Alone Together: thoughts on José Saramago’s The Cave

by ericaeller

Click the picture to read in the Quarterly Conversation how Saramago has begun to blog at the age of 85.

“Heidegger’s analysis of metaphysical truth as Aletheia (the unveiled), that of Plato’s myth of the cave, makes clear the continuity in Western definitions of the Truth: the unveiling, bringing to light of that which had been lost, hidden, veiled, badly “represented.”  Truth in the West has always been defined as “exactitude of representation” in which “man thinks everything according to ‘ideas'” (Alice Jardine, Gynesis, 147)

I’ve been waiting to write about this book on this blog for a few months. My thoughts return to José Saramago’s novel, The Cave, periodically, because it left a lasting impression. In addition to all of the crossings of philosophical “ideas” it produces, Saramago’s use of language itself is inviting — an aesthetic route towards a soft and welcoming otherness that is very much appreciated.  The book is a joy to read.  The characters are enigmatic and the overt simplicity of names and titles of things in the book, such as the dog named “Found” or “The Cave” or “The Center,” are deceptive.

The book’s Socratic and Platonic allusions remain present in my thoughts with a political elegance that is hard to find in written texts, whether literary or not.  My lasting impression of the text is summed up in the phrase, “alone together,” since at the end of the novel, we witness the family of Cipriano Algor discover their isolated togetherness that forms a contrast to the norms of their “world.” This familial structure is rooted in the bond of kindness and understanding developed out of the unique personalities of Cipriano Algor and his daughter, Marta, who becomes pregnant and is the central figure of hope in the novel. They are the defiant “heads” of the household, in spite of the semblance that Marta’s husband is the head due to his financial responsibility. It is Cipriano and Marta’s shared strength in togetherness that negates the mutual need and reliance upon the paradigm of the commercial structure imposed on them by what is called “The Center.” The discover the system of dependency that structures their lives in relation to this commercial force, and they wish to remain autonomous in their own self-understanding, together.

This separatist vision of a parallel, but alternate, form of social engagement to that of the “spectacle” (or something like it…) struck me as similar to the way I form friendships.  We are taught to stay ‘plugged in’ inevitably to the “center” of Facebook or the common-knowledge of the “media” which seems to be a commons made up of news, shows, weather, technology, holidays, work-weeks, etc. where all of our interactions are publicized, standardized, and reflected as phenomena belonging to the paradigm of our commercial/social existence.  The friendships I prefer exist outside of these connections and form private, momentary, alternate allusions and connections during the time of their occurrence. No one else knows about them or needs to know about them because for the rest, these interactions are not relevant. Except for the fact that they draw into question the force of the public standard of the other “outlets.”  I like to think that my friends and I, we share alone together temporary moments of richness that comprise their own fleeting center.  I can’t help but imagine that this impulse towards separation, while it seems similar to some kind of territorial expansion, its abandonment of the “Center” makes it a form of power-dispersal, which appeals to me.  I imagine it is some form of secret tribalism and playful space of identity formation beneath the formulaic structuring of the identities we are taught to assume.  Now, after those abstractions… I’ll return to my “topic” which is not “secret-separatism-of-historic-nonevents” or an ideological exposé on the dispersal of power, but actually, the book itself:

The geography of “The Center” creates interesting structural allusions in the novel, based on an underpinning notion of the clash between cottage industry and factory manufacture in a contemporary moment. We witness the veritable dying-out of the aging potter Cipriano Algor’s production of clay earthenware.  His earthenware is gradually replaced and outsourced to the factory, where a more-durable plastic counterpart is produced. “The Center” is the commercial enclave that houses an assemblage of workers, their families, and a commercial center that keeps them thriving, but separate from the nearby “city” and the in-between space of the green-belt, the industrial-belt, and the village that lies in the “invisible” expanse between. While each geographical space seems to represent a distinct historic era of modes of production, deep beneath “The Center” (which for me was synonymous with Spectacle because of its internal simulation of weather, and other “natural” experiences) a secret team of excavators who recruit Marta’s husband, discover the ancient Platonic “Cave” with the skeletal remains of prisoners, which juxtaposes the furthest reach of antiquity and the furthest reach of modernity in a vertical relationship.

The novel develops towards this ultimate discovery which triggers the family’s willing abandonment of the “Center” when Cipriano’s daughter comes up with a plan to sustain the use-value of Algor’s potter’s knowledge to create dolls, instead of pots, or representative figurines, that could be sold at “The Center” and that people could display in their homes. Although their experiment ultimately fails, the shared experience of working-together allows them to develop into the portrayal of an interesting bond between like minds working towards something distinct in the face of larger questions of existence.

The spatial representations of the green-belt and the industrial-belt contrast in the novel, but they nevertheless fold into one system of the “beltness of the belt” (borrowing from Moby Dick’s whiteness of the whale) which mystifies and naturalizes the mode of representation such that the paradigm depletes that which does not employ or support they “system’s” own model of itself.  The self-modeling of a capitalistic structure that is impartial to outside influence, seems to be the central figure of the “Center” in this novel. Note how his straightforward referential “names” produce the effect of redundancy when we try to form a theoretical vocabulary around it, which is why Saramago is such a thoughtful writer.

All of these allegorical placements are softened in their overt constructed-ness, however, due to the conversations that diffuse and render “human” the interactions between these distinct zones. The novel never produces an image of violent clashes between the structures as the end result, but rather a shifting to and from regions, and the subtle confrontations that arise and dissipate in conversations.  The representation of the “Center” is most profound throughout he lens of the dialogic language of confrontations between those on the inside and those on the outside. For me, there is nothing more compelling about the book than the rhythm of alternation between “systems” as embodied by the speech patterns, modes of knowledge, and areas of presence and absence that appear in the voices of the characters during dialogue. Sometimes it is the mere “temporal quality” that contrasts the different systems – one is a structure of deadlines and approvals to keep the workers moving between stages (Center), the other is an expression of work as a life-long process that is not only comprised of momentous action, but also of meditative contemplation about one’s role in the world in relation to one’s material craft (Cipriano). This struck me as highly significant.

While at times, the novel seems purely allegorical. The novel favors that which lies outside the “Center.” The futurity of that which is growing “extinct” within the productive representations of the “Center” nevertheless finds hope outside the supposedly all-knowing-gaze of this structure, that is ruptured by the fragmentation of the Algor family’s alone-togetherness.

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