DANIEL QUINN, TEACHER, AUTHOR OF ISHMAEL, DIES AT 82
Vine Deloria wrote, “When ecologists find a predictable life-span of a generation separating us from total extinction, it would seem that we have a duty to search for another interpretation of mankind’s life story.”
Daniel Quinn responded:
“What a curious thing to say.
Because we’re on the verge of extinction, we should look for another interpretation of mankind’s life story?
What difference does a story make?
It makes a difference. Because the story we have, we are enacting.
We are making it come true.
And in making it come true, we are pushing ourselves toward extinction.” (Daniel Quinn, The Book of the Damned)
What difference does a story make? In Daniel Quinn’s books, he examined the fundamental narratives of our culture – pessimistic stories about humanity being naturally destructive, damned and doomed from the start. He took what I had been taught about “human nature” and exposed it as mythology. He also warned that these myths were self-fulfilling prophecies – when we think of humanity as “fallen” or “cursed” it can give us permission to live in destructive ways. But Quinn’s writings were not hopeless. Rather, he encouraged his readers to re-examine the story our culture is telling and enacting, and consider a more positive and sustainable story we could be living in.
After several attempts to write a book in which he explained his thesis, Quinn discovered that he could teach more effectively in a style he likened to midwifery: guiding the reader through a series of questions to find these answers from inside. Thus he developed the character of Ishmael, a gorilla who could observe human cultures from an outsider’s perspective, and teach in dialogues with an average man and an average girl. Ishmael was not warm and cuddly, but possessed a super-human patience for human beings (even someone incredibly dense, like the student in the first book). The book, Ishmael, won Quinn the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, sold millions of copies, and was eventually joined by a companion book called My Ishmael.
Later, Quinn removed the middle-gorilla and articulated his thesis more directly in The Story of B, Beyond Civilization, and The Invisibility of Success (an excellent collection of lectures that distill his core teachings). His writings were a mixture of debate, parables and sermons. He also branched out into a graphic novel The Man Who Grew Young (illustrated by Tim Eldred) and a childrens’ book, Work, Work, Work which my kids have really enjoyed. Far from being a “one hit wonder,” he really hit his stride in books after Ishmael, articulating his vision with more clarity and detail (and without the sometimes cumbersome device of the student-teacher dialogue). And his cultural observations from twenty years ago have only grown more true and urgent with the passage of time.
Yesterday I was working on an introduction to a book I’m writing, inspired by Quinn’s teachings, and I was looking for the right words to express the life-changing effect his writings have had on my way of perceiving the world, my way of hearing and telling stories. It’s difficult to articulate – anyone who’s read his books will understand how hard it is to say something that sounds more intelligent than “Ishmael changed my life.” Anyway, as I struggled for the words it occurred to me that maybe I was supposed to be writing about him in the past tense. So I looked him up on Wikipedia and saw the new date added in parenthesis after his name: Daniel Quinn (October 11, 1935 – February 17, 2018). I was surprised not to have heard of it from any of the news sources I read, or from friends or family. While our front pages are cluttered by new American embarrassments, one of the most important thinkers of our time has quietly died.
Daniel Quinn lives on in the people whose lives he touched through his writings, even if most of us can’t come up with anything better to say than “Ishmael changed my life.” He encouraged us to take that outsider perspective and re-consider our foundational cultural mythologies. By re-examining our past, he encouraged us to re-envision the future, and to use our human creativity and ingenuity (and an earnest desire to save the world) to change the story we’re telling and living.
In honor of this man and the immeasurable impact he’s had on my life and thought, I am going to do something I never do: shamelessly advertise. In a recent email, Daniel Quinn told me he was having trouble interesting a publisher in his latest book, because “90% of the millions who have read Ishmael have never opened another book I’ve written.” If you have read Ishmael and remember it as a life-changing experience, look for one of his other books (and buy it – the proceeds will benefit his family and also let publishers know there is still interest in his work). I personally recommend The Invisibility of Success and The Story of B. In this last couple years, our culture’s story and the way we live it is only becoming more hectic, desperate and terrifying. Daniel Quinn’s books can still help us to understand this story, and give us ideas about how to change it.
What difference does a story make? It can make all the difference in the world.
LINKS (To some of Quinn’s books, Website, and Obituary)
The Invisibility of Success at Amazon
The Story of B at Amazon
Obituary from Houston Chronicle