If, in a hundred years, someone found this picture, they could probably deduce quite a bit about me. It seems, for instance, that I have at least two siblings, and am probably the only fair haired child (and thus delight!) of my parents. Someone in my family is an enthusiastic supporter of the Lions Club (as well they should be). Someone is also ahead of their time with respect to their eclectic taste in home decorating. And if the person was really inuitive, they might figure out that I am a rabbit with an awkward orange fringe (and should have had a career in the Ice Capades).
In the “Allegory of the Cave,” the most well known section of Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes human life as akin to being chained inside a cave with only the light of a fire and the shadows of puppets played on a wall for our edification. We can’t see very well or far; the echo means that all sounds is distorted; and we are chained such that we can’t walk around the cave or touch any of the other inhabitants. Plato contrasts this world with the world above the cave. That world is illuminated by the sun and one sees not shadows of puppets, but rather real and actual things, including the astronomical bodies, even, for an instance, the sun itself. The natural and physical realm in which we live, Socrates says, is like this cave. Everything in it, ourselves included, are constantly changing, deterioritating even, such that we can never, it seems have complete knowledge. All we grasp are the shadows of existence. Beyond this wold, however, there is a another, truer reality to be known.
Pulled out of context like that, this story (among others) might suggest to you that Platohad little interest in or patience for the physical world. Instead, he might seem to be the epitome of the philosopher who lives with his head in the clouds and his feet squarely in a cow paddy. And yet, Socrates also tells us that the sun, while signifying in the allegory the absolute or, in Platonic language, the Good, is really its off-spring. In other words, however, deficient the natural world might be, its source or cause is the infinite itself. Further, just as the Truth gives reality to ideas so that we might know them, the sun illuminates the world for us, even if not with absolute clarity. And, as Socrates’ argument shows-for it is the way by which he himself has gained whatever knowledge he has of the Good-knowing the sun and the things it illuminates, knowing the children of the good, can tell you something essential about the nature of Goodness.
David Adams Richards’s novels shed further light on this argument. Most casual readers and some not so casual reviewers sometimes remark on the darkness of the novels. Characters are often depicted living in extreme poverty and have to endure sickness, abuse and death. The very landscapes he describes of heavily wooded areas themselves seem to lend themselves to the prevailing sense of shadow and gloom. Yet, in Mercy Among the Children, what might arguably be described as the hardest of the novels, the protagonist concludes his story by saying it has been a life of joy, and, indeed, all of Richards’s novels are about joy.
Marcus Paul, a detective who appears in The Lost Highway and is the titular character of Incidents in the Life of Marcus Paul, shows us a path out of the shade and into the sunlight of knowledge. From tire tracks, to cigarette butts, to paint chips, to bundles of wood and wood chips-no clue is too insignificant for Marcus Paul. Instead he attends to each as though it will lead him to some essential truth. And, as it turns out, they do, for by following the trail of evidence, Marcus inevitably discovers the truth.
Despite the fact that he is investigating crimes and in spite of the gross injustice and often moral decay that surrounds him, Paul treats the objects and people of the world as having an inherent integrity, such that he can apprehend how they each might speak to a larger whole that has its foundation in truth. Further, while the impetus for Paul’s investigation are crimes, the death of a young man (Marcus Paul) or an old man (The Lost Highway), and his work has the affect of revealing the perpetrator of said crimes, Paul seeks not to find someone to blame, but rather to clear the names of the innocent or to bring justice to the victims and their families. Rather than concealing the light or the truth, for Marcus Paul, the particular beings of the finite order actually reveal what is true and good.
Presumably what Socrates says is true-the finite and material world is, when compared to the metaphysical heights of absolute truth, murky and dark. And of course there is no complicated truth present in a picture of me in a rabbit skating outfit (except of course the sheer delightfulness of a world in which that sort of thing happens.) Yet even from shadows, if one pays enough and sufficient attention, one can discern shapes and often know the object to which the shadow belongs. And this means that the shadows are important, even infinitely so, for they are the means of mediators of what is absolutely true.