Film Still: It Happened One Night

Updating the Allegory

Posted on: Tue, 2014-05-13 22:11   By: glue

One important thing I learned writing Avatar Emergency was that the tradition of Descent (Avatar) I reviewed in search of a relay for an electrate identity formation (a collective subject)--a Western equivalent of an encounter with the Absolute-- culminated in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a version native to America.  Emerson condensed into his Self-Reliance (Transcendentalism) the entire tradition of communication between god and man, in versions both East and West.  The insight was chastening, to some extent, in that the authority I relied on in AE, Nietzsche (the adoption of his motto from Pindar--to become what you are), was learned in part from Emerson! A reason for insisting on the relativity of our pedagogy for a global apparatus, then, is just this local character of our scene of instruction. There is a scene of instruction proposed here for an electrate education, but you have to test it for yourself.  What we provide is testimony, even testimonial, to describe our own engagement with this prototype, my own striving to persevere in my own being, to become what I (already) am.

The best account of the contemporary continuing relevance of Plato's Republic, and specifically of its essential scene of education expressed in the Allegory of the Cave, is provided by Stanley Cavell, in his book Cities of Words.  This extraordinary text is a record and review of a course that Cavell taught at Harvard for many years. What is the Cave today? Plato already challenged his contempoaries by declaring that the "Hades" of Orphic Descent was their own everyday life world.  Today the Cave is the illusion or even delusion of everyday life: "Conformity" for Emerson; "Inauthenticity" for Heidegger (the "They"); "Ideology" or "Doxa" for critical theory.  The scene of instruction relevant to the educational model we seek happens by means of a conversation, dramatized in the dialogues.  The conversation for the Classical Greeks is between or among friends, as in The Symposium, exploring who is the best lover. Cavell proposes that today the therapeutic dialogue remains valid, with metaphysical friendship today modelled in the film genre he identifies as the Remarriage Comedy.  The profundity of Cavell's insight into the tradition and the import of this conversation cannot be overestimated. 

The first lesson is that cinema, even Hollywood popular culture, in a genre of "women's films" that may be unique to the United States, is adequate to conducting the work of philosophy in transition from one apparatus to the other.  Cavell's insight is that these romances perform the journey or path out of the cave, out of the dark into the light, the path from enthrallment to conformity and expectations of others (they), to discover and act upon one's own desire, to become what one is (to fulfill one's potential or capacity for experience).  The capacity in question is that of the person to change, to turn (con/vert, or a/vert as Emerson says), to remain open to a further, better version of oneself.  This journey requires a guide, a friend with moral standing, to whom one is vulnerable, open (it is a reciprocal openness).  There is a choice, a decision, at the core of identity, dependent upon phronesis, the virtue of Prudence (the theme of Avatar Emergency).  The choice is between life or death.  What does this mean?  It may be seen in the difference between the genre of romantic comedy and melodrama.  In melodrama there is an internal obstacle, something that resists, chains and freezes or fixes the subject, in the cave, as in (Max Ophuls).  Cavell notes that the theme, if not exactly the genre itself, continues in such films as Monstruck, or Groundhog Day. The uncanny match with Avatar Emergency is that my example of a contemporary version of descent (Daimon in the Western tradition), was , directed by Nora Ephron, which falls within Cavell's definition of remarriage comedy.

The conversation, the friendship, does not happen in melodrama.  Or, at best, the realization of possibility comes too late, the encounter with life is missed. To choose life is dramatized today as a couple forming from two individuals at odds, as in , directed by Frank Capra, starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Cavell proposes one scene, one sequence from the narrative, to emblematize the formation of the couple, their emerging love relationship, entering into life, that is, becoming eligible for happiness.  The shift from conformity to acting upon one's own desire (the moral imperative) begins with the articulation of experience into public diurnal pretense and intimate nocturnal companionship.  We already glimpse an instruction for revision (how to exceed this model), to reconsider the importance of night and darkness in this articulation (against the denigration of darkness in the cave).  The pair negotiate their mutual transformation from isolated manipulation of circumstances to authentic experience (love) through conversation (dialogue).  Cavell  selects as emblematic of this burgeoning intimacy, emblematic of the genre, a scene on the road (the journey, the way).  There are four parts to the emblem: the pair are 1) on the road; 2) walking; 3) together; 4) away from the camera.  It is a kind of "wedding photo," Cavell suggests, lifting out of ordinary anywhere this achievement of human life, a capacity (without guarantee) for happiness.