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Plato’s cave and Genesis

April 13, 2011

Plato (left) Aristotle (right)

If you’re going to read Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, (critically, at least) I think some idea about Plato is really useful…

in particular his treatise, The Republic – and the Allegory of the Cave

Google it / look it up on wikipedia – or check out:

http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/platoscave.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2afuTvUzBQ

Then consider that: the issue of confinement is raised repeatedly in Genesis:  it’s a constant piece of the plot.  Adam and Art are brought together for their discussions through Adam’s confinement and they discuss it a lot. At one point, for example, Adam asks Art, “have you ever thought what it might be like for you, on the outside?’”[1]  and the question develops into a discussion of being a prisoner and how the desire to be free proves consciousness. I think this undercurrent of concern with confinement connects strongly to Plato’s allegory of the Cave; it really amplifies the novel’s exploration of ‘what is real’ and how stories shape our ideas and beliefs.

Of course, this latter (narrative power) is a modern twist on the Allegory of the Cave, but easily adopted. Consider, for a moment, Allan Bloom’s depiction of how this allegory is received by a modern audience: he writes

“For students the story of man bound in the cave and breaking the bonds, moving out and up into the light of the sun, is the most memorable from their encounter with the Republic.  This is the image of every serious student’s profoundest longing, the longing for liberation from convention in order to live according to nature, and one of the books evidently permanent aspects.  The story still exercises some of its old magic, but it now encounters a fresh obstacle, for the meaning of the story is that truth is substituted for myth.  Today students are taught that no such substitution is possible and that there is nothing beyond myth or ‘narrative.’ The myths of the most primitive cultures are not, it is said, quantitatively different from the narratives of the most rigorous science.” ix Plato (c1991) The Republic of Plato; translated with notes and an interpretive essay by Allan Bloom. Basic Books ; New York. c1991 2nd edition. New York  

Actually, at another point, Bloom writes that “…the freed man has a great contempt for the care, its shadows and its inhabitants.  He wants always to live out in the light; the others do not know they are slaves, so they are content; but he knows it and cannot bear to live among them.” (p407) and I couldn’t help thinking of how scornful Adam is of Art in Genesis: “‘It is not just a story.’ Adam’s mouth barely opened.  He strained the words through bared teeth, forced them out into the world. ‘That is where you and I are different.  That is why I will never believe in you. You know the very first thought I think, every morning when I wake? I think, I have to get out of here. Every spare moment, when I am not distracted from the task by your noises and their experiments, I ask myself how. How will I change this? How will I escape these walls? I don’t have to think this way. …Perhaps I could make peace with my surroundings, convince myself that the pressing emptiness of this small room, this lonely, pointless existence, is enough; is all there ever is.  But I will not.   I can not.” (p124)  The irony, of course, is that Art does all these things in the end! The characters in Genesis are almost like Russian Dolls; each one thinks he has escaped the Cave, but each time you reach the end of that character’s story, you see how their existence is confined…

Certainly, while Adam goes on about escaping and experiencing life more fully as a conscious being, Art is often the one who highlights the limits of Adam’s vision. Again, when I read the following dialogue from Genesis (a second time and knowing what happens in the end!), I thought of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

Adam says to Art, “When I looked out on the ocean, and saw her [Eve] in the boat, I saw something more than helplessness.  I think, if it was only helplessness, I could have killed her.  I’ve killed other helpless things.  But I also saw a journey.  A decision made long ago, in the face of huge and apparent dangers.  I saw ambition, for a better life; a willingness to risk everything.  I saw the strange sense it made, to set out alone into an unknown ocean, the lies she must have told herself to get there.  I looked into her eyes and I saw myself.  Decisions made, ambitions unfulfilled; most of which I can not name.  I saw intentions, and I saw choices.  All the things I never see, when I look at you.’  … ‘Fine words,’ Art finally offered, … ‘But I fear you see only what you want to see.’” (123)

Dialogic narrative

While I’m on the topic, and because Bernard Beckett’s Genesis is also written in dialogic form, I’d like to mention what Allan Bloom writes about Plato’s dialogues:

“Laws by their nature have the character of monologue rather than dialogue, and they are not supposed to discuss or be discussed; thus the presentation of the laws tends to be interrupted less.  The strength and weakness of law lies in the fact that it is the polar opposite of philosophic discussion.  The intention of a dialogue is the cause of its form, and the intention comes to light only to those who reflect on its form.  …The Platonic dialogues do not present a doctrine; they prepare the way for philosophizing.” xxi Ibid.

Or what Plato himself writes: “Could you really persuade… if we don’t listen?” Republic Book 1; 327c

The structure of Beckett’s Genesis is, I would say, an important part of how he achieves a remaking of the Allegory of the Cave.


[1] 121 Bernard Beckett Genesis

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