Prof. Morrison Civilization, Culture, and Conservation November 12, 2014

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Molly Ryan

Prof. Morrison

Civilization, Culture, and Conservation

November 12, 2014


Captivity is often thought of as a physical barrier, something that encloses a person, animal, or thing. It is, however, something much more than just a physical barrier, it is a state of mind. Humans often stray away from the idea of captivity because it means being enclosed and powerless. Captivity is scary for many people and it makes them feel uneasy. We as humans have tried to avoid our own captivity for so long, yet by trying to avoid captivity we have, in turn, put ourselves into captivity. In Ishmael written by Daniel Quinn, the recurring theme of captivity is shown not only through the lessons taught by Ishmael, but also through the perspective of the narrator. Ishmael teaches the narrator about his own captivity and it is not until the narrator begins to view the world in a different manner that he himself realizes he is also captive. Ishmael not only changes our perspectives on how we ought to live, this book also makes us aware of our captivity as a people, both literally and metaphorically.

For Ishmael, captivity has been a way a life; it is how he has spent his years as a gorilla, in actual captivity. He has been owned and has been caged for most of his life, yet despite experiencing a life behind bars, in captivity, Ishmael does not think of himself as captive. Ishmael exists to show the world that captivity is a manifestation of human behavior. Captivity exists because humans, especially the Takers, created it. When Ishmael first meets the narrator, Ishmael tells him he teaches about captivity. Although being physically held captive, Ishmael has not let himself be mentally captive. He has broken free of his physical captivity and opened his eyes to the world. Ishmael has not let captivity consume his thoughts and actions and has remained free of any mental cage. Ishmael’s very presence in the story is very ironic in the fact that he is a gorilla, a huge animal meant to be wild, yet he is the only creature in the story that is physically captive that recognizes his captivity. Ishmael is a metaphor for captivity itself; he is held captive, but at the same time he has not been confined in his thinking about the world. It is clear through his lessons to the narrator that he knows a great deal about the Earth and the only way that he could know this is because he has educated himself, freeing himself from the bars of his own cage. Being a wild animal, Ishmael is both very familiar with captivity and at the same time a stranger to it because he was born wild. He has not always seen the world from a cage and because of this, being able to see both sides of the cage, he is an expert of captivity. Ishmael is as distantly and closely related to captivity as wild creatures come.

Unlike Ishmael in almost every way, the narrator although not physically captive is most definitely captive of society. Society has created guidelines and beliefs of the world that have kept the narrator captive behind “bars” that he cannot see. Captivity is like an invisible fence for the narrator, he cannot see it, but it has held him in and prevented him from thinking about the world in a different way. The narrator wants to see the world differently, but it is as if the society and the culture he lives in is the shock collar around his neck. If he ever tried to change his thinking he would be immediately prompted that it was wrong and return to his old ways. Before he meets Ishmael, he does not fully understand what captivity means, and he does not realize how captive he has been his whole life until Ishmael forces him outside his figurative cage. The narrator tells Ishmael, “I have the impression of being a captive, but I can’t explain why I have this impression,”(Quinn 25). The narrator cannot explain his captivity, but he knows he is captive of something. The most important thing for narrator is that he breaks away from his captivity, he has an earnest desire to save the world, and nonetheless he has no idea where to begin. In order for him to make a difference on the world, he must first break free from the captivity that has taken over his life. Ishmael tells the narrator, “if you can’t discover what’s keeping you in, the will to get out soon become confused and ineffectual,”(Quinn 25). Through his lessons with Ishmael, the narrator must discover the “bars to his cage” in order to escape captivity.

In a similar way to how the narrator is captive without his own knowledge, the reader of this book is also captive. The reader is the most captive of all in the sense that reading this book was the first real look I had at my own captivity. When Ishmael is telling the narrator of his captivity he says, “you’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live,”(25). I have never thought of captivity before as a certain way of life. In this sense, the reader of the book experiences captivity not through a physical barrier or a cage, but rather through the day-to-day actions, thoughts, and decisions we make. We have been held captive in a system that does not allow us to know of our captivity. It is because of how society functions that our captivity is maintained. Certain ideas, beliefs, and values become engrained in a culture and are considered normal, and once this happens individuals within the society internalize these things and no longer consciously think about them. This is what has happened to our society. We have been raised thinking about the world in a certain way, and unfortunately, we have not stopped and considered the fact that there is another way to go about our life. There is another way to view the world. It is truly only through reading this book that I have realized the extent of my own captivity. Not only am I captive of the civilizational system that Ishmael explains to the narrator, but also I am captive to my own fears, just as an example. My fears often dictate how I act toward certain situations and in this case, I regulate my behavior based on my fears. Despite never being held physically captive, captivity controls my life is many aspects.

Everyone experiences a form of captivity in their lives whether or not they realize it. As it can be seen, being captive does not necessarily mean being held in a cage. A person can be captive without the presence of any sort of physical barrier. What is important to realize about captivity is that although we humans are all captive of something, it is possible to break free from our captivity. Often all it takes to escape this captivity is a change in how we view the world. Just as Ishmael taught the narrator, the only way civilization can continue is not a change in the law, but a fundamental change in people’s minds.
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