I read a book called ISHMAEL.

Funny coincidences are always happening in my life. Well, if you believe in coincidences anyhow.

I keep finding that just as I read something, or see a certain movie, or come across some ‘new’ idea, the relevance of them all seem to overlap… emphasizing different ideas and experiences that I hadn’t thought of and I keep saying things like: “Man, I can’t believe I just read a book about that!”

Take for instance the following:
I read Animals in Translation followed by A Man Without A Country then Never Let Me Go  over to Ishmael and finally The Road. None of these books were particularly new and the reasons I read them varied from my book group, to where they sat in the pile on my shelf, to helping a student with a school project, to a request from an old friend.

Now here is the coincidence, or whatever my favorite existential detectives might call it:

These books are dealing with the same thing. Seriously. It is all about consciousness.

Among other things, Animals is an examination of how the animal brain perceives things differently than the human brain and the consequences of overlooking this difference. Now, I realize that may seem like a simple, even obvious, concept but it bears repeating because there are somethings animals will NEVER do that we do. Some people might call this the evolution of higher species, but I am not talking about using a fork or snagging a free ride with my opposable thumb. I am talking about destroying your own habitat, killing your own kind arbitrarily, exhausting your food sources, unlimited consumption of non-essential goods.

This was thought provoking and sad and embarrassing as a member of a rather obtuse enlightened species.

Without A Country went in a seemingly totally different direction. But maybe not. Vonnegut suggests that the way we are using our brains is causing our world and our society to end. He suggested that the most enlightened brains are useless if and when they neglect those basic, primal behaviors: observation, conservation, imagination, consideration, consternation.

The future is here, we are it… we cannot look away from the reality we have made, to do so would relegate our intelligence below that of the ‘simplest’ creatures on Earth; they all face the consequences of their actions, why not us? Really it seems we are using our opposable thumbs mostly to poke out our eyeballs, or our neighbors eyeballs.

Let Me Go suggested a future based on the scientific, and ultimately self-serving, world of today. We are SO clever! We can never die! We can have it all, all, ALL! Just think of the possibilities, breeding clones to perpetuate the growth (not to be confused with evolution) of our species.

This future has a grim surreal texture to it that is worse than the apocalyptic visions produced in other genres because it is so eerily similar to our reality – it is just a slight shift. It make you really consider the question: What’s the point? Or more specifically, what is the point of MY existence? And to ask that question suggests that somehow our human lives are that much more deserving of a point than any other species (now) and even members of our own (eventually).

Are they?


Then came Ishmael. With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man? Ishmael suggests that all of the ideas touched on in the aforementioned books are not only astute, but relevant. Man is different than other species, but does this mean more important? And what about those ‘uncivilized’types that lived so long before us homo sapiens sapiens newbies? Are we better? Do we have more of a point behind our existence? Do we know better? Can we save not only our species, but our habitat? Ishmael said that we have put ourselves in a self-imposed and self-maintained prison of consumption and myopia. And that our beliefs are keeping us from evolving and improving, in fact we may be only mutating, but certainly with the patterns of biological extinction, things are not looking good for man.

With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?

Ishmael does not blast humanity for existing, but for ignoring the laws that govern all known life on Earth. The idea is not that man must go to save the planet, but that the loss of any species is bad, and human’s have the potential to make this catastrophic for all species. And for what? For more stuff? More food? Ishmael correctly asserts that when there were 5.5 billion people on the planet we were producing food for 6 billion and people were still starving. This led to a population of 6 billion and food production for 7 billion and still, the starvation persisted and even grew.

The student I am working with on this book and related concepts went on a student exchange to Lijiang where she worked with the local people in the fields and hung out with kids at an orphanage in the village. She said she didn’t mind the work, but that it was weird because she kept feeling like, “What’s the point of all this? I am just going to have to do more of the same tomorrow…” And this is a really good question – she did not mean it in a negative or critical way, just what was the point of doing work just so you could do more. We are trained to do work for the express purpose of not doing work (which I guess is the point?) but leads to devastating accumulation and degradation of species. [I think.] Is our point accumulation? That seems so sad.

And then came The Road. Now, we have done it. The world is over as we know it. survival has reverted to the most basic premise. Searching for food, avoiding predators, making do. With nothing. Cannibalism is one of the only sure means of food. Hunted and consumed by your own. So, here seems a good place to ask: What is the point of my existence? The characters in the road carry on, perhaps they even persevere. Why? My guess is that we are carriers of that most basic animal brain and we do not go quietly into the goodnight. Even when we have forever darkened our world.

Do we believe that we deserve this tortuous existence? This certain impending doom? Have we done something worthy of punishment? I am not sure about that, but I do know that as I read about life on the Road I kept asking the characters… “what’s the point?? why do you keep on????”

I have not answered these questions at all. I don’t know if we keep on because of our intrinsic optimism, or if it is pessimism, or just that we cannot think of anything better to do. 

If we think the idea that we are not all that much more significant, in terms of geological time and planetary existence, than any of the 2,400 species that disappear everyday simply encourages irresponsibility because there is no point we might be on to something – there is only a reason to care if we can guarantee tomorrow. We can only guarantee tomorrow if we accept that we part of the fabric, not the wearer of its products. It is a very chicken or egg argument.

If the course we are on leads us to anything remotely close to either one of the futures suggested by McCormack or Ishiguro I am not sure how you adjust your mindset to get up everyday and survive. At that juncture you are freed from the responsibility and necessity of having a point. So. You. Just. Are. Conscious.

Maybe consciousness IS the point.


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Books, Perception, The Future. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to I read a book called ISHMAEL.

  1. mochafueled says:

    Amanda ~ it seams like you are really looking for an answer to why are we here on this planet…

    A couple of years ago I came to the “whats the point of it all” in my life. I decided serving others and my own faith in God was what made me feel good about life and going on. So at 38, I sold or gave away everything I had, home, car, tv, cloths and left the US. All I know I am poorer in wealth but happier in spirit now (most days)and trying to make a little difference in my corner of the world.

    Anyway I just started reading your blog so wont share any deeper thoughts.

  2. Winguistic Vandal says:

    “Consciousness” …

    “Better am I”, “Equal am I”, “Worse am I” … oops, too many mind 😀 … “Mana” (conceit, pride, ego-individuation), the seventh consciousness according to the yogacara school, or “Representation Only”.

    “Tommorrow” …

    To most people, tommorrow is more a reason for personal/national-strategical “accumulation” than public/global “conservation”. The thought of Tommorrow reminds people of their health insurance, retirement fund, cost of their children’s education; it alerts the nations of their strategic plans for developing their economical power, political clout, and military leadership in the global stage.

    The chinese proverb goes: “Learning is like rowing a boat upstream, either you paddle hard to move forward or you get flushed away” (「學如逆水行舟,不進則退」). That applies now in our world not only to learning but also to living – in this sense, a race of dominance, survival, staying afloat. But, Socrates suggest, “the hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live, which is better God only knows”. The industrious attitude is of course “never say die”. Yet, Lao Tze says, “The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike.” (「水善萬物而不爭,處眾人之所惡」) … Lao Tze’s attitude towards life is one of aesthetic “Observation”.

    “What’s the point of all this” … the sentence might be better punctuated with an existentialist exclamation mark instead of a positivist question mark, for it’s just more artistic – which might not be a bad approach to life and the profound questions of existence 😀

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