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. Naïve. Simple. Callow. Or just
fundamentally dumb. In one so manifestly normal in other respects, it
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 naïveté; 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
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
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-mâché? 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
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
when 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:
WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?
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
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
“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 circurses?”
I looked up, startled. “I know nothing at all about animal
“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.
Excerpted from "Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit" by Daniel Quinn. Copyright © 0 by Daniel Quinn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.