Thursday, November 29, 2012
Shadow Dimensions: Plato's Cave, Wayang Kulit & the Literary Endeavor
Other novels have also created their own particular shadow dimensions: characters and plot-lines that obstinately refuse to depart from your mind - because they transcend the pages upon which they were transcribed. They speak to a deeper part of ourselves, become anchored in our very flesh and bone, all co-existing in some improbable complicated kinship, adjacent, hovering, there in some hard-to-define fashion, like the literary equivalent of string theory in quantum mechanics. Or an impossibly glittering Gatsby-affair to which all literary 'players' are invited, all taking tea within the confines of your mind! The special books, the ones that speak to your heart, their shadow-world hovers the longest, permeating future thought and speculation, filtering through the porous inter-dimensional membranes to solidify within the familiar world through which we meander. Other books, the ones that came and went, sampled and enjoyed, but did not affect one in a visceral way, their shadowed world dissipates more rapidly like the morning mists after the rising of the sun.
The novelist creates characters (as much as I use the word I do so reluctantly, 'characters' have a two-dimensional aspect that implies archetype devoid of blood and bone) that interact in a dynamic interplay of plot and dialogue. These imagined individuals, for the time of reading, comprise our reality, our alternative vision of things, the story so masterfully woven that it becomes for a time our own internal chronicle. Much like Plato's Allegory of the Cave where the chained prisoners perceive the shadowed projections cast upon the wall and believe it to constitute reality. While writers would hardly liken their readership to those imprisoned and forced to bear witness, their narrative is not unlike the dance of shadows that plays across the walls of our minds.
Novelists create shadow worlds, alternative realities that exist within the cranial confines, which have no material counterpoint in our three-dimensional world. We cast shadows upon the wall for our readers, a reflection of a possible reality, a confluence of imagined people within a particular dynamic. Plato's Cave requires the escapee philosopher to return and educate the prisoners as to the nature of their deception, the shadowed narrative of literature, however, can perhaps be understood with the opposite intent; while the Cave display dupes its viewers, the literary shadowplay ostensibly serves a nobler purpose: to further our understanding of human nature, to examine unacknowledged motivations, to illuminate the deeper elements of ourselves that run like sluggish subterranean rivers through our subconscious. I say ostensibly because there is a power in print, and has been since Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Access to literature of all kinds has molded and shaped nations as well as the liberties offered or denied their citizens. While books (and by extension their authorial voices) can sway and influence public opinion one must also approach them with a critical eye, and a firm sense of our own morality. I do not assume a nefarious purpose here, but merely bow my head in wary acknowledgement of its potential.
Perhaps another analogy for the literary shadow-dance is the Indonesian Wayang kulit theater: puppets crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks are cast in shadow across a white screen. The puppeteer, or dalang, is the backstage genius, akin to the novelist who deftly pulls the strings of their fictionalized individuals to move them through the narrative. The writer draws upon their vocal lexicon, the dalang his vocal skills as he modulates his voice to create suspense and heighten the drama. These Wayang kulit narratives typically derive from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, with the inclusions of hero/villain and comedic-relief archetypes vividly recognized within humanity's literary compendium from the epic of Gilgamesh to the works of Shakespeare. The dalang, like the writer, seeks to entertain, and his profession is not for the ineffectual or the faint-of-heart: he is an orator of prodigious memory who must be able to repeat lengthy texts verbatim and simultaneously maintain the ability to improvise entire interludes ranging from ribald jokes to philosophical ruminations. He is a scholar of literature, but also of the political and social climate at a national and local level. The novelist today must work equally hard to engage their audience, producing a compelling narrative that resonates on a multitude of levels with innumerable individuals. The dalang is intimately familiar with the nature and symbolic importance of all his hundred-odd characters, and commands the necessary vocal dexterity to give each it's proper tone and pitch. Just as a writer constructs character-specific action, dialogue and context, the dalang presents each of his figures in stances appropriate to their character and situation.
A writer's effort and intent initially is in the production of the material manifestation of an imagined reality - the book itself, a collection of ink-stained pages, a solid three-dimensional construct indubitably a part of the material world (or a combination of bits and binary code for the e-book equivalent); but the writers that are truly great are those whose characters and plots become something more, shadowy inhabitants of our imaginative landscape, with more power in their ethereal immortality within the pulsing crimson warmth of our blood-nourished neurons than they ever possessed as an aggregation of atoms between the covers of a book. Like the dalang, we must seek to cast immortal shadows, not to dupe, deceive, or imprison as served in Plato's Cave, but to elevate and inspire, to scrutinize the human condition in all it's glorious imperfections.