January 29, 2017

Parable of the Cave


Its always been a concept Iíve found very difficult to explain, not only to people who donít live inside my head, but to myself. Itís a kind of reflexive unconscious extrapolation of an internal perceptive state. If you know what I mean.

††††††††††† From the time I was very small all the way through my late teens, I knew my eyes were bad, but back then, despite the dark hints offered by my Uncle Tom, I was under the impression it was merely an extreme case of nearsightedness with some astigmatism thrown in for good measure. As long as I wore my glasses (and later my contacts) I made the tremendous leap of faith into believing I could see normally, and in fact was fully and completely perceiving the world exactly the same way everyone else was. That everyone else around me seemed to function with ease in dark restaurants was simply evidence, I thought, that everyone else was in possession of a trick Iíd yet to pick up. It never occurred to me that when I dropped something small on the ground, I had to form a mental grid of the area and scan from square to square in order to find it again, when everyone else could just bend down and pluck it up without thinking. If someone described a panoramic scene to me, it didnít strike me I had to swing my head to the right and left to take it all in, given my field of vision was about one-third a normally-sighted personís. Iíd just take all the fragments and stick them together and boom, we were seeing the same thing. No, so long as I was wearing my glasses I was functioning in the same world everyone else was seeing, and any evidence to the contrary was merely evidence of a shortcut I hadnít acquired, but would in time. I was just a little slower is all.

††††††††††† Just a quick aside about perception here. Iíve always found it interesting and sadly funny that even though we can only see about ten percent of the spectrum with the naked eye, and even though dogs and cats have senses of hearing and smell an estimated four hundred times more acute than our own, we as humans still believe we are experiencing the world directly and objectively, so much so that most of our scientific understanding of the universe is based on that assumption. Yes, scientists have developed technologies to help them penetrate those things our senses canít access directly. But whoís to say those intermediary technologies are telling the truth? Like I said, thatís just a little aside thatís always nagged at me, and has only the slightest tangential connection to what Iím talking about.

††††††††††† In my twenties and early thirties, even after being diagnosed officially with retinitis pigmentosa and having been told exactly what lay ahead, I paid little mind. I still hadnít picked up a lot of those tricks, like seeing in the dark, but it would happen.

††††††††††† This is just one tiny example to help illustrate my point. After the diagnosis, as ever, I continued going to movie theaters a couple of times a week. As my field of vision dwindled, my eyes began focusing on smaller and smaller portions of the screen, usually settling in the lower left hand corner. Given the context and the experience, however, in my head I expanded what I was seeing, conning myself into believing I was taking in the full screen, even though I was focused on maybe one-fiftieth of what was going on. Iíd find myself staring at a coffee cup, and when everyone else in the audience started laughing uproariously, Iíd sit there trying to figure out what everyone thought was so damn funny about the coffee cup. So you see what I mean? Even fully aware of my condition, I was still able to convince myself I was experiencing the world in a perfectly normal way despite all the evidence to the contrary.

††††††††††† The profound shock of recognition came a few years back after my first cataract surgery. Walking out of the hospital with Morgan that afternoon, I paused to light a smoke. For the first time with no glasses and no contact lenses, I pulled the lighter from my pocket and stopped dead, realizing I could see it with a sharp clarity I had never known before. The peripheral vision was still for shit, but in that tiny sliver of a window, I could suddenly and literally see things the way others did, and realized it was something I had never experienced before. In cheap audiovisual terms, it was a bit like seeing a remastered film in high definition for the first time after having only known it up to that point by way of a shaky and grainy fourth-generation VHS bootleg.

††††††††††† It didnít last, of course. About a week and a half later things in that one good eye collapsed, but damn it there had at least been that moment when I understood what everyone had been talking about all along. Which brings me to the point that prompted all this.

††††††††††† Yesterday afternoon Morgan stumbled across a short animated film from 1973 based on Platoís Parable of the Cave and narrated by Orson Welles. Although I read it countless times over my years as a philosophy student, studied it thoroughly, understood it, wrote about it, it wasnít until I heard Wellesí narration that it struck me how close Plato had come over twenty-five hundred years ago to presenting, in a way, exactly what Iím trying to describe here.

††††††††††† I trust we all know what the hell Iím talking about, right? A bunch of men are sitting in a circle in a dark cave, with their backs to a bonfire. Theyíre chained so securely in place they canít even turn their heads to the right or left to see the people sitting next to them. All they can see are the shadows cast by the unseen bonfire on the walls directly in front of them. Having known no other experience, they take these passing and flickering shadows to be a full expression of reality. The shadows are all they know and all they will ever know. Then one man liberates himself from the chains, leaves the cave and suddenly sees the sunlight and the sky and the birds and trees, and realizes everything in the cave had been a fraud. It goes on from there of course, and Plato used the parable to explain what I still think is a pretty flimsy and silly notion, but thatís beside the point. In very simple physical and visual terms, it reflects my own wrongheaded and delusional perception. Only difference is in my version of the story, Iím the only one in the cave while everyone else is out in the park finger painting on a sunny afternoon. I even caught a quick passing glimpse of the park out of the corner of my eye once, and I could certainly hear all the things everyone was doing out there, but for the most part it was just a matter of staring at the shadows and pretending I was finger painting too.

††††††††††† Of course none of this is an issue anymore (and thank goodness as Iím not sure how much further I would have been able to push that analogy). Sick thing is, thinking back on it I still want to believe my shadows were more interesting than everyone elseís cheap Technicolor reality.


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