One of the most powerful moments in Plato’s dialogues comes when Socrates lays out his allegory of the cave.
In Plato’s recounting, the great philosopher posits the notion that men are like captives forced to watch shadows flickering on the wall of a cave.
In time, he supposes, they might come to think the shadows are the reality.
“To them,” Scorates imagines, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”
This effort to grapple with the way that humans perceive reality is provocative, thorny and also a surprisingly compelling read, at least when compared with much of the philosophical hieroglyphics that came after.
But I think Plato had it kind of wrong.
It turns out, in my experience, that people are fairly skillful at distinguishing stories from reality. They can hold a “make-believe” in their heads at the same time that they perceive “the truth” of the world around them, more or less accurately.
The two things — story and world — coexist in fruitful ways. We watch the shadows on the wall, and use those figments to illuminate our understanding of life.
I came to this meditation on light flickering on a cave wall after listening to Chris Morris’s story this morning about movie theaters in small North Country towns.
At least ten of our cinemas might go dark if they don’t make the conversion soon to expensive, new digital technology.
Listening to his report (itself a kind of shadow on a wall, right?) I started thinking about my own experience growing up in a tiny rural town, going to movie theaters to catch glimpses of flickering images of a wider world.
I can still remember the visceral, wondrous transport of seeing London for the first time, or New York City, or the moons of Jupiter, or the inside of a person’s mind — all cast in images of light and color on a silver screen.
I experienced those journeys with other people, sitting in the dark, sharing a sense of awe, a sense of being taken to other places, other times, and into the visionary worlds of great actors, writers and directors.
Maybe it’s old fashioned in this age of smart phones and Ipads, but I worry about that lost moment of shared imagination, of shared story. These days, we’re all mostly in our own little caves, looking at our own flickering images.
I think the effort to save these movie theaters — the passion shown by activists who want these cinemas to survive — reflects a yearning for that experience.
It’s a healthy instinct, I think. Yes, of course, we know that those flickering images aren’t real.
But powerful stories, especially when shared, expand our understanding of the real. Especially for small town kids like me, they push back the horizon, giving a sense of other possibilities, other realities.
Check out the North Country’s Go Digital campaign here and chime in below with your cinematic memories.
What was the first movie that rocked your world? Do you still go to the movie theater, or are you catching films these days on your digital device?