ESSAY SEVEN – Cave Shadows
Back in the sixties and seventies, a clever catch phrase of the counterculture was, “Reality is a Crutch”. The underlying idea professed to be that you shouldn’t concern yourself with the real world, whatever that was, but to sort of, “Tune In, Turn on and Drop Out”. Supposedly, the world of your parents, the schools, the bosses or the establishment wasn’t worth considering, (too rigid, too uptight, too boring) and the “only reality” was what you created inside of your own head - a head-trip. Of course, if you partook of a few ingested chemicals, that certainly helped the process.
While the inner world of imagination, dreams, spirituality and memory is a potent and vital source for the artist, it certainly isn’t a “better” place than the world of the everyday, nor is it a place to hide and withdraw from the everyday. Our real life interacts with “reality” in too many ways to view it as a negative or frightening place. In addition, our real life is the source for a great deal of inspiration, as we shall discover in later essays.
It has been my experience, that a fear of reality is also what keeps many potential artists from taking those first few daring steps into expressing themselves artistically, whether visually, through writing, acting, dance or music. While our own inner world certainly holds an allure, many are concerned that “everyone else is so normal” that there is danger in looking inward. The outside world is safe, but people who live in their inner world “are weird.”
Part of this dilemma is in presenting this as “The Real (outside) World” and the “Imaginary (inner) World”. Maybe we would be better served if we referred to the real world as the “commonly familiar world” – the world that we all perceive in a somewhat similar framework. We can all look over there and agree that the object is a tree,
While an artist must be able to inhabit both levels of existence, maybe we ought to first question this whole concept of a reality that is knowable at all.
In the previous essay, I utilized the analogy of the butterfly, but now I would like to present a second analogy; one that is several thousand years old, and is often called Plato’s analogy of the cave. The Greek philosopher Plato presented this narrative to point out the unknowable nature of reality, and it will serve us well as a metaphor for the difficulties artists face in their attempts to give substance to ideas.
Plato imagines a man, sitting in the mouth of a shallow cave, facing inward and looking at the back wall of the cave‘s chamber. Directly behind him, just outside of the cave opening is a ledge, and then a drop-off to the base of the cliff many feet below. At the bottom of the cliff is a very large bonfire, leaping and swirling high in the air, up past the cave opening and illuminating the inside of the cave with its flickering light and no doubt warming the man’s back.
As the man sits with his back to the cave mouth, all that is real in the world passes behind him on the ledge. Trees, dogs, truth, love, humans and every other noun. As these “REAL” objects pass by on the ledge, the shadows of these realities are cast onto the back wall of the cave by the dancing flames. Just as the flames are constantly swirling, the shadows stretch and twist - now large, now small, giving an ever-changing shape to that which is real. Because the man cannot turn around, all that he sees are projected shadows of that which is real, but the shadows are constantly changing, and he is unable to tell which projections are accurate and which are distortions. He can see the shadows, and he knows they are projections, and he even knows that upon occasion, the shadow he sees may well be an accurate representation; he just cannot know which is which.
As an artist, we face a similar frustration when we try to make a representation of that which has no real form - our ideas and our dreams. It is a reversal of the cave analogy, as we are attempting a projection of formlessness (our mind image) into form (a picture, a dance or a poem), but the end result is just as daunting. We know there is something important that we are trying to convey, and we know we have tried hard to convey it, but we often feel we have been unsuccessful. We look at the finished product, and because it is not a complete success, we brand it a failure.
Plato is saying that we cannot know reality. All we will ever be aware of is a flickering, distorted projection, and therefore, we must do the best we can. It is not an excuse for not doing, but rather a catalyst to go forward and to not be stuck trying to know what cannot be known, or to realistically portray that which has no real form. A theologian might point out that just because we cannot achieve the perfection of God, that is not an excuse for giving up and making no effort to live a better and more perfect “God like” life. We will be measured by how hard we strive, not by a comparison to perfection.
A bit more on this subject in the next essay. Please let me know your thoughts.