Daniel Quinn is the author of many works including The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization. His first book, Ishmael, was published in 1992. Since its release as the winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, it has gone on to great success, and been read by millions. It has inspired new ideas in a diverse spectrum of people ranging from doctors and lawyers to musicians and teachers. Ishmael is a book for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the world we live in.
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ONE · TWO · THREE
FOUR · FIVE · SIX
SEVEN · EIGHT · NINE
TEN · ELEVEN · TWELVE
The first time I read the ad, I choked and cursed and spat and threw the paper to the floor. Since even this didn't seem to be quite enough, I snatched it up, marched into the kitchen, and shoved it into the trash. While I was there, I made myself a little breakfast and gave myself some time to cool down. I ate and thought about something else entirely. That's right. Then I dug the paper out of the trash and turned back to the Personals section, just to see if the damn thing was still there and just the way I remembered it. It was.
An earnest desire to save the world! Oh, I liked that. That was rich indeed. An earnest desire to save the world—yes, that was splendid. By noon, two hundred mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, noodleheads, gawkies, and assorted oafs and thickwits would doubtless be lined up at the address given, ready to turn over all their worldlies for the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of some guru pregnant with the news that all will be well if everyone will just turn around and give his neighbor a big hug.
You will wonder: Why is this man so indignant? So bitter? It's a fair question. In fact, it's a question I was asking myself.
The answer goes back to a time, a couple decades ago, when I'd had the silly notion that the thing I most wanted to do in the world was . . . to find a teacher. That's right. I imagined I wanted a teacher—needed a teacher. To show me how one goes about doing something that might be called . . . saving the world.
Stupid, no? Childish. Naive. Simple. Callow. Or just fundamentally dumb. In one so manifestly normal in other respects, it needs explaining.
It came about in this way.
[ffa-ad]During the children's revolt of the sixties and seventies, I was just old enough to understand what these kids had in mind—they meant to turn the world upside down—and just young enough to believe they might actually succeed. It's true. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I expected to see that the new era had begun, that the sky was a brighter blue and the grass a brighter green. I expected to hear laughter in the air and to see people dancing in the streets, and not just kids—everyone! I won't apologize for my naivete; you only have to listen to the songs to know that I wasn't alone.
Then one day when I was in my mid-teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn't been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this? Bewildered by this? It seemed so. Everyone else seemed to be able to pass it off with a cynical grin that said, "Well, what did you really expect? There's never been any more than this and never will be any more than this. Nobody's out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world, that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking. Get a job, make some money, work till you're sixty, then move to Florida and die."
I couldn't shrug it away like this, and in my innocence I thought there had to be someone out there with an unknown wisdom who could dispel my disillusionment and bewilderment: a teacher.
Well, of course there wasn't.
I didn't want a guru or a kung fu master or a spiritual director. I didn't want to become a sorcerer or learn the zen of archery or meditate or align my chakras or uncover past incarnations. Arts and disciplines of that kind are fundamentally selfish; they're all designed to benefit the pupil—not the world. I was after something else entirely, but it wasn't in the Yellow Pages or anywhere else that I could discover.
In Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East, we never find out what Leo's awesome wisdom consists of. This is because Hesse couldn't tell us what he himself didn't know. He was like me—he just yearned for there to be someone in the world like Leo, someone with a secret knowledge and a wisdom beyond his own. In fact, of course, there is no secret knowledge; no one knows anything that can't be found on a shelf in the public library. But I didn't know that then.
So I looked. Silly as it sounds now, I looked. By comparison, going after the Grail would have made more sense. I won't talk about it, it's too embarrassing. I looked until I wised up. I stopped making a fool of myself, but something died inside of me—something that I'd always sort of liked and admired. In its place grew a scar—a tough spot but also a sore spot.
And now, years after I'd given up the search, here was some charlatan advertising in the newspaper for the very same young dreamer that I'd been fifteen years ago.
But this still doesn't explain my outrage, does it?
Try this: You've been in love with someone for a decade—someone who barely knows you're alive. You've done everything, tried everything to make this person see that you're a valuable, estimable person, and that your love is worth something. Then one day you open up the paper and glance at the Personals column, and there you see that your loved one has placed an ad . . . seeking someone worthwhile to love and be loved by.
Oh, I know it's not exactly the same. Why should I have expected this unknown teacher to have contacted me instead of advertising for a pupil? Contrariwise, if this teacher was a charlatan, as I assumed, why would I have wanted him to contact me?
Let it go. I was being irrational. It happens, it's allowed.
I had to go down there, of course—had to satisfy myself that it was just another scam. You understand. Thirty seconds would do it, a single look, ten words out of his mouth. Then I'd know. Then I could go home and forget about it.
When I got there, I was surprised to find it was a very ordinary sort of office building, full of second-rate flacks, lawyers, dentists, travel agents, a chiropractor, and a private investigator or two. I'd expected something a little more atmospheric—a brownstone with paneled walls, high ceilings, and shuttered windows, perhaps. I was looking for Room 105, and I found it in the back, where a window would overlook the alley. The door was uninformative. I pushed it open and stepped into a large, empty room. This uncommon space had been created by knocking down interior partitions, the marks of which could still be seen on the bare hardwood floor.
That was my first impression: emptiness. The second was olfactory; the place reeked of the circus—no, not the circus, the menagerie: unmistakable but not unpleasant. I looked around. The room was not entirely empty. Against the wall at the left stood a small bookcase containing thirty or forty volumes, mainly on history, prehistory, and anthropology. A lone overstuffed chair stood in the middle, facing away, toward the wall at the right, and looking like something the movers had left behind. Doubtless this was reserved for the master; his pupils would kneel or crouch on mats arranged in a semicircle at his knee.
And where were these pupils, who I had predicted would be present by the hundreds? Had they perhaps come and been led away like the children of Hamelin? A film of dust lay undisturbed on the floor to disprove this fancy.
There was something odd about the room, but it took me another look round to figure out what it was. In the wall opposite the door stood two tall casement windows admitting a feeble light from the alley; the wall to the left, common with the office next door, was blank. The wall to the right was pierced by a very large plate-glass window, but this was plainly not a window to the outside world, for it admitted no light at all; it was a window into an adjacent room, even dimmer than the one I occupied. I wondered what object of piety was displayed there, safely beyond the touch of inquisitive hands. Was it some embalmed Yeti or Bigfoot, made of cat fur and papier-mache? Was it the body of a UFOnaut cut down by a National Guardsman before he could deliver his sublime message from the stars ("We are brothers. Be nice.")?
Because it was backed by darkness, the glass in this window was black—opaque, reflective. I made no attempt to see beyond it as I approached; I was the spectacle under observation. On arrival, I continued to gaze into my own eyes for a moment, then rolled the focus forward beyond the glass—and found myself looking into another pair of eyes.
I fell back, startled. Then, recognizing what I'd seen, I fell back again, now a little frightened.
The creature on the other side of the glass was a full-grown gorilla.
Full-grown says nothing, of course. He was terrifyingly enormous, a boulder, a sarsen of Stonehenge. His sheer mass was alarming in itself, even though he wasn't using it in any menacing way. On the contrary, he was half-sitting, half-reclining most placidly, nibbling delicately on a slender branch he carried in his left hand like a wand.
I did not know what to say. You will be able to judge how unnerved I was by this fact: that it seemed to me I should speak—excuse myself, explain my presence, justify my intrusion, beg the creature's pardon. I felt it was an affront to gaze into his eyes, but I was paralyzed, helpless. 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.
There was in fact no obstacle between us. The pane of glass would have parted like a tissue had he touched it. But he seemed to have no idea of touching it. He sat and gazed into my eyes and nibbled the end of his branch and waited. No, he wasn't waiting; he was merely there, had been there before I arrived and would be there when I'd left. I had the feeling I was of no more significance to him than a passing cloud is to a shepherd resting on a hillside.
As my fear began to ebb, consciousness of my situation returned. I said to myself that the teacher was plainly not on hand, that there was nothing to keep me there, that I should go home. But I didn't like to leave with the feeling that I'd accomplished nothing at all. I looked around, thinking I'd leave a note, if I could find something to write on (and with), but there was nothing. Nevertheless, this search, with the thought of written communication in mind, brought to my attention something I'd overlooked in the room that lay beyond the glass; it was a sign or poster hanging on the wall behind the gorilla. It read:
This sign stopped me—or rather, this text stopped me. Words are my profession; I seized these and demanded that they explain themselves, that they cease to be ambiguous. Did they imply that hope for gorillas lay in the extinction of the human race or in its survival? It could be read either way.
It was, of course, a koan—meant to be inexplicable. It disgusted me for that reason, and for another reason: because it appeared that this magnificent creature beyond the glass was being held in captivity for no other reason than to serve as a sort of animate illustration for this koan.
You really ought to do something about this, I told myself angrily. Then I added: It would be best if you sat down and were still.
I listened to the echo of this strange admonishment as if it were a fragment of music I couldn't quite identify. I looked at the chair and wondered: Would it be best to sit down and be still? And if so, why? The answer came readily enough: Because, if you are still, then you will be better able to hear. Yes, I thought, that is undeniably so.
