THE MULTIPLICITY OF ONE: EMBODYING PLATO’S CAVE
Looking at Plato’s infamous Cave once again feels like coming full circle, after a six-year orbit. The Cave, thanks to our long acquaintance, feels like a comfortable venue in which to tinker with playful possibilities.
We know that behind the shackled prisoners, objects are being carried from behind a low wall, their shadows pushed outward by a raging fire. But where are these shadows being projected? Is it a rock face, or is it something (or someone) else? Using the shrewd method of pirate philosophy, I would like to imagine that the shadows are, for a moment, being projected onto my own body. The shape and nature of these shadows alters, reflecting my travels abroad, and the way that these shadows converse with and instruct my skin alters the way my body holds itself. More specifically, I’d like to contrast changes in my body’s posture between my home of Hobart, Tasmania in the winter midyear months as compared with my posture in Siem Reap, Cambodia in the monsoonal midyear months.
As Hobart sinks into its winter bed, like a smearing of wet, grey sand, its inhabitants retreat to the snug inner wings of their homes to hug hot water bottles and direct themselves into spaces neglected when the sun used to draw one outdoors, lured to the coast with a salty magnetic force. This withdrawal comes with its own particular pastimes; long chewy books, forgotten records, crochet needles, red wine heated with spice. Darkness envelopes us early, and we flock to places with sticky carpets and cracked mirror balls once a week to shed our jackets and work up a limb-twisting sonic sweat.
On many occasions it’s me up there, spinning the soundtrack that will send them into motion. I feel unexpectedly glorious on the stage, my shoulders pushing back and chest pushing out as I wriggle into my toes and fingertips. My favourite stage outfit is a pink satin jumpsuit, with a neckline that plunges toward my bellybutton. My spine is strong and tall, even as I wrap myself back up in layers and saunter home in the black-and-white bask of streetlights. There’s a certain sense of gentle ownership in a small city like this one; the streets are familiar to me, even mine in a way. Hobart trails past that low cave wall carrying swooping waterlines, rising hills, the faces of those loved, and very small things like my fine-tipped writing pen and the handle of my favourite breakfast spoon.
On a grey Tuesday morning I stretch out cold muscles and rotate shoulders, stiff from the weight of coats and scarves. The shadow of my Angkor Wat engraved keyring, a dial of months and years on its reverse, splays across my stomach. It’s tokens like this keyring, symbols from another story, that set the wheel back into inevitable traction. Curled up behind my desk, I click buttons until I’m growing wings, bound back for Siem Reap. On the aeroplane, stuck in a middle seat between a pair of middle-aged men, my body tries to shrink itself, take up less space, and then says ‘bugger it!’, reaching out an arm to cover the rests on both sides. Shadows are warped in the sky, more malleable.
Disembarking, the heady gust of tropical air is so overwhelming that it makes me giggle. It’s thick, wrapping, infused with smoke and dust and damp grass. I immediately feel more limber, and I tuck my cardigans into corners of my suitcase that I know won’t be excavated during my stay.
During the day I teach a class of teenagers how to use the language of my tongue, but I speak the language of their body while I do it. They wear ankle-length skirts and collared blouses to the wrist despite the oppressive heat of the afternoon, and I do the same. My composure is quiet, slowly-spoken, my hands pressing together to bow multiple times in a day. I feel graceful, elegant, despite the thick sheen of sweat that slides constantly from my clammy skin. My cheeks flush, throwing off any makeup I might have used to cover them at home, and my students tell me that my rosiness makes me look like a princess. One declares that I look like Lady Gaga, while another insists a likeness with Queen Elizabeth. The shadows are of temple steps, ornate wall carvings and spiky foreign fruits.
My body feels big here. It’s difficult to find shoes or dresses that fit me. Simultaneously, and despite my sudden growth, I feel more vulnerable in this swirling place. At night, alone, my body needs to find its strength again. I walk home down the thin ribs of a red road, mud wallow but the dust film already beginning to rise, letting off the campfire smell that tickles your throat. Clinging to the uneasy trails of the tourists ahead, I leap between their wayward paths like a frog. Eyes slightly down, but stride sure despite the tremble of my fingers. The lights of the guesthouses begin to trickle away, replaced by corrugated shantywalls, a jaw slipping between a fold with a quiet rumble and the scuff of rubber soles on concrete. Here the shadows are reaching hands, whispered footsteps and the image of a larger and more sinister piece of machinery that can coax a body to uninvited suspicion. How moving it is, to feel so big and so small in one breath.
If these passing, changing shadows reflect the velvety inner shell of varying cultures, then the blinding light outside the cave must be me moments before I was conceived, for only then (was it a fleeting moment, or was it almost infinite?) did I exist without shadow. Perhaps the blinding light outside the cave is me when I walk into my bedroom in Hobart after a long absence, and slump my bags to the floor, and lock the door, and take off my clothes, and unfold onto familiar sheets to look up at a white ceiling, existing between projections as one sheds for another. Perhaps the blinding light outside the cave is irrelevant, or doesn’t exist at all.
In my pirated Plato’s cave, I learn that my body can speak many different languages. It sometimes learns them awkwardly, attracting curious stares as I trip up on a phrase, but other times it latches onto the shadows with eager excitement and shouts itself to the stars.
Words by Chloe Mayne.