In a famous piece of apocrypha by Plato, Socrates asks his disciples to imagine a group of people chained inside a cave since birth, their backs against a wall. The entrance to the cave is behind them and not visible, but sunlight and firelight from outside filters in, casting shadows onto a wall the prisoners can see.
The true world passes by outside, so the prisoners’ entire perception of the world consists of flickering shadows cast on the wall in front of them and the faint, hollow echoes of sounds from beyond the cave.
If any of the prisoners managed to escape the cave, the light outside would blind them, but eventually they would learn the truth of things. They would see the truth of the forms that cast the shadows and, according to Socrates, become the enlightened philosophers of the world.
Most of us mortal prisoners, then, can only perceive a world of shadows cast by a backlit truth, and many of us are just fine with that.
The finest shadows and clearest echoes are crafted by our great artists and musicians, portraits of the forms they can see more clearly than the rest of us. At the same time, we are driven further from true forms by the jagged silhouettes cast duplicitously by advertisers, fundamentalists, and politicians.
In all cases, the truth of things is blinding and often terrifying to us, the cave becomes more of a shelter than a prison, and our chains of bondage become lifelines.
Our human, plebeian comfort with what is familiar would seem to be innate and even biological, and who can blame us, or be blamed, for accepting these wobbly silhouettes as an adequate placeholder for truth? The occasions on which I find myself outside of the cave are usually traumatic or tragic, and the truth available at those moments urges me back into bondage instead of setting me free.
My favorite time of day is often called the “blue hour,” and in the loud and sunny places of the world it presents a strange and peaceful fading of reality for a short time. The peacefulness of this particular type of twilight never fails to move me, a time when the light is low enough to hide the blemishes of reality, but the world is not yet dark enough to fear the unseen.
There are some precious and rare moments in my memory, near the edges of my own consciousness and perception, where the cave has suddenly disappeared. These moments are amongst the most vivid memories that I have, and each of them is crepuscular, softly shaded in a backdrop of blue twilight
My family lived on one of the countless unremarkable and featureless cul-de-sacs in the outer reaches of the eastern Bay Area suburbs. Summers could get very hot, and the sun would bake the fresh asphalt of our street at well over 100℉ for days on end.
I struggled with insomnia, and would often sneak out at night, wading through radiant heat from the pavement in the darkest hours of the night.
One night, I couldn’t sleep at all, and a little before dawn I walked outside and lay flat on my back in the center of the cul-de-sac. I found that the ground was still warm, and I decided to lie there until a car approached. My bedroom window was just outside of my field of vision, and I turned my head every so often to watch the light grow on its surface.
Almost a year after my grandfather’s death, I drove for hours along the edges of Joshua Tree National Park alone, in search of some elusive epiphany while passing over tiny roads we had traveled together. Real pathos arose as I realized I had failed to pack a tent or sleeping bag, and as the sun set I covered myself in a couple of grimy sweatshirts and slept in the front seat of my car, with no epiphany or higher truth to speak of.
I was rustled awake by cold, the first time I can remember being woken by something so still and silent. The air inside my car felt crystallized around me, and it seemed that I was unable to move. Eventually, I managed to reach out and turn the key. The engine did not turn over.
Outside, the light was just coming up against the stars. I opened the door and saw the dark, almost black feet of the San Jacinto Mountains where they jutted out into the light blue desert floor like the roots of an ancient tree.
In March I had broken my ankle so badly that the surgeon who repaired it recommended three months in a cast with no pressure on my foot whatsoever. I was out of work and spent a great deal of time napping, reading, and watching movies in the exact same position on my couch.
There was a large window in the living room, and without even moving I could see the outline of the rooftops of two apartment buildings against the sky. The same scene filled my field of vision for hours at a time: an arbitrary, familiar pattern of roof angles against the sky that I soon believed I should try to remember.
One evening, just at twilight, I woke up on that couch and opened my eyes. The rooftops were clean black edges framing the immutable shape against the deep blue of the impending night. I kept looking at it, trying to memorize every line and precise angle, until it was too dark to see.
These are precious fragments, lucid and sharp waking dreams, each one remarkable to me in that my memory of them is preserved as if in blue amber; I can still see the shape the rooftops cut against the gloam well enough that I might be able to draw it. I remember the itch of tiny pebbles lightly poking into my back as I lay on the blacktop of our cul-de-sac.
The depth of these memories cannot be culled from mere shadows of forms but only from the forms themselves. The roots of the mountains were forms and shadows, just for those brief, blue fragments.
Plato’s cave allegory can be seen as an uncanny description of human interaction in the Information Age.
With alarming ease, we cast the shadows of our own true form the way a ventriloquist throws his voice, the way a fortune-teller speaks of a mark’s certain future.
As we remain willing prisoners of the monetized shadows and echoes driving our perceptions on a global scale, I think more and more of what exists in the crepuscule of my own memory, a sensation somewhere along the border between what I perceive and what is actually there.
That sensation is calm, infinite, and almost silent. I remember it well.
Matthew Glaser lives in San Francisco.