For no conscious reason, I lifted my eyes to those of my beastly companion in the next room. As everyone knows, eyes speak. A pair of strangers can effortlessly reveal their mutual interest and attraction in a single glance. His eyes spoke, and I understood. My legs turned to jelly, and I barely managed to reach the chair without collapsing.
"But how?" I said, not daring to speak the words aloud.
"What does it matter?" he replied as silently. "It's so, and nothing more needs to be said."
"But you—" I sputtered. "You are . . ."
I found that, having come to the word, and with no other word to put in its place, I could not speak it.
After a moment he nodded, as if in acknowledgment of my difficulty. "I am the teacher."
For a time, we gazed into each other's eyes, and my head felt as empty as a derelict barn.
Then he said: "Do you need time to collect yourself?"
"Yes!" I cried, speaking aloud for the first time.
He turned his massive head to one side to peer at me curiously. "Will it help you to listen to my story?"
"Indeed it will," I said. "But first—if you will—please tell me your name."
He stared at me for a while without replying and (as far as I could tell at that time) without expression. Then he proceeded as if I hadn't spoken at all.
"I was born somewhere in the forests of equatorial West Africa," he said. "I've never made any effort to find out exactly where, and see no reason to do so now. Do you happen to know anything about animal collecting for zoos and circuses?"
I looked up, startled. "I know nothing at all about animal collecting."
"At one time, or at least during the thirties, the method commonly used with gorillas was this: On finding a band, collectors would shoot the females and pick up all the infants in sight."
"How terrible," I said, without thinking.
The creature replied with a shrug. "I have no actual memory of the event—though I have memories of still earlier times. In any case, the Johnsons sold me to a zoo in some small northeastern city—I can't say which, for I had no awareness of such things as yet. There I lived and grew for several years."
He paused and nibbled absentmindedly on his branch for a while, as if gathering his thoughts.
In such places (he went on at last), where animals are simply penned up, they are almost always more thoughtful than their cousins in the wild. This is because even the dimmest of them cannot help but sense that something is very wrong with this style of living. When I say that they are more thoughtful, I don't mean to imply that they acquire powers of ratiocination. But the tiger you see madly pacing its cage is nevertheless preoccupied with something that a human would certainly recognize as a thought. And this thought is a question: Why? "Why, why, why, why, why, why?" the tiger asks itself hour after hour, day after day, year after year, as it treads its endless path behind the bars of its cage. It cannot analyze the question or elaborate on it. If you were somehow able to ask the creature, "Why what?" it would be unable to answer you. Nevertheless this question burns like an unquenchable flame in its mind, inflicting a searing pain that does not diminish until the creature lapses into a final lethargy that zookeepers recognize as an irreversible rejection of life. And of course this questioning is something that no tiger does in its normal habitat.
Before long I too began to ask myself why. Being neurologically far in advance of the tiger, I was able to examine what I meant by the question, at least in a rudimentary way. I remembered a different sort of life, which was, for those who lived it, interesting and pleasant. By contrast, this life was agonizingly boring and never pleasant. Thus, in asking why, I was trying to puzzle out why life should be divided in this way, half of it interesting and pleasant and half of it boring and unpleasant. I had no concept of myself as a captive; it didn't occur to me that anyone was preventing me from having an interesting and pleasant life. When no answer to my question was forthcoming, I began to consider the differences between the two life-styles. The most fundamental difference was that in Africa I was a member of a family—of a sort of family that the people of your culture haven't known for thousands of years. If gorillas were capable of such an expression, they would tell you that their family is like a hand, of which they are the fingers. They are fully aware of being a family but are very little aware of being individuals. Here in the zoo there were other gorillas—but there was no family. Five severed fingers do not make a hand.
I considered the matter of our feeding. Human children dream of a land where the mountains are ice cream and the trees are gingerbread and the stones are bonbons. For a gorilla, Africa is just such a land. Wherever one turns, there is something wonderful to eat. One never thinks, "Oh, I'd better look for some food." Food is everywhere, and one picks it up almost absentmindedly, as one takes a breath of air. In fact, one does not think of feeding as a distinct activity at all. Rather, it's like a delicious music that plays in the background of all activities throughout the day. In fact, feeding became feeding for me only at the zoo, where twice daily great masses of tasteless fodder were pitched into our cages.
It was in puzzling out such small matters as these that my interior life began—quite unnoticed.
Although naturally I knew nothing of it, the Great Depression was taking its toll on all aspects of American life. Zoos everywhere were being forced to economize, reducing the number of animals to be maintained and thereby reducing expenses of all kinds. A great many animals were simply put down, I believe, for there was no market in the private sector for animals that were neither easy to keep nor very colorful or dramatic. The exceptions were, of course, the big cats and the primates.
