Saturday, July 27, 2013
The Exterminating Angel, Plato and Narrow-Minded Theology
In Plato's allegory, humans have lived in a cave their whole lives, their legs and necks chained so that they can't move, even to turn around. This resembles Bunuel's story, in which people cannot step into the next room, and the people outside the house are unable to walk up to it.
There is a fire blazing behind the inhabitants of the cave, that cast shadows of the inhabitants in front of them, so that "the truth [is] literally nothing but the shadows of the images."(1) Plato goes on to say that if the inhabitants of the cave are liberated, being able to move around and see the light, they will experience pains in their bodies, and the light will be blinding. When they can finally perceive the light, having been conditioned to view the shadows as reality, they will reject what they now see, once again believing that the shadows represent real truth. Furthermore, the discomfort of the blinding light will cause the inhabitants to return to their original state of confinement to the shadows.
The shadows of Plato's allegory can be compared to things Bunuel's characters seek after for comfort in their desperation; a boy goes to some morphine the owners of the house had within the room, others go to sex and suicide, others to magical chicken feet, another to the Virgin Mary, and another cries the Mason call. The most significant and severe shadow is their inability to leave the room. A couple of them actually try to leave the room, but the have to stop and sit down because they become so overwhelmed. This is similar to Plato's allegory, in which it is painful for people to turn toward the light.
In Plato's allegory, if someone goes through the painful process of freedom from the cave, and then returns to the cave to tell others about the truth, the cave-dwellers would think he was insane. They would then conclude that no one should ascend out of the cave, "and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, [they would] catch the offender, and they would put him to death."(2)
In The Exterminating Angel, toward the beginning of the people's strange plight, the owner of the house suggests that they all take a moment of silence and establish within themselves a resolute will to leave the room. To this suggestion, a couple of the guests lash out at him, blaming him for their condition (clearly, another shadow they believe to be true). Toward the end of the movie, this accusation reoccurs, and they demand that he be put to death. He was the only one throughout the entire movie to make this suggestion. Even the doctor, who maintains reason more than anybody else throughout the movie, never tries to leave. He is too focused on caring for the people that are trapped in their condition. Alvaro, another character known throughout the film as being reasonable, is another who never tries to leave. He only observes that others cannot leave and assumes that he must be under the same spell.
These narratives can be compared to many theological beliefs throughout history. Take, for example, fundamentalists. It's not as if these people never hear objections to their beliefs, nor do they never listen to other interpretations of biblical texts or explanations of theological concepts. They do experience these things. They come across many reasonable questions that they simply cannot answer. Why don't they change their beliefs? Because they have trapped themselves in them.
With cliches like "God's ways are higher than our ways," and playing the mystery card, they dismiss reasonable objections and alternate views to their theories, and they accept their caves, made up of shadows of reality, as the truth. I have seen a theologian come face to face with an argument that, to a reasonable person, would compel him to acknowledge that there is a giant flaw in his belief system and then re-evaluate accordingly. But he didn't. He played the mystery card and chose his cave over a journey to actual truth.
The doctor can represent pastors who grow up with a certain theology that they never question simply because they accept it as truth. Within this framework, they try to help others who operate under the same theological framework, and suffer because of it. But, ultimately, they cannot help much; the people remain oppressed by an ideology that traps them into guilt, or into anger at God because they attribute their suffering to his will.
Alvaro represents philosophers in these theological sects that observe the inconsistencies and peculiarities of their beliefs, but never abandon them because they have been conditioned to believe that they are true. So they accept the mystery.
Others in the room represent people who accept these beliefs blindly and never question them, like the man at the beginning of the movie who doesn't find it the least bit odd that all the guests never left the party, or the room, but, displaying very bad manners, imposed on the owners of the house and slept on their floor. He completely dismisses it, blindly accepting his fate. Perhaps if it wasn't for the others, this man would never notice that he couldn't leave the room, but would spend the rest of his days in his cave, like the many citizens in Dark City who don't notice that they never experience daylight.
Cognitive deception is an awful thing. In it, people accept things to be true that aren't true at all, and they can't tell truth from lies. I fear insanity more than anything else, because it consists of someone living in a reality that is absolutely false. I believe blindly accepting something to be true without analysis, and then never questioning that belief, is a step toward insanity. There is mystery in life, but playing the mystery card instead of re-evaluating your belief systems can lead to cognitive deception, and, in extreme cases, to insanity.
We all have our caves. That is the point of Plato's allegory and The Exterminating Angel. We all have our caves. I have my cave, just like fundamentalists have theirs. However, with the help of evaluating and analyzing our beliefs, we can ascend out of our caves more and more. (I have written more about this here and here.)
This doesn't mean we doubt everything and never accept anything to be true (nihilism and strict pluralism are just more caves!). There is truth to be found. Integrity is seeking the truth honestly, humbly, and reasonably, re-working our ideology in light of what we find along the way.
John Daniel Holloway is a Biblical-Theological Studies major. Apart from his passion for reading theology books & writing (@ jdhollowayiii.blogspot.com), he loves watching movies. A huge fan of classic films, it's rare for him to find a movie these days that he genuinely likes.
(1) Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2000), 178.
(2) Ibid., 179.