left Houston. Three days later Donald Trump was elected President.
At the end of Ishmael, the human has a premonition and returns to the fairgrounds where an elderly carny breaks the bad news: “It was the pneumonia that got him—your friend the ape.”
It’s probably difficult to believe, but I too had a premonition. Walking the dog one morning with my husband I said, “Something is going to happen and I don’t know what.” Later that day, Rennie posted to Facebook that she’d moved Daniel to hospice. Like his avatar, it was the pneumonia that got him. “It’s here, in a large room with a high ceiling and a wall of windows overlooking trees and a lush green courtyard, that Daniel is entering the ‘fire of life,’” she wrote. Hundreds of comments poured in from all over the world, most on the order of “Ishmael profoundly changed my life,” “my life was profoundly changed,” “you have changed the way I see, sir,” and so on.
Something Rennie told us in Houston: she’d always known, even as a young girl, that she would marry an important man.
It is an important man indeed who articulates a difficult problem, a problem that is invisible to most, and in such a way that most can understand it. But it was the very nature of the problem that both made it possible to articulate (namely, homogeneity) and impossible to solve—at least by a single important man. There is no solution to the problems we face, but there are solutions—multifarious, collaborative, egalitarian, localized. For every so-called end of the world, a thousand smaller worlds must be born.
“To each is given its moment in the blaze,” he wrote, “its spark to be surrendered to another when it is sent.” Daniel Quinn died in Houston on February 17 at the age of 82. May the blaze go on.