Authors: Daniel Quinn
Tags: #Social Sciences, #Faith & Religion, #Science, #Psychology, #Nonfiction
Copyright © 2006 Daniel Quinn
All rights reserved.
Published by Steerforth
"There is always a brave new world," said Poirot, "but only, you know, for very special people. The
lucky ones. The ones who carry the making of that world within themselves."
— AGATHA CHRISTIE
In October 2005 I received a letter from a reader who was going to be in Houston — my home
— over the Thanksgiving weekend; she wondered if she might spend some time with me to nail down
the ideas she had explored in my books. I agreed, with the understanding that I had a purpose of my
own: I wanted to use our conversation, taped and edited, as the basis for a new book I had in mind.
At her request I have replaced her name with another, of her choosing. What follows is a lightly
edited transcript of our dialogue.
Although references are made herein to the fact that I've written other books, the reading of these
other books is not in any way a prerequisite to reading this one. To put the matter a different way, in
writing this book, I have not assumed that the reader will be familiar with any of the ideas put forward
in earlier works.
after an exchange of the usual civilities
]. As you can imagine, I'm very curious to know about the book you're working on.
. It would be nearer the truth to describe it as a book I've been struggling with on and off for the past five years — at least. I'll try to explain... When I finished
, I imagined that I'd done what I set out to do a dozen years before. I thought that this was it and that my work was done. A very naive
. Why naive?
. Because no one with anything important to say has ever managed to encompass the whole of it in one book. What I learned from writing
was how far short I'd fallen. This is what the
thousands of letters I received told me. Readers loved the book but came away from it with serious
misunderstandings of what I was saying. I thought I could correct those misunderstandings with a
The Story of B
. From the reaction to that book, I saw that a third was needed. That was
Ishmael: A Sequel
. What I then saw was that a fourth was needed in order to knit all my ideas together in a very simple, straightforward way, and this was
was still in manuscript form, I agreed to meet with a small group of readers who, like you, asked for an opportunity to get together with me to nail down their understanding
of what I was saying. I agreed to give them a long weekend, but they had to arrive having read
. When they arrived, however, it was soon clear that
had answered very nearly all the questions they'd wanted to ask me. The "seminar" was over after about two hours, and we had to spend the rest of the weekend just socializing... The point I'm making here is that, with this book, I largely answered the multitude of questions that readers had been asking me ever since
. Yes, I can see that. Though I think your essay "The New Renaissance" was what really did it for me (see Appendix I).
. Yes. For anyone seeking a concise expression of my basic message, "The New Renaissance"
was it. I felt I'd said everything I had to say. But one question remained. This was a question that had
been there from the beginning, but for many years I tended to dismiss it.
. What question was that?
. "How do you do what you do?"
. You say you tended to dismiss it... ?
. I dismissed it because I thought the answer was obvious: Anyone who'd worked at it as hard and as long as I had could have done the same.
. But you changed your mind.
. Yes, reluctantly. Reluctantly because I'd never wanted to put myself forward as someone special or extraordinary.
. What changed your mind?
. Experience. I'll give you an example. In the summer of 1998 I tried an experiment. So many
people had asked for an opportunity to study with me that I decided to run a nightly summerlong
seminar that anyone willing to travel to Houston could attend for as long as they wanted. The attendance
naturally fluctuated. During one week, when one group departed and another was expected, a single
member of the seminar was stranded by himself, two thousand miles from home, and I felt obliged to
look after him. We spent a lot of time just getting to know each other.
At the same time, I felt he should be getting something useful from the experience. He had read
all my books many times, with great care and dedication, but still wanted to know if he really had got
what I was saying to the extent that he thought he had. To find out, I culled about a hundred of the more
interesting questions that had collected on my Web site over the years and let him try to answer them,
one by one. We were both astonished by the results of this test. To the vast majority of questions he had
no answer at all. He did attempt a few answers, but when these were compared with my own, it was
obvious that he and I were not at all on the same page. In other words, what the experiment proved was
that, while he knew the answers to questions raised in my books, he couldn't generate
answers that were nowhere to be found in my books.
. Why was this, do you think?