To make a long story short, I was sold to the owner of a traveling menagerie with an empty wagon to fill. I was a large and impressive adolescent and doubtless represented a sensible long-term investment.
You might imagine that life in one cage is like life in any other cage, but this is not at all the case. Take the matter of human contact, for example. At the zoo, all the gorillas were aware of our human visitors. They were a curiosity for us, worth watching, in the way that birds or squirrels around a house might seem worth watching to a human family. It was clear that these strange creatures were there looking at us, but it never crossed our minds that they had come for that express purpose. At the menagerie, however, I quickly came to a true understanding of this phenomenon.
Indeed, my education in this regard began from the moment I was first put on display. A small group of visitors approached my wagon and after a moment began speaking to me. I was astounded. At the zoo, visitors had talked to one another —never to us. "Perhaps these people are confused," I said to myself. "Perhaps they've mistaken me for one of themselves." My wonderment and perplexity grew as, one after another, every group that visited my wagon behaved in the same way. I simply didn't know what to make of it.
That night, without thinking of it as such, I made my first real attempt to marshal my thoughts to solve a problem. Was it possible, I wondered, that changing my location had somehow changed me? I didn't feel in the least changed, and certainly nothing in my appearance seemed to have changed. Perhaps, I thought, the people who visited me that day belonged to a different species from those who had come to the zoo. This reasoning did not impress me; the two groups were identical in every way but this: that one group talked among themselves and the other talked to me. Even the sound of the talking was the same. It had to be something else.
The following night I attacked the problem again, reasoning in this way: If nothing has changed in me and nothing has changed in them, then something else must have changed. I am the same and they are the same, therefore something else is not the same. Looking at the matter this way, I could see only one answer: At the zoo there were many gorillas; here there was only one. I felt the force of this but could not imagine why visitors would behave one way in the presence of many gorillas and a different way in the presence of one gorilla.
The next day I tried to pay more attention to what my visitors were saying. I soon noticed that, although every speech was different, there was one sound that occurred over and over, and it seemed to be intended to attract my attention. Of course I was unable to hazard a guess as to its meaning; I possessed nothing that would serve as a Rosetta Stone.
The wagon to the right of mine was occupied by a female chimpanzee with an infant, and I had already observed that visitors spoke to her in the same way they spoke to me. Now I noticed that visitors employed a different recurrent sound to attract her attention. At her wagon, visitors called out, "Zsa-Zsa! Zsa-Zsa! Zsa-Zsa!" At my wagon, they called out, "Goliath! Goliath! Goliath!"
By small steps such as these, I soon understood that these sounds in some mysterious way attached directly to the two of us as individuals. You, who have had a name from birth and who probably think that even a pet dog is aware of having a name (which is untrue), cannot imagine what a revolution in perception the acquisition of a name produced in me. It would be no exaggeration to say that I was truly born in that moment—born as a person.
From the realization that I had a name to the realization that everything has a name was not a great leap. You might think a caged animal would have little opportunity to learn the language of its visitors, but this is not so. Menageries attract families, and I soon discovered that parents are incessantly schooling their children in the arts of language: "Look, Johnny, there's a duck! Can you say duck? D-u-u-c-k.! Do you know what a duck says? A duck says quack quack!"
Within a couple of years I was able to follow most conversations within earshot, but I found that puzzlement kept pace with comprehension. I knew by now that I was a gorilla and that Zsa-Zsa was a chimpanzee. I also knew that all the inhabitants of the wagons were animals. But I could not quite make out the constitution of an animal; our human visitors clearly distinguished between themselves and animals, but I was unable to figure out why. If I understood what made us animals (and I thought I did), I couldn't understand what made them not animals.
The nature of our captivity was no longer a mystery, for I had heard it explained to hundreds of children. All the animals of the menagerie had originally lived in something called The Wild, which extended all over the world (whatever a "world" might be). We had been taken from The Wild and brought together in one place, because, for some strange reason, people found us interesting. We were kept in cages because we were "wild" and "dangerous"—terms that baffled me, because they evidently referred to qualities I epitomized in myself. I mean that when parents wanted to show their children a particularly wild and dangerous creature, they would point at me. It's true that they would also point at the big cats, but since I'd never seen a big cat outside a cage, this was not enlightening.
On the whole, life at the menagerie was an improvement over life at the zoo, because it was not so oppressively boring. It didn't occur to me to be resentful of my keepers. Although they had a greater range of movement, they seemed as much bound to the menagerie as the rest of us, and I had no inkling that they lived an entirely different sort of life on the outside. It would have been as plausible for Boyle's law to have popped into my head as the notion that I had been unjustly deprived of some inborn right, such as the right to live as I pleased.
