Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Like Prisoners in a Cave: A Problematic Search for Identity and Truth in Two Peninsular Novels

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Like Prisoners in a Cave: A Problematic Search for Identity and Truth in Two Peninsular Novels

Article excerpt


This article analyses the problematic search for identity in a contemporary postindustrial, network society. Borrowing from the works of thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells and Paul Virilio, and their work relating to the sign and its relation to our material and symbolic reality, I look at two recent peninsular novels, El orden alfabético (Juan José Millás, 1998) and A caverna (José Saramago, 2000). In these works, the main characters attempt to create their own spaces of agency in the face of a society that alienates and exploits. Millás highlights this search for subjectivity through the reconstruction of the alphabetical (symbolic) order, while Saramago looks to recapture the romantic figure of an independent artisan, still intimately connected to the work he produces. Interestingly, both novels dialogue with the allegory of the Cave from Plato's The Republic in their representation and critique of the forces that produce the daily reality that we consume.


El presente artículo analiza la problemática búsqueda de identidad en nuestra sociedad contemporánea tan influída por los medios de comunicación y la informática. Haciendo uso de la crítica de intelectuales como Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells y Paul Virilio, se analiza el intento por parte de los personajes principales de El orden alfabético (Juan José Millás, 1998) y A caverna (José Saramago, 2000) de crear su propio espacio de acción e identidad frente a la alienación y explotación inherente en una sociedad pos-industrial. Millás pone de relieve esta búsqueda por la subjetividad a través de la reconstrucción del orden alfabético mientras que Saramago recupera la figura romántica de un artesano independiente y todavía intimamente conectado con el trabajo que produce. Las dos novelas entran en diálogo con la alegoría de la Cueva de La República de Platón en su representación y crítica de las fuerzas que producen a diaria la realidad que vivimos.

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato presents a rather bleak allegory of man's existence. We are all, he posits, like prisoners in a cave, strapped into chairs, unable to move, and surrounded by darkness. The only access to ourselves and to the world outside comes from the observation of shadows on the wall we are forced to face - images manipulated by a few men behind us who dance figures in front of a fire (Grube 1992: 186-87). Indeed, what we prisoners are obliged to watch are images of images. Because we can have no real knowledge of the objects these images reflect, we understand as real what are mere shadows, distortions caused by the idiosyncrasies of our mental vision or those of the reflecting medium.

Many argue that little has changed for contemporary society, in that we still do not see reality as it is, but rather as it is represented to us. We do not see things directly and we are attached to the illusion because it constitutes our world and gives meaning to our particular existence. Indeed, as Jean Baudrillard taught us, all forms of communication are based on the production and consumption of signs. Thus there is no separation between 'reality' and symbolic representation. Therefore, identity can be manipulated by those who control the production of the signs we take as real. More recently, Manuel Castells expanded on the critique of Baudrillard. He agrees that '[a]ll realities are communicated through symbols. And, in human, interactive communication, regardless of the medium, all symbols are somewhat displaced in relationship to their assigned semantic meaning'. He goes on to claim that, 'In a sense, all reality is virtually perceived' (1996: 373). Today, a post-industrial, global network society creates the figures, the objects, whose reflections we see. It is a system that generates what Castells calls 'real virtuality'. A system 'in which reality itself (that is, people's material/ symbolic existence) is entirely captured, fully immersed in a virtual image setting, [. …

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