Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as a Template for False Reality Narratives

I haven’t quieted my reservations about Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study, but one of the units I really enjoy is the dystopian unit (this, despite its lack of authors of color or diverse backgrounds, as per usual for TC). As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve dropped “Harrison Bergeron” as a read aloud and substituted it with the far more powerful, “Speech Sounds,” by Octavia Butler. As my students read books like The Giver, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, and others, I read my own dystopian books as well. My current choice is Time Out of Joint (1959), by Philip K. Dick. I first read it in college when NJCU first offered its Science Fiction course, taught by the charismatic Professor Cunningham.

My first read of the book was distracted, to say the least. I was worried about having enough gas in my car to make it to work after class and when I would find the time to stop at the grease truck to pick up a cheeseburger that would serve as my dinner until I got home around midnight. I was worried about girls, and smelling like dogs (I worked at a boarding facility for dogs), and a literature magazine that I thought would be a good idea to start. And writing music. Time was the issue, but so was priorities. That’s why I missed so much of this book. As I read the words, they left my brain without leaving the slightest impression.

During class I would listen to more qualified students talk about the books and feel ashamed, but what could I do? Every once in a while I would pull out a quote that seemed interesting and talk about it on a superficial level. I’m sure now that my performance was transparently weak though. This is part of the reason why I decided to read this book again.

The book has sat in my classroom library for years now, and I’ve finally decided to pick it up and give it an honest read. Generally, I find Dick’s work a little boring. His characters have singular wants, are reactive to the plot and not self-driven, sometimes sound the same, and the women are crafted like cartoon characters. It’s almost as if the man with five wives only knew women as they appeared on Leave it to Beaver. While I don’t value his characters too much, I do value his prolificacy (44 novels and 121 short stories before his death at 53), his big ideas, and his allusions to other texts. Although sci-fi in the 50’s was not considered high quality literature, Dick draws upon so many authors of “high-brow” literature and places himself within their company. In fact, the title of this book, Time Out of Joint, is a reference to Hamlet.

The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!

I.V.211-2

The line is spoken after Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost who tells him that Claudius murdered his father. Similar to Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s ghostly visits, Ragle Gumm, Dick’s protagonist, also has experiences that alter his perspective of the world.

If you’ve seen The Truman Show (1998), you’re somewhat familiar with the contents of Time Out of Joint already. No, the protagonist, Ragle Gumm, is not in a TV show watched by millions. Instead, he’s in a constructed reality that exists solely for him to win a newspaper contest, Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?” Just as the stage light falls from the sky on Jim Carrey’s character’s sidewalk, Ragle’s world also falls apart, but in more peculiar ways. Objects seem to disintegrate, leaving only slips of paper with their names on them in big block letters, such as “GAS STATION” (63). Ragle conducts research and associations to figure out the answer to game each day, and wins about $100 a week for it (quite the windfall for the 1950’s). The real twist here is that his answers to the game accurately predict where nuclear strikes will be aimed in the real world of 1998. Thus, Ragle is yet another scapegoat–a character who is punished or suffers for the benefit of others.

The concept of the scapegoat is one that is common in dystopian literature. Jonas from The Giver is a scapegoat, as he absorbs the pain of the community. Each tribute in The Hunger Games is a scapegoat because they bear the punishment for their ancestors’ rebellion. However, it is hard to place Ragle and Truman Burbank (The Truman Show) as scapegoats because, arguably, they don’t suffer much. Their suffering derives from the pain of being lied to about their reality. Ragle only begins to suffer when his world falls apart. Truman’s suffering begins the same. Prior to this, however, their world and experiences are mostly mundane (the same goes for Jonas, too, who only suffers once he knows the truth about the community). Perhaps, much like shadows, their worlds are colorless until they learn the truth about the world.

These constructed worlds remind me a lot of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (575 BCE), which describes life as mere shadows on the wall projected by performers who we can’t see, and the only way out is to break out of the cave, go up some stairs, and enter the real world. This, however, is impossible. Just as the characters in the allegory, Ragle is only witness to shadows of reality. This is also true for Jonas in The Giver, for Thomas and the boys in The Maze Runner, and for countless other sci-fi or dystopian books. This is also the case for characters in non-dystopian books. I recently reviewed the film, The White Tiger, in which the narrator compares his peasant life to being a chicken coop. A chicken doesn’t know it’s in a coop when it’s born in a coop. This, too, is no different from the “Allegory of the Cave.” The allegory is such a conundrum because we don’t know we’re looking at shadows, so we don’t have reason to be upset that we are being lied to.