Perhaps three or four years passed. Then one rainy day, when the lot was deserted, I received a peculiar visitor: a lone man, who looked to be ancient and shriveled to me, but who I later learned was only in his early forties. Even his approach was distinctive. He stood at the entrance to the menagerie, glanced methodically at each wagon in turn, and then headed straight for mine. He paused at the rope slung some five feet away, planted the tip of his walking stick in the mud just ahead of his shoes, and peered intently into my eyes. I have never been disconcerted by a human gaze, so I placidly returned his stare. I sat and he stood for several minutes without moving. I remember feeling an unusual admiration for this man, so stoically enduring the drizzle that was streaming down his face and soaking his clothes.
At last he straightened up and gave me a nod, as if he'd come to some carefully considered conclusion.
"You are not Goliath," he said.
At that, he turned and marched back the way he'd come, without a look to right or left.
I was thunderstruck, as you may well imagine. Not Goliath? What could it possibly mean to be not Goliath?
It didn't occur to me to say, "Well, if I'm not Goliath, then who am I?" A human would ask this question, because he would know that, whatever his name, he is assuredly someone. I did not. On the contrary, it seemed to me that if I was not Goliath, then I must be no one at all.
Though this stranger had never laid eyes on me before that day, I didn't doubt for a moment that he spoke with an unquestionable authority. A thousand others had called me by the name of Goliath—even those who, like the workers at the menagerie, knew me well—but that was clearly not the point, counted for nothing. The stranger hadn't said, "Your name is not Goliath." He had said, "You are not Goliath." There was a world of difference. As I felt it (though I could not have expressed it this way at the time), my awareness of selfhood had been pronounced a delusion.
I drifted into a sort of fugue state, neither aware nor unconscious. An attendant came round with food, but I ignored him. Night fell, but I didn't sleep. The rain stopped and the sun rose without my noticing. Soon there were the usual crowds of visitors calling out, "Goliath! Goliath! Goliath!" but I paid no attention.
Several days passed in this way. Then one evening after the menagerie had closed for the day, I took a long drink from my bowl and soon fell asleep—a powerful sedative had been added to my water. At dawn I awoke in an unfamiliar cage. At first, because it was so large and so strangely shaped, I didn't even recognize it as a cage. In fact, it was circular, and open to the air on all sides; as I later understood, a gazebo had been modified to serve the purpose. Except for a large white house nearby, it stood alone in the midst of an attractive park that I imagined must extend to the ends of the earth.
It was not long before I'd conceived an explanation for this strange translocation: The people who visited the menagerie came, at least in part, with the expectation of seeing a gorilla named Goliath; how they came to have this expectation I could not guess, but they certainly seemed to have it; and when the owner of the menagerie learned that I was in fact not Goliath, he could scarcely go on exhibiting me as such, and so had no real choice but to send me away. I didn't know whether to be sorry about this or not; my new home was far more pleasant than anything I'd seen since leaving Africa, but without the daily stimulation of the crowds, it would soon become even more excruciatingly boring than the zoo, where at least I'd had the company of other gorillas. I was still pondering these matters when, around midmorning, I looked up and saw that I was not alone. A man was standing just beyond the bars, blackly silhouetted against the sunlit house in the distance. I approached cautiously and was astonished to recognize him.
As if reenacting our former encounter, we gazed into each other's eyes for several minutes, I sitting on the floor of my cage, he leaning on his walking stick. I saw that, dry and freshly dressed, he was not the elderly person I'd first taken him for. His face was long and dark and bony, his eyes burned with a strange intensity, and his mouth seemed set in an expression of bitter mirth. At last he nodded, exactly as before, and said:
"Yes, I was right. You are not Goliath. You are Ishmael."
Once again, as if everything that mattered was now finally settled, he turned and walked away.
And once again I was thunderstruck—but this time by a feeling of profound relief, for I had been redeemed from oblivion. More, the error that caused me to live as an unwitting impostor for so many years had been corrected at last. I had been made whole as a person—not again but for the very first time.