. We'll come to that... Meanwhile, here's another example. A few years ago a certain nonprofit group, impressed with my work, invited me to sit in on a planning meeting for an enterprise they were
undertaking. I sat and listened as the planning team brainstormed their ideas for several hours. Finally,
exhausted, one of them turned to me and said, "Well, Daniel, you've been awfully quiet. What's your
take on all this?"
I explained that I wasn't entirely sure of my reaction yet and wanted to let my thoughts settle a
bit before speaking.
"Just your gut reaction," they insisted.
Knowing I needed time to formulate my reaction in measured and diplomatic terms, I asked
them not to pressure me to speak at that point, but they eventually overrode all my excuses, assuring me
that any contribution from me would be welcome.
I told them what I thought, and they stared at me in something very like horror.
Instead of informing them they should have given me the time I asked for (which I needed in
order to find a way of expressing myself that would
horrify them), I feebly justified myself by saying that if I had any reason to be at such a meeting, it was to view the proceedings as a complete
outsider would — as a Martian anthropologist would, in fact. With as much cordiality as they could
muster, they agreed this was exactly what they wanted me to do.
There are, of course, no such things as Martians, as the folks at this meeting knew perfectly well,
but they understood what I meant all the same. In fact, I later learned from an insider that members of
this group are now encouraged to "think like Martians." But the original Martian anthropologist has never been invited to another meeting.
. What's your theory? Why were they horrified by what you had to say?
. One more example will answer this question. A few months ago I had a telephone conference
with a group of readers in Tulsa. One of the participants made an observation that seems quite
commonplace but that had a telling effect on me. He said, approximately, "What are we supposed to do?
When we talk to people, we're each speaking from some conventional frame of reference. What we don't
understand or share is your frame of reference. Your frame of reference seems completely alien and
mysterious to us."
Suddenly I felt I had a handle on the problem. Obvious as it seems in retrospect, it was my frame
of reference that was different. The young man I talked about a minute ago couldn't answer questions
the way I did because he didn't share my frame of reference, and the members of the corporate group I
just described were horrified because they were looking at the matter under discussion from a frame of
reference that was completely different from mine.
. So what
your frame of reference? Or can you describe it?
. What I have is a shorthand for it. My frame of reference is that of a Martian anthropologist. I'm like someone who has traveled millions of miles to study a species of beings who, while supposedly
rational, are destroying the very planet they live on.
. Wow. Okay. And how do you describe the frame of reference of a Martian anthropologist?
. I don't really think a description would help you much — even if I knew how to provide one. To learn how to swim, you must swim. It's not something that can be described. Someone has to throw you
into the water.
]. That sounds exciting.
. It may help you to hear how I evolved into what I've become. It was certainly not by any sort of choice or desire on my part. I had not the slightest inclination to single myself out in any way.
. I think I understand.
. I remember how it began quite exactly. It was in about 1962, at the height of the Cold War, when every year or so newspapers would show, on a map of your city, the devastation that would be
wrought by the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. The idea that a nuclear holocaust could occur at any
moment, with the US and Soviet Union raining down nuclear warheads on each other, was not in the
least far-fetched, and it was a commonplace saying that, if such a thing happened, we would be blasted
back to the Stone Age. Does that sound familiar?
. I'm not sure I know what you mean.
. Haven't you ever heard of anyone talking about nuking somebody back to the Stone Age?
. Yeah. I think some general said we should just go ahead and nuke the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.
. And does that make sense to you?
. Again, I'm not quite sure I know what you mean.
. If we'd dropped a dozen hydrogen bombs on North Korea, would they be nuked back to the
. I'd have to think so.
. Suppose I said that if we dropped a dozen hydrogen bombs on North Korea, they'd be nuked
back to the Middle Ages. Would that make sense to you?
. What made sense was the Stone Age. It made sense to everyone but me, because I knew we
wouldn't be able function at anything like the Stone Age level. Do you see why?
after a long pause
]. It would be pointless to say that I do.
. Stone Age peoples live very well, where they've been left alone. They were living very well throughout the New World when Europeans began to arrive in the fifteenth century. They fed, clothed,
and sheltered themselves almost effortlessly. You have to know that.