Summary and Analysis
Ishmael explains that Mr. Sokolow was obsessed with studying Nazi Germany and tells the narrator that the key to Hitler's success was his ability to tell a story and have people believe it. The German people suffered so much after World War I that they were hungry to believe his story of Aryan supremacy, and even those who dismissed it as a story were caught up in it unless they fled Germany.
Ishmael continues by explaining that Mother Culture is feeding us a story that's so pervasive we don't even hear it anymore, but it informs every moment of our lives. His job is to help the narrator hear the story and see his culture from the outside. In order to embark on such a journey, however, Ishmael says they need to lay down some ground rules. First, he defines two groups of people: Takers (the narrator's culture) and Leavers (every other culture). In less neutral terms, these groups can also be described as civilized (the Takers) and primitive (the Leavers). The narrator accepts these terms.
Ishmael goes on to define a few terms for their journey. The first is that "story" is the explanation of the relationship between humans, the world, and the gods. The second is that "to enact" something is to live as if a certain story is a reality. The third term he defines is "culture," which is a group of people enacting a story. Ishmael says that Mother Culture concludes that the Leavers' story is the first chapter of humankind's development and the Takers are the second chapter, but he indicates they are competing stories.
Ishmael challenges the narrator to tell the story of his culture, but the narrator insists there is no overarching story or myth that forms his culture. Ishmael pushes him to think about it more deeply, suggesting to him that the Greeks did not think of their myths as myths either; rather, what are now considered myths were just the stories that structured their lives. The narrator still comes up short, so Ishmael gives him some homework. He suggests the narrator try to figure out his culture's creation myth.
Through Ishmael's foundation for the journey, Quinn establishes the key terms that will assist the reader in understanding the novel's main themes and foreshadows the trajectory of Ishmael's discussion. The first of these terms are Takers and Leavers. Recall that Quinn associates "takers" with civilization and "leavers" with primitive cultures. Consider how these terms might relate to notions of civilized and primitive cultures. What do civilized cultures "take"? What do primitive cultures "leave"? Exploring these questions will help you follow Ishmael's interpretation of culture.
The next major term is Mother Culture, which Quinn employs to personify culture and make it another character in the novel. As a "mother," culture nurtures us, feeds us, and gives us the tools to understand the culture into which we are born. Ishmael will continue to expand on the character of Mother Culture as he uses "her" to help the narrator see the structure of his own culture more clearly.
Additionally, Ishmael provides the narrator with three key definitions for story, to enact, and culture. These three terms provide the framework for Ishmael's exploration of Takers and Leavers, who are groups of people with their own "story" they're "enacting" as a "culture." While much of Ishmael's argument focuses on the macro-level, these terms can also be applied to individual lives: In what way do people tell a story about who they are? What do you do to "enact" your story of who you are and who you want to be? By making personal connections to Ishmael's argument, the reader can gain a stronger understanding of what it means to create and be part of a story and a culture.
Quinn also foreshadows the development of Ishmael and the narrator's discussion through the homework Ishmael assigns his pupil. Prior to assigning homework to the narrator, Ishmael provides him with an explanation for how story works in a culture, through the example of a former student. He says the former student was concerned that no one was upset about the earth being on the brink of environmental catastrophe. Ishmael explained to the student that this lack of concern was a result of Mother Culture's influence: she provides members of her culture with an explanation for the Earth's state that pacifies them. Ishmael builds on this idea through his allusions to Greek mythology, indicating that what are now considered myths were as invisible and believable to the Greeks as the narrator's culture is to him. Thus, Quinn foreshadows that dismantling the narrator's culture's myth will be essential to understanding why the world is the way it is.