Dick explores the cave allegory in many of his novels, most notably Ubik (1969), another narrative that follows a man who experiences alterations in his experience of reality. The cave is also used as a template for the film, The Matrix (1999). Even Pixar’s Wall-E glides upon the surface of the cave as humans aboard the Axiom spaceship watch videos all day, only to be shocked by the world when they’re finally able to look away from the screens. The concept of the cave can also be found in Queen’s masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as Freddie Mercury begins with the question, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” It seems that Plato’s cave is everywhere.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” can be interpreted as Mercury’s “coming out” song. He sings:

Mama, Just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger,
Now he's dead
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I've gone and thrown it all away

The song navigates through feelings of regret and existential dread. He makes mention of leaving several times, of begging to be let go. He has to “leave you all behind and face the truth.” Here we see a man who has discovered he is in the cave, or the chicken coop, and he has to get out, even if it means leaving others behind. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Plato’s Cave is the discovery that your whole life has been nothing but shadows on the wall, mere imitations of the truth.

Which brings me to Ursula le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this text, le Guin offers a glimpse into Omelas, a land where there is no shame, everyone is happy and prosperous, except for a child (scapegoat) in a cellar who is made to sit in his own excrement, who is scared of every sound around him, who is fed cornmeal and grease. This child must suffer in this way in order for Omelas to be prosperous. Everyone learns of the child at some point. Only a few people decide to leave once they learn of the child. The author sets up those who leave as heroic almost. However, it’s deceptive. Leaving does nothing but cleanse one’s own conscience. The child is still suffering whether you stay and benefit from it or if you leave and don’t benefit from it. Thus, it’s actually a more selfish act to leave than it is to stay. This is one of the great ironies of the text.

What is most frightening about “Omelas” is that, unlike the stories I’ve talked about so far, the reality of their world isn’t in question. The people of Omelas know that their prosperity is only possible because the child is suffering. What’s horrifying about this story is that so many choose to stay once faced with the truth. In other words, they’re aware they’re living in the cave and they’re totally okay with it. Or maybe they just realize that leaving Omelas doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve left the cave. You can’t always parse the motivations of nameless characters in fictional stories.

My students enjoy le Guin’s story. I usually pair this with discussions of injustices in our communities and around the world. For example, I spoke to my classes recently about the recent Nestle lawsuits due to their use of child slavery. Despite Nestle uses children as slaves to harvest their chocolate, none of us are going to stop eating chocolate. Despite Apple’s use of sweat shops in manufacturing or slave-wages and slave-conditions of their miners (whom they use for rare earth materials that make up the chips in electronics), we’re not going to throw out our cell phones. Instead, we live with the knowledge that our pleasures derive from slavery because we’ve been made to feel powerless. This perception of powerlessness isn’t unreasonable. There is literally no impact I will have on the chocolate economy if I choose to stop eating chocolate. As in leaving Omelas, it does nothing. The drive to gather enough people to start empathizing with their fellow humans, no matter how far on the other side of the planet they are, is a herculean task that we, as a people, have not been able to solve in all of history. Even getting enough people to start solving their own city’s homeless population is too difficult, let alone empathizing with people on the other side of the world.

Plato’s Cave creeps its way into every aspect of life, which is probably the whole point. If we don’t ask ourselves once in a while, “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?” then we haven’t really examined life, have we? I ask it when I reflect on my teaching. “Am I really teaching? Or am I just saying a bunch of stuff and grading things?” I think there are a lot of teachers who don’t teach at all, but instead talk a lot and grade things with far too many punitive measures, forgetting entirely that we’re here not to find ways to make our jobs easier, but to help kids learn. I ask it when laws are passed that claim to attempt to accomplish ‘A’ but are really meant to do ‘B.’ I ask it in small occasions, such as when someone asks if I’m free on Friday. The answer depends on what they’re going to ask me to do. Either way, Plato’s Cave is all around us. It’s almost as if…we’re in it.

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