Flynn: Allegory of the Cave

What can we make of Flynn’s use of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”? Its use in this book–how it resonates with other images and ideas? Its relevance to our study of creative nonfiction and autobiography: does it resonate with other authors and texts we have read?

It is imagery worth some close reading and thinking. I have suggested that autobiography in different ways is a text about how the author came to be an author, and in that sense, how this text came into being. In other words, autobiography, as an act in creative reflection, could be viewed as an allegory of writing. I think Plato’s allegory for Flynn plays into that reflectiveness. It also suggests to me something of Flynn’s rhetorical purpose–to the extent that he is forwarding or borrowing from Plato–who has a rhetorical purpose, a philosophical argument for education and against ignorance. One critic I know refers to Plato’s allegory as a “provocative”: a verbal image about the power (and danger) of images. I think Flynn’s text has something of this provocation in its purpose.

As to resonance with other texts we have read, Douglass and his discussion of the slave songs comes to mind: the ways the songs are necessarily misunderstood, the complicated layers of irony–the implication of ignorance that extends to the readers/audience, but also to the writer–strikes me as Douglass’s version of an allegory of the cave. Remember how Douglass extends this implication of ignorance quite deliberately at the end of the narrative, when he suggests that you, reader, must be in his position, in the place of the fugitive, in order to understand him. Here we were, reading the narrative of a prisoner, escaped alone to tell us, and it turns out that we are the prisoners. Douglass has left slavery in the south, but he has returned to the cave.

I see this play out in Flynn’s title chapter, “the ticking is the bomb” (132). Notice Flynn’s deliberate use of the second person: “Let’s say you’re a soldier in Iraq… Or let’s say you’ve been trained as an interrogator.” He then follows this up, extending the second person in the imperative. “Imagine this: You don’t even have a child, not yet, but as a ‘thought experiment’ you are asked what you will do when she is kidnapped….”

Like Douglass, and like Rankine, and perhaps like Wolff, Flynn is engaged in a thought experiment. The writer implicates the reader, you, the one hold this book in hand, in that thinking; he implicates himself. “So here I am, my fingers tight around Proteus’s neck, asking my same question, over and over, as if the answer exists, inside the maniac, inside the prisoner, inside the beloved, inside my mother, inside my father, inside me, as if the answer is there and just needs to be released.”

What’s the answer?

For background on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: an overview from Wikipedia; a video adaptation of the passage from Plato’s Republic where the allegory is presented; transcript from Book VII with the passage.


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