My wife’s book club is reading The Cave by Jose Saramago. It sounded interesting, so I read it too. It takes place in some nondescript time and place, perhaps in the not-so-distant future. Most of the landscape is barren, except for some small villages, and a city, and in the city a huge complex called the Center. The Center is a huge shopping mall, living complex, entertainment center — basically, everything you need in a massive single building. Many people are trying to flee the barren landscape and gain admission to the Center, where it seems everything will be new and clean and happy. The main character, an old potter named Cipriano, makes a living by selling his pottery to the Center. His wife has died, his daughter lives with him, and her husband is a security guard in the Center. The crux of the novel is the difficulty of deciding whether to move into the Center, since Cipriano’s business is not doing well. They live a charming, romantic life in the village, and it’s easy to see that moving to the Center has all the appeal of deciding to live in a shopping mall.
What interests me is trying to connect the novel to Plato. There’s a very obvious connection at the end of the novel, but before that there are also other interesting connections. Cipriano finds a dog that turns out to be perfectly adorable, and of course we know that philosophers are supposed to be like good dogs: friendly toward what they know, and hostile toward the unfamiliar. The dialogue between Cipriano and his daughter is very elegant, like Platonic dialogue. Cipriano and his daughter start making clay figurines, which sort of recalls the overall project of the Republic. And the overall theme seems to concern what it is to live harmoniously and according to one’s nature, which is Plato’s understanding of justice.
I hope some of you other philosophers have the chance to read it, as I’m sure there are other connections I’m missing.
I’ve just read his Blindness. The basic premise–an epidemic of white blindness making its way through an unnamed city–was right up my alley. The Cave sounds very interesting as well.
By the way Charlie, I wonder what you think of Cormac McCarthy? I’ve been obsessively reading his novels. In fact, it was my interest in McCarthy that made me turn to Saramago. There seems to be a certain thematic affinity between the two. Of course, McCarthy’s world is far more brutal than Saramago’s: but both of them–Saramago with his allegoric citiscapes and McCarthy with his violent Southwestern landscapes–touch on the notion of a fundamental, ontological gap that disrupts the functioning of an otherwise harmonious universe. In McCarthy’s case, it’s only through extreme violence that the this gap can be closed and the world can regenerate and regain–at least temporarily–its fragile harmony.
My wife has been reading McCarthy for her book club, maybe I should take a look.
Funny: Nate (another Philosophy alum) recently told me that Blood Meridian is one of his favorite books. I have it now but haven’t read it — I’ll do so, and look up Blindness. Extreme violence closes the gap? What, restores us to nature?
McCarthy himself is apparently a big fan of the notion that humankind is nothing more than a stupid animal species that is bound to destroy itself anyday now.
But, I wouldn’t call the process I’m describing a return to the “natural” state: it’s more like a restoration of balance in a symbolic exchange between natural and the human. It’s difficult to articulate this but I’ll try.
All through Blood Meridian and the “Border Trilogy,” I sensed McCarthy’s conviction that it’s places like the Southwest that can really speak of “the real shit,” to borrow from your Aphorism #2. The violence that his characters carry out then is a natural extension of the violence McCarthy sees in the desert, in nature. And characters like Blood Meridian‘s Indian scalpers are creating a new world (regardless of how one morally judges Manifest Destiny) by giving nature its due, by reciprocating nature’s true monstrosity with equally depraved gifts of their own…
But I should stop before I give the impression that Blood Meridian is a stilted, thesis-driven novel. Above all, it’s a magnificent piece of writing.
By the way, Sohrab, I recently read a review of a critique of Said’s Orientalism, which you might find of interest. Here’s a link to the review:
I was going to post this as a comment on your website, but at least right now there seems to be some complication in getting to the comments on your first post.
Ibn Warraq’s critique of Said and the whole genre of postcolonial studies seems really well-reasoned, especially when commenting of the logical inconsistency piece:
“Said is committed to an incoherent set of claims about whether or not doctrines have essences. One the one hand, he is committed by the nature of this thesis to the claim that Orientalism has an essence. On the other hand, he indicts Orientalism for the claim that Islam has an essence. The first claim commits Said to the belief that doctrines have essences. The second commits him to the belief that they cannot. The combination is obviously inconsistent, but both claims are central to his thesis. Given their inconsistency, Said is obliged, logically, to give up on one claim. But given the nature of his thesis, he cannot disavow either claim without disavowing the thesis of his book. The book is therefore an obvious intellectual failure. To add insult to injury, Said explicitly admits that he “designed the book to be theoretically inconsistent.” It follows that the book is an avowed failure. To add yet further insult to injury, Said has the audacity of accusing Orientalism of violating the laws of logic – a criticism that can be described, at best, as a lifelong act of hypocrisy.”
I also like Ibn Warraq’s pen name: “son of the page(-maker).” I’ll have to pick up Defending the West soon.
By the way, comments on Iranian Freedom should be working now.
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