- (A Caverna) Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa A Harvest Book/ Harcourt inc. 2003 ISBN 0151004145; 0156028794
Read from September 5th to 18th 2014
COMING SOON, PUBLIC OPENING OF PLATO’S CAVE, AN EXCLUSIVE ATTRACTION, UNIQUE IN THE WORLD, BUY YOUR TICKET NOW.
I don’t know why the end of José Saramago’s novel reminded me of the old joke with the child who asks his father why the writers have got street names. In fact I know why – the apparently innocent question hints to the way of reasoning of an entire society whose values have no common point whatsoever with the culture anymore, a pragmatic society that sees the eternal ideas as simple curiosities projected on the wall for its amusement, that does not feel any metaphysical anxiety anymore and it is quite comfortable with the ropes around the neck and feet which keep it firmly tied to the stone-bench of the immediate, the concrete, the consumable. A society forever anchored in the immanence.
I think this is the main theme of The Cave: the chains of ignorance the modern man proudly rattles, deluding himself he freely gave up his past, his inner life, his humanity as liabilities in change for the comfort of civilisation where having is more important than being.
From this point of view, the story of Cipriano Algor, accompanied by his daughter Marta and his son-in-law Marçal Gacho, is the story of the few who still had the curiosity to turn their head to see the light at the entrance of the cave – to realize their limits and to fight to surpass them. In fact, as the narrator informs us right from the beginning (in some ludic reply to Cratylus), ““algor” means the intense cold one feels in one’s body before a fever sets in, and… “gacho” is neither more or less than the part of an ox’s neck on which the yoke rests.” It is Cipriano Algor who will teach Marçal Gacho (as he taught his daughter) to think and see the world as it is, to shake off so to speak the yoke of ignorance and quit the cave.
Or the caves, for there are several, one for each misconception mankind carelessly built to foolishly worship it afterwards, mistaking it for an eternal truth. First, there is the cave where Cipriano deposits his unwanted earthenware plates, mugs and dishes, jokingly imagining archaeologists’ controversies over their origin and utility upon its discovery in a distant future – for what is History God other than a bundle of suppositions based on some vestiges that could be no more than jetsam? Follow the cave in the hero’s dream, his kiln cave which reveals his creation dependent not on his skills but on supply and demand – transforming the artist into a slave of the Market God. Then the most frightening of all, the cave of the Centre, a building where everybody wants to live because in there everybody’s dreams of comfort became true and which can be accessed by crossing some “dark, evil-smelling waters” and entering deeply the belly of hell through a Dantesque funnel:
It’s morning, but very early, the sun is not yet up, the Green Belt will appear soon, then it will be the Industrial Belt, then the shantytown, then the no man’s land, then the buildings being constructed on the periphery, and at last the city, the broad avenue, and finally the Centre. Any road you take leads to the Centre.
That is, another god with feet of clay, the Civilisation God. Last but not least, Plato’s cave itself, desecrated in a material world in which it is supposed not to warn and teach but to provide intellectual exhibitionism, for the most powerful god, whose knot is most impossible to untie, is the Delusion God.
Finally, and encompassing all the others, there is the cave of the text the characters must escape from, in order to come and tell us their story, to warn us about another dangerous god, the God of Illusion. For enraptured with the story it is quite easy to overlook the fact that the said story is in fact the wall on which moves our destiny-shaped shadow Plato had already pointed out for everyone to see:
“What a strange scene you describe, and what strange prisoners, They are just like us.”
Just like us. And how many do still feel the need to break free? I don’t know whether José Saramago really shows us the exit, as Jonathan Keats believes in his excellent review . Or if he does, whether there is anybody left to care. It seems to me not only that more and more of us wear the chains with pride but ferociously fight for a place in the cave.