Ishmael

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  • Published : January 25, 2013
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ISHMAEL. An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn

ONE

1

    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.

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

    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.
    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...
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