December 3, 2011
Actually, Socrates said this to a character named Gluacon in a dialog in Plato’s Republic, but Socrates might first have said this to Plato, his student, who handed it off to us in that famous work.
What Plato suggested is that our world might be nothing more than shadows of things more real cast upon the walls of our cramped habitat; shadows that have become so familiar to us, so concrete, we don’t recognize them as shadows at all. In The Republic Plato has Socrates and Glaucon flesh-out this allegory in order to learn something. They participate in a two-way interchange that might seem a little quaint to we-who-are-too-imbedded-in-ideological-loneliness-to-want-the-truth.
In those days people apparently engaged in dialog —a now defunct interaction intended to lead to illumination and the possible resolution of conflicting ideas in the name of knowledge and equanimity. Today, however, we rely on name-calling, lies, threats and graft, not to illuminate and resolve, but simply to get what we want.
This is now how American government works. It’s also how business works —but with more finesse. While politicians bluff, batter and berate, modern business, with greater subtlety, turns our own worst inclinations against us,to benefit itself. Business psychologically manipulates our lust for amusement and comfort in order to wring from us as much wealth as possible and hoard it while we’re busy ogling celebrities or buying and bouncing baubles.
This technique of deceit is known as advertising. The purpose of advertisement is to channel the desire of consumers in the direction of an advertiser’s current cash cow with the goal of having us part with the food and rent money to obtain something we think we must have —a 42″ flat screen TV, for instance. This works so well that people will camp out for days, lining up in big-box parking lots until the corral gate is opened, then stampede in (armed with cans of pepper spray to discourage the competition) and emerge carrying the most splendid deal of Black Friday.
Advertising is a way to maximize distraction of the masses and minimize their realization of what’s really going on. The instrument of this con job is the media —especially TV. By means of this well-honed expedient the world of workers crumbles and falls to bits while the Dow blossoms and bundled mortgages create another sub-prime millionaire. But nobody notices because everybody thinks they’re satisfied. The elite are corrupted by greed, the rest are corrupted by need (real and imagined). It’s a perfect storm of non-sustainable destruction. Yet sooner or later reality checks in, the shell of our fabrications splits and there we are trying to stuff the toothpaste of truth back into its tube while sweating in an oven of carbon-soaked atmosphere.
But this willingness to be deceived which makes us so susceptible to the wiles of politicians and the lies of corporations is just the tip of the iceberg. Socrates expressed the truth of our natural dilemma in his allegory of the cave. He surmised that all the things we think are real might be figments of our desire to steer clear of the fearful, unknown truth of our existence (the unknown, the ineffable, death) —the truth that religion tries to make sense of by leaping over reason, science sets out to discover by adhering to it, and we go about in daily dances of distraction to avoid facing.
Recently a young person close to my heart called. She was upset by a recollection of a cousin who died of leukemia at 13 . It was a loss that she (at 12) had really not worked out and which had suddenly and painfully surfaced. Curiously, it focused on the loss of a balloon she’d salvaged from a party given for her cousin as the disease took its toll. She couldn’t find it. She worried about its condition. As we talked it became clear that her disquiet was about something other than the balloon. It was about those shadows thrown on her too-real cave wall which were imposing themselves at that moment.
A day or so later I sent her this poem:
A Hole in the Banal
You called last night troubled.
Looking for something in particular
(a pink balloon shaped like the heart
of your long dead cousin)
you’d stumbled upon a hole in the banal:
a weakened spot in the thin skin of our conceits
stretched so taut over the otherworld
a hint of it broke through and pierced
your shell of rapt doing
and you glimpsed the truth of shades
that dance upon the walls of caves
to music most often unheard
under the rush of jets,
behind the daily brushing of leaves against sky,
drowned by the litanies of radios,
made almost silent by
the roar of willed tornadoes
blowing through the aisles of malls,
muted by the fierce narcissism of war,
the accumulation of stuff thrown up
as dikes to keep the unspeakable sea at bay
and you wondered if perhaps Socrates was right
So I recalled for you a day driving to Colrain
when a song bled from the dash
so filled with poignancy my heart broke too
and I sobbed from the steel arched bridge
where two rivers meet to the office door
remembering my mother,
my father, and Danny my autistic brother,
hearing them hearing me sob
through a veil of ordinary tears and regret
saltier than the Dead Sea
This is where you and I meet, where we all meet,
on the beach of that sea, catching now and then
between surf and horizon glimpses of creatures
breaking through, breaching the membrane
between worlds unexpectedly
as we wonder how the dancing shadows
on cave walls can be true
by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent