Saramago and the Allegory of the Cave

See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.

So begins Plato’s famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic. This myth, vivid in its description and message, has fascinated writers and thinkers in the West for hundreds of years. Following in this path, Jose Saramago’s novel The Cave uses the allegory as a critique of a hyper-capitalist society built on the principles of progress and free markets.

Telling the story of a potter’s struggle to come to terms with the lack of demand for his work and art, Saramago grinds away at the bureaucratic and streamlined efficiency of the commercial process. Personified in the nameless administrators with whom the protagonist has to negotiate with and prove his worth to, the social order’s duplicity becomes revealed. The administrators are friendly and accommodating on the surface, pretending that they only have one’s best interests in their minds. They even insist on compensating him for his labor, even if it comes as a monetary loss to them. Yet despite this gesture, it is difficult not to notice the ruthless efficiency and ultimate disregard with which they are capable of cutting off a craftsman’s means of livelihood in accordance with the logic of supply and demand. It is this logic that dictates the lives of The Center’s inhabitants.

The Center itself represents the gravitational pull of the novel. A labyrinthine fifty-story complex of shops, cafes, attractions, hospitals, and everything else, like an irresistible force its existence looms over the main character’s minds. A semi-living entity, as The Center continues to physically expand in all directions, including underground, it also seeps deeper into the characters’ mutual interaction. In effect, it acts as both the physical and ontological horizon, defining and conditioning the range of future possibilities the characters have to choose from. There is no escaping it.

This dystopian overtone, as well as the plot of a fallible character struggling against circumstances he cannot truly understand, owes much to Kafka. Yet whereas Kafka’s work, despite its dark humor, recoils from any identification with human warmth, Saramago masterfully injects his story with a sense of mutual respect and understanding that is so prominent it is almost tangible.

It is this appeal to human closeness and an ethics of care for the Other that ultimately leaves the reader hopeful that the characters are able to overcome the structural logic of a society that, in its quest for efficiency and leisure, has collectively embarked on the road to nowhere. Most disturbing is the tranquility with which Saramago conveys this political message. One never gets the feeling of an impending crisis that can rattle the foundations of this civilization unless things change for the better, but only the feeling of a slow, dull existence continuing into the hazy future.

It is on this last point that the allegory of the cave, which only manifests itself in the final twenty pages of the novel, proves to be especially poignant. It is only upon seeing a hoax of mythic proportions being prepared for mass consumption by an unwitting public that the characters decide to cut their final ties with The Center. The novel ends with them driving away from the city, their destination unknown. Yet even then, they carry with themselves the knowledge of The Center’s upcoming plans–a knowledge and a memory that is likely to stay with them long after they have commenced their new lives elsewhere.

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