I was consumed with curiosity about my savior. I didn't think to associate him with my removal from the menagerie to this charming belvedere, for I was as yet incapable of even that most primitive of fallacies: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. He was to me a supernal being. To a mind ready for mythology, he was the beginning of what is meant by godlike. He had twice made a brief appearance in my life—and twice, with a single utterance, had transformed me. I tried to search for the underlying meaning of these appearances, but found only questions. Had this man come to the menagerie in search of Goliath or in search of me? Had he come because he hoped I was Goliath or because he suspected I was not Goliath? How had he so promptly found me in my new location? I had no measure of the extent of human information; if it was common knowledge that I could be found at the menagerie (as it had seemed to be), was it also common knowledge that I could now be found here? Despite all these unanswerable questions, the overwhelming fact remained that this uncanny creature had twice sought me out in order to address me in an unprecedented way—as a person. I was certain that, having finally settled the matter of my identity, he would vanish from my life forever; what more was there for him to do?
Doubtless you will have surmised that all these breathless apperceptions were just so much moonshine. Nonetheless the truth (as I later learned it) was not much less fantastic.
My benefactor was a wealthy Jewish merchant of this city, a man by the name of Walter Sokolow. On the day he discovered me at the menagerie, he'd been out walking in the rain, in a kind of suicidal gloom that had descended on him a few months before, when he learned beyond any doubt that his entire family had been swallowed up in the Nazi holocaust. His wanderings led him to a carnival set up at the edge of town, and he went in with nothing in particular on his mind. Because of the rain, most of the booths and rides were shut down, giving the place an air of abandonment that accorded well with his melancholy. At last he came to the menagerie, whose chief attractions were advertised in a series of lurid paintings. One of these, more lurid than the rest, depicted the gorilla Goliath brandishing the broken body of an African native as if it were a weapon. Walter Sokolow, perhaps thinking that a gorilla named Goliath was an apt symbol for the Nazi giant that was then engaged in crushing the race of David, decided it would be satisfying to behold such a monster behind bars.
He went in, approached my wagon, and by gazing into my eyes, soon realized that I was no relation to the bloodthirsty monster in the painting—and indeed no relation to the Philistine tormentor of his race. He found it gave him no satisfaction whatever to see me behind bars. On the contrary, in a quixotic gesture of guilt and defiance, he decided to rescue me from my cage and fashion me into a dreadful substitute for the family he had failed to rescue from the cage of Europe. The owner of the menagerie was agreeable to a sale; he was even glad to let Mr. Sokolow hire away a handler who had looked after me since my arrival. The owner was a realist; with America's inevitable entrance into the war, traveling shows like his were either going to spend the duration in winter quarters or simply become extinct.
After letting me settle in for a day in my new surroundings, Mr. Sokolow returned to begin to make my acquaintance. He wanted the handler to show him how everything was done, from mixing my feed to cleaning my cage. He asked him if he thought I was dangerous. The handler said I was like a piece of heavy machinery—dangerous not by disposition but by dint of sheer size and power.
After an hour or so, Mr. Sokolow sent him away, and we gazed at each other in a long silence as we had already done twice before. Finally—reluctantly, as if surmounting some daunting interior barrier—he began to speak to me, not in the jocular way of visitors to the menagerie but rather as one speaks to the wind or to the waves crashing on a beach, uttering that which must be said but which must not be heard by anyone. As he poured out his sorrows and self-recriminations, he gradually forgot the need for caution. By the time an hour had passed, he was propped up against my cage with a hand wrapped around a bar. He was looking at the ground, lost in thought, and I used this opportunity to express my sympathy, reaching out and gently stroking the knuckles of his hand. He leaped back, startled and horrified, but a search of my eyes reassured him that my gesture was as innocent of menace as it seemed.
Alerted by this experience, he began to suspect that I possessed real intelligence, and a few simple tests were enough to convince him of this. Having proved that I understood his words, he leaped to the conclusion (as others were later to do in working with other primates) that I should be able to produce some of my own. In short, he decided to teach me to talk. I will pass over the painful and humiliating months that followed. Neither one of us understood that the difficulty was unsurmountable, owing to a lack of basic phonic equipment on my part. In the absence of that understanding, we both labored on under the impression that the knack would someday magically manifest itself in me if we persevered. But at last there came a day when I couldn't go on, and in my anguish at not being able to tell him this, I thought him this, with all the mental power I possessed. He was stunned—as was I when I saw that he'd heard my mental cry.
I won't burden you with all the steps of our progress once full communication was established between us, since they are easily imagined, I believe. Over the next decade, he taught me all he knew of the world and the universe and human history, and when my questions went beyond his knowledge, we studied side by side. And when my studies carried me beyond his own interests at last, he cheerfully became my research assistant, tracking down books and information in places that were of course beyond my reach.
