Wright, Ellison, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
In his observations about the films The Birth of a Nation and Intruder in the Dust, Ralph Ellison points indirectly to the truth about shadows, one of the main ideas in Plato’s dialogue with Glaucon regarding perception and the knowledge of what is true. The essay “The Shadow and the Act” (The Reporter, December 6, 1949) places a serious philosophical problem within the context of mid-twentieth-century entertainment and the practice of ideology. It is easy enough to see a correspondence between the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave and the filmwatchers in the “cave” of the movie theater. One remembers James Baldwin’s telling us that the devil finds work in the darkness of the cinema. And although technology has enabled film to relocate itself from the cinema to the home, the “caveness” of watching remains intact. Spectators are enslaved, however briefly, by the shadows that pass before their eyes, shadows that are the product of someone’s designs.
Seven years before Ellison published his essay, Richard Wright had published an early version of “The Man Who Lived Underground” in Accent 2 (Spring 1942): 170-176. Ellison was indebted, despite his later protests, to this novella in conceptualizing his masterpiece Invisible Man (1952). Like Plato, Wright was concerned with the vantage of the cave, the possibility of discriminating appearance from reality. Plato, Wright, and Ellison are motivated to enlighten us about the fragility of perception.
Concerned with invisibility as a topic for literature and sociology, Ellison proposed in his essay that
To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality. In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion. Actually, the anti-Negro images of the films were (and are) acceptable because of the existence throughout the United States of an audience obsessed with an inner psychological need to view Negroes as less than men. Thus, psychologically and ethically, these negative images constitute justifications for all those acts, legal, emotional, economic and political, which we label Jim Crow. The anti-Negro image is thus a ritual object of which Hollywood is not the creator, but the manipulator.
(“The Shadow and the Act” 267)
Ellison’s words foreshadow those pertaining to invisibility in the prologue of Invisible Man and provide a gloss on Wright’s investigation of appearance, reality, and the underground. It is no surprise that Wright and Ellison should both have been interested in Dostoevsky’s cynical “Notes from Underground.” Ellison refers to this work in the 1981 introduction for the Vintage International edition of his novel; Wright, as we know from studies of his life and work, had a profound interest in Dostoevsky and other Russian writers.
Ellison’s remarks about “inner psychological need” apply to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and that film’s reduction of black people to the status of brutes and buffoons and to the retention in the film version of Intruder in the Dust of William Faulkner’s belief that the Negro, however noble and human, must be seen as a person in need of white affirmation and salvation. At the core of these films is perception and the nature of reality, the primary subject of Plato’s allegory in his discourse about the theoretical Republic; perception is the act being critiqued in Wright and Ellison’s use of race-based social interaction in the practiced American Republic. The three authors would have us question where the site of truth and knowledge should be located.
To expose the typical, problematic imagination of many non-black twentieth-century Americans, Wright and Ellison invert Plato’s ideas about knowing the difference between appearance and reality. They swerve pass Plato’s invisible realm of Ideas and punch material Reality in the face. Truth appears in the underground, the basement, the cave not on the sun-lit surface of our world. Wright and Ellison turn Plato’s absolutes into American instances of social relativity. Invisible Man, Jeffrey B. Leak argues, “has become an urtext, the literary point of origin for questions regarding twentieth-century African American cultural discourse and the formation of black masculinity” (31). Nevertheless, the urtext of that urtext is “The Man Who Lived Underground.”
According to Robin McNallie, we should recognize that the cave in “The Man Who Lived Underground” “is the opposite of Plato’s ---that it is, in fact, connected oddly to both truth and renewal of life”(80). For Ellison, the basement is a place of hibernation and pondering the uncertainty of the “truth” gathered from adventures in the upper world of reality. McNallie claims Wright’s cave is “a womb in which Daniels begins a new and embryonic existence” (82), but we ought to remember that Fred Daniels gathers information about what might be true from the vantage of the underground. He is killed in the womb. His ultimate undoing is his belief that people above ground wish to know the truth. The nameless invisible man is far more canny; he knows truth is to be negotiated in the glare of 1,369 lights underground. His hibernation is more embryonic and womblike; it is a covert preparation for the overt action Fred Daniels takes prematurely.
Navigating among Plato, Wright, and Ellison can be a most remarkable odyssey, a rewarding journey in interpretation.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1995.
___________. “The Shadow and the Act.” Shadow and Act. New York: Signet, 1966. 264-271.
Leak, Jeffrey B. Racial Myths and Masculinity in African American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.
McNallie, Robin. “Richard Wright’s Allegory of the Cave: ‘The Man Who Lived Underground.’ ” South Atlantic Bulletin 42.2 (1977): 76-84.
Plato. The Republic.
Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Eight Men. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. 19-84.