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Pressburger in Plato Land

June 1, 2007

In Plato’s Republic, Plato explores the idea of a cave that unenlightened human consciousness inhabits. Through this metaphor Plato looks at the effects of education on the soul, while demarcating the path individual consciousness travels as one experiences a perception shift. Giorgio Pressburger’s story The Law of While Spaces in his collection The Law of White Spaces can be read as a metaphor for a soul’s journey escaping from a similar cave. Over the course of Pressburger’s story, the main character comes to discover that meaning is not found in the dark letters on the page, but that “Everything is written in the white spaces between one letter and the next. The rest doesn’t count” (Pressburger 38). The white spaces in Pressburger correspond to Plato’s notion of light. The lesson is to turn away from the shadows cast on the cave wall and turn towards the light emanating into the cave’s mouth. Plato’s imagery of the cave is evocative and he sets up the idea with:

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. A fire burning far above and behind them provides light. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets (Plato 186-187).

Pressburger’s main character in The Law of White Spaces metaphorically inhabits a world much like Plato’s cave. He is a successful doctor who is set in his ways. Although he is a physician whose job it is to heal, he is more focused on his own pride and the reputation he has gained from being a successful doctor. He is trapped by his assumptions and set in his ways. His life has become comfortable and stagnant. It is helpful to think of the doctor’s mentality as a metaphorical cave that he must escape to find understanding. In Plato’s cave allegory he states, “Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them? (Plato 187)” Then things begin to change as the doctor unexpectedly begins to forget things. This new crisis draws his attention to the hazy dream quality of his perceived reality. Like being mesmerized by shadows on a wall he feels like he has been asleep and dreaming. ” ‘I’ll just see if I’m still asleep,’ he said, pinching his arm. ‘Of course, this might be only a dream too,’ he went on, aloud. ‘Dreaming of pinching oneself—what nonsense” (16). Initially the doctor forgets the phone number and name of one of his oldest friends, but gradually he notices that more of his memory is slipping away. The doctor’s world becomes foggy. The character’s inability to remember corresponds his inner state. With Plato’s metaphor, this can be seen as an inkling that a need for a change in perception may be coming for the doctor. Plato writes:

But anyone with any understanding would remember that the eyes (perception) may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something (or remember), he won’t laugh mindlessly, but take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance (Plato 190).

Initially the doctor character focused on fixing the symptoms instead of trying to discover the source of the problems. He began panicking as more information disappeared from his brain. He tried to hide or minimize the symptoms of his illness. As the character began working on his problem, he noted, “He was astonished at how sharp and alert he felt. It was as if he had only begun to live from the moment his life had been put in danger. Before, he had always seemed to be living in a memory, never in the present, as if he’d been in a larval state, a blind thing, completely bereft of intelligence and consciousness” (Pressburger 19).

First the doctor sought medical help then enrolled in a speed-reading and memory course. At that point he was trying to fix the symptoms instead looking for the source of his problems, but his eventual change in attitude towards science can be noted in his observation “Who said the suppositions of science were absolute truths? The human brain is immense: the size of two continents, two planets, two universes. I’ll find some way out of this. My time has not yet come” (Pressburger 21). At that point the main character began to see a way out of his metaphorical cave.

The real change for the character came from the unexpected death of his brother. With the brother’s death the doctor began to focus on something other than himself. He shows compassion towards his sister-in-law by offering her comfort and is put in a position where he has to improve his failing memory in order to recite the prayer for the dead. He exerts a great amount of energy learning the Hebrew prayer, but continues to be unable to memorize it properly. He takes on the recital of the prayer as a task he must complete for his brother. It was “affirming the meaning of the world, of life, beyond all doubt and bitterness. He had to do it for his brother” (Pressburger 31). At the funeral he is still unable to recite the prayer after the first line, but somebody takes up the task for him. Even after the funeral he continues in his effort to learn the prayer for the dead, reciting it as he goes about his daily tasks.

Then one night he had a dream in which he was a king in a golden room with church bells ringing (34). He returned to work and his attitude towards his patients can be seen to have changed. Previously he had thought of them in regards to his status as a successful doctor, but now he “went to the hospital and started to work with a will. His patients seemed on their way to recovery, he saw hope for all of them” (Pressburger 35). This can be read as evidence of his soul’s progress in its journey out of the metaphorical cave.

The doctor’s progress along his life path shows growth as he turns away from his limited past perspective and struggles and toils in his escape from his metaphorical cave mentality. Plato describes the process of discovering light in the darkness of the cave as a difficult journey that leads to an understanding of truth.

In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it (Plato 189).

With the doctor’s statement at the conclusion of The Law of White Spaces it becomes apparent that he has journeyed through a sort of metaphorical cave to discover this understanding Plato discussed. “Everything is written in the white spaces between one letter and the next. The rest doesn’t count” (Pressburger 38).

Through the lens of Plato’s cave metaphor from the Republic, I think a reader can gain new insight into the many-layered story of Pressburger’s The Law of White Spaces. In the Republic Plato explored the allegory of a cave that human consciousness inhabits. It is an allegory that closely matches the journey that Pressburger’s doctor undertakes as he strives to change his perception and learn from the white spaces. Over the course of Pressburger’s story, the main character comes to discover that meaning is not found in the dark letters on the page, but that he must focus on the light projecting past the puppets, and the shadows cast on the wall if he ever wants to metaphorically escape the cave.

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