With the new interest of my education to absorb his attention, my benefactor soon forgot to torment himself with remorse and so gradually recovered from his gloom. By the early sixties I was like a houseguest who needed very little attention from his host, so Mr. Sokolow began to allow himself to be rediscovered in social circles, with the not-unpredictable result that he soon found himself in the hands of a young woman of forty who saw no reason why he could not be made into a satisfactory sort of husband. In fact, he was not at all averse to marriage, but he made a terrible mistake in anticipation of it: He decided that our special relationship should be kept a secret from his wife. It was not an extraordinary decision for those times, and I was not sufficiently experienced in such matters to recognize it for the error it was.
I moved back into the gazebo as soon as it had been renovated to accommodate the civilized habits I'd acquired. From the first, however, Mrs. Sokolow viewed me as a peculiar and alarming pet and began agitating for my speedy removal or disposal. Luckily, my benefactor was used to having his own way and made it clear that no amount of pleading or coercion would change the situation he'd created for me.
A few months after the wedding, he dropped in to tell me that his wife, like Abraham's Sarah, was soon going to present him with a child of his old age.
"I anticipated nothing like this when I named you Ishmael," he told me. "But rest assured that I won't let her cast you out of my house the way Sarah cast your namesake out of Abraham's house." Nevertheless, it amused him to say that, if it was a boy, he would name him Isaac. As matters turned out, however, it was a girl, and they named her Rachel.
At that, Ishmael paused for so long, with his eyes closed, that I began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep. But at last he went on.
"Wisely or foolishly, my benefactor decided that I would be the girl's mentor, and (wisely or foolishly) I was delighted to have a chance to please him in this way. In her father's arms, Rachel spent nearly as much time with me as with her mother—which of course did nothing to improve my standing with that person. Because I was able to speak to her in a language more direct than speech, I could soothe and amuse her when others failed, and a bond gradually developed between us that might be likened to the one that exists between identical twins—except that I was brother, pet, tutor, and nurse all rolled into one.
"Mrs. Sokolow looked forward to the day when Rachel would begin school, for then new interests would make her a stranger to me. When this result didn't occur, she renewed her campaign to have me sent away, predicting that my presence would stunt the child's social growth. Her social growth remained unstunted, however, even though she skipped no fewer than three grades in elementary school and one grade in high school; she had a master's degree in biology before her twentieth birthday. Nonetheless, after so many years of being thwarted in a matter that pertained to the management of her own home, Mrs. Sokolow no longer needed any particular reason to wish me gone.
"On the death of my benefactor in 1985, Rachel herself became my protector. There was no question of my remaining in the gazebo. Using funds provided for this purpose in her father's will, Rachel moved me to a retreat that had been prepared in advance."
Once again Ishmael fell silent for several minutes. Then he went on: "In the years that followed, nothing worked out as it had been planned or hoped for. I found I was not content to `retreat'; having spent a lifetime in retreat, I now wanted somehow to advance into the very center of your culture, and I proceeded to exhaust my new protector's patience by trying one bothersome arrangement after another to achieve this end. At the same time, Mrs. Sokolow was not content to leave things as they were and persuaded a court to cut in half the funds that had been allocated to my support for life.
"It was not until 1989 that things came clear at last. In that year I finally comprehended that my unfulfilled vocation was to teach—and finally devised a system that would enable me to exist in tolerable circumstances in this city."
He nodded to let me know this was the end of his story—or was as much of it as he meant to tell.
There are times when having too much to say can be as dumbfounding as having too little. I could think of no way to respond adequately or gracefully to such a tale. Finally I asked a question that seemed no more or less inane than the dozens of others that occurred to me.
"And have you had many pupils?"
"I've had four, and failed with all four."
"Oh. Why did you fail?"
He closed his eyes to think for a moment. "I failed because I underestimated the difficulty of what I was trying to teach—and because I didn't understand the minds of my pupils well enough."
"I see," I said. "And what do you teach?"
Ishmael selected a fresh branch from a pile at his right, examined it briefly, then began to nibble at it, gazing languidly into my eyes. At last he said, "On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?"
I blinked and told him I didn't know.
"Of course you do. My subject is: captivity."
I sat there for a minute, then I said, "I'm trying to figure out what this has to do with saving the world."
Ishmael thought for a moment. "Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?"
"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."
"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."
"Yes, that's so."
"Why don't you stop?"
I shrugged. "Frankly, we don't know how."
"You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."
"Yes, that's the way it seems."
"So. You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world."
"Yes, that's so. I've just never thought of it that way."
"And you yourself are a captive in a personal way, are you not?"
Ishmael smiled, revealing a great mass of ivory-colored teeth. I hadn't known he could, until then.
I said: "I have an impression of being a captive, but I can't explain why I have this impression."
"A few years ago—you must have been a child at the time, so you may not remember it—many young people of this country had the same impression. They made an ingenuous and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage. If you can't discover what's keeping you in, the will to get out soon becomes confused and ineffectual."
"Yes, that's the sense I have of it."
"But again, how does this relate to saving the world?"
"The world is not going to survive for very much longer as humanity's captive. Does that need explication?"
"No. At least not to me."
"I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity."
"What prevents them from doing this?"
"I don't know."
"This is what prevents them: They're unable to find the bars of the cage."
"Yes," I said. "I see." Then: "What do we do next?"
Ishmael smiled again. "Since I have told you a story that explains how I come to be here, perhaps you will do the same."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, perhaps you will tell me a story that explains how you come to be here."
"Ah," I said. "Give me a moment."
"You may have any number of moments," he replied gravely.
"Once when I was in college," I told him at last, "I wrote a paper for a philosophy class. I don't remember exactly what the assignment was—something to do with epistemology. Here's what I said in the paper, roughly: Guess what? The Nazis didn't lose the war after all. They won it and flourished. They took over the world and wiped out every last Jew, every last Gypsy, black, East Indian, and American Indian. Then, when they were finished with that, they wiped out the Russians and the Poles and the Bohemians and the Moravians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians and the Croatians—all the Slavs. Then they started in on the Polynesians and the Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese—all the peoples of Asia. This took a long, long time, but when it was all over, everyone in the world was one hundred percent Aryan, and they were all very, very happy.
"Naturally the textbooks used in the schools no longer mentioned any race but the Aryan or any language but German or any religion but Hitlerism or any political system but National Socialism. There would have been no point. After a few generations of that, no one could have put anything different into the textbooks even if they'd wanted to, because they didn't know anything different.
"But one day two young students were conversing at the University of New Heidelberg in Tokyo. Both were handsome in the usual Aryan way, but one of them looked vaguely worried and unhappy. That was Kurt. His friend said, `What's wrong, Kurt? Why are you always moping around like this?' Kurt said, `I'll tell you, Hans. There is something that's troubling me—and troubling me deeply.' His friend asked what it was. `It's this,' Kurt said. `I can't shake the crazy feeling that there is some small thing that we're being lied to about.'
"And that's how the paper ended."
Ishmael nodded thoughtfully. "And what did your teacher think of that?"
"He wanted to know if I had the same crazy feeling as Kurt. When I said I did, he wanted to know what I thought we were being lied to about. I said, `How could I know? I'm no better off than Kurt.' Of course, he didn't think I was being serious. He assumed it was just an exercise in epistemology."
"And do you still wonder if you've been lied to?"
"Yes, but not as desperately as I did then."
"Not as desperately? Why is that?"
"Because I've found out that, as a practical matter, it doesn't make any difference. Whether we're being lied to or not, we still have to get up and go to work and pay the bills and all the rest."
"Unless, of course, you all began to suspect you were being lied to—and all found out what the lie was."
"If you alone found out what the lie was, then you're probably right—it would make no great difference. But if you all found out what the lie was, it might conceivably make a very great difference indeed."
"Then that is what we must hope for."
I started to ask him what he meant by that, but he held up a leathery black hand and told me: "Tomorrow."
That evening I went for a walk. To walk for the sake of walking is something I seldom do. Inside my apartment I'd felt inexplicably anxious. I needed to talk to someone, to be reassured. Or perhaps I needed to confess my sin: I was once again having impure thoughts about saving the world. Or it was neither of these—I was afraid I was dreaming. Indeed, considering the events of the day, it was likely that I was dreaming. I sometimes fly in my dreams, and each time I say to myself, "At last—it's happening in reality and not in a dream!"
[ffa-ad-bottom]In any case, I needed to talk to someone, and I was alone. This is my habitual condition, by choice—or so I tell myself. Mere acquaintanceship leaves me unsatisfied, and few people are willing to accept the burdens and risks of friendship as I conceive of it.
People say that I'm sour and misanthropic, and I tell them they're probably right. Argument of any sort, on any subject, has always seemed like a waste of time to me.
The next morning I woke and thought: "Even so, it could be a dream. One can sleep in a dream, even have dreams in a dream." As I went through the motions of making breakfast, eating, and washing up, my heart was pounding furiously. It seemed to be saying, "How can you pretend not to be terrified?"
The time passed. I drove downtown. The building was still there. The office at the end of the hall on the ground floor was still there and still unlocked.
When I opened the door, Ishmael's huge, meaty aroma came down on me like a thunderclap. On wobbly legs, I walked to the chair and sat down.
Ishmael studied me gravely through the dark glass, as if wondering if I was strong enough to be taxed with serious conversation. When he made up his mind, he began without preamble of any kind, and I came to know that this was his usual style.
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