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Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Plato, Wayang Kulit, Werner Herzog and Tarot

The film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2011), by the German director Werner Herzog, portrays the singular opportunity to shoot in a 32,000 years old cave of the Prehistoric man. The cave was only recently discovered in southern France. It is so fragile that only authorized researchers are allowed to enter. The frescoes in the cave are spectacular and mesmerizing: horses, bulls and other animals are vividly living in the beautiful darkness. Herzog chronicles them in 3D through a slow exposure of the relationship between them and the researchers. The film dives slowly to the melancholy of the cave and the viewer’s mind: it describes how the fascinating images inside the cave become rich in their details the more we go deeper into the cave and along with it into our souls. The researches themselves testify that every time they come out of the cave they are unable to be released from the haunting images of the cave and they yearn to return inside – sometimes just hours after they have left the darkness. Generally speaking, this metaphorical depth of the “cave of thoughts”  is a constitutive motif in western culture. The allegory of the cave by Plato is one of the most quoted phrases of this metaphor.

The allegory of the Cave is one of the most influential texts in the history of philosophy and thought in general. In fact, the shadows of the things around us accompany our lives almost every day. We meet people and talk, consume art in various forms and the experience remains as shadows deep in our minds. They play a kind of dance game – often vivid and consuming but not always accurate in comparison to the original experience. Like our fellow prehistoric man, we reserve our best cave images or thoughts to the depths of our soul. Those shadows are carved into our souls and stay with us for years. Other images vanish and leave only a pale sign at the entrance to our cave of thoughts. Like the allegory of Plato’s cave, we are prisoners watching the shadow images on our cave walls. Plato also argues that, unfortunately, we  are prisoners of our minds and we do not need a philosopher to teach us about the true sunlight outside.


Many scholars have written about Plato’s cave and here we will briefly present it. The allegory of the cave is an educational allegory about prisoners chained in a cave since childhood. They are tightly chained so they do not change their position at all – even their heads. The entrance path to the cave is long and narrow and a fire is burning at the end of it. Behind the chained prisoners things passes through and their shadows fall on the cave’s walls. In this way, the prisoners are condemned to see the shadows on interior wall without realizing their source, the fire. The cave prisoners are like spectators in a shadow theater but they believe these shadows are reality itself. One of the prisoners who represent the figure of the philosopher breaks his chains and goes out of the cave to see the sunshine. He returns to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners what he saw. However, the prisoners do not welcome the liberated with love: They do not even want to listen and venture to kill him.


The Tarot card number 13 is traditionally called in different cultures “The Card with No Name” but sometimes the image of death is mistakenly attributed to him . Thus,the card’s meaning is not death but a state of fundamental change we are going through. In this context, the image of the skeleton figure may represent the prisoner from Plato’s cave which was released from his fetters. As the liberated prisoner, the skeleton has shed all his skin, i.e, his former life. The skeleton wishes to revolutionize his life on the, he realizes that this is the end of an illusion according to which he spent his life so far. This change can be defined as a radical change “to the flesh and bone” – literally and figuratively speaking. The prisoner or the skeleton undergo a metamorphosis: his mind transforms from seeing the shadows and speculating according to his senses that these things are real – to the direct intellectual observation of the sun and the true knowledge of things themselves.


The bottom section of the card, which contains mostly the black earth, may represent the cave and its prisoners. This is a fruitful comparison: we see the skeleton’s yellow scythe which yellow color symbolizes cognition and knowledge. Thus, he is like the released prisoner seeking his way up in the of Plato’s cave. He is leaving behind two figure heads; they are the prisoners who are still in it. Like Plato, who is not specific about the identity of the prisoners in his cave, the card implies that kings and perhaps even our parents may be among the cave dwellers. Quite clearly we see that the heads of the prisoners in the card’s cave turn their eyes from the golden grass that may represent the fire burning in the cave. In fact, these characters are looking at us and they seem to be telling us about their spiritual decadence. In this way, we and the figures in the card share the same fate. Similar to the liberated prisoner in Plato’s cave, the skeleton wants to restore his social contacts with the people he left behind. He wants to show them his new yellow scythe or the new knowledge he has acquired, but they do not even look at him.

Beyond the fact that he is ignored, one may ask what does the future holds for the philosopher in the cave ? Does he is destined to be presumed as an “intellectual skeleton” while the prisoners disregard his knowledge? These questions continue to accompany Plato’s “Republic”; however, they take an interesting turn in the Indonesian shadow theater called “Wayang Kulit”. One can find it fascinating that parallel ideas bridge the geo-cultural distance between this ancient theater and the Greek cave. In fact, Wayang offers an interesting alternative ending to the allegory of the cave.


The Wayang Kulit draws its inspiration from the Hindu scripture stories. Itadds to those scriptures elements from classical drama like the hero/villain conflict, comedy and even parody. The theater puppets are made ​​from leather of buffalo and are stuck on bamboo sticks. The Shadow of the dolls is displayed on a white screen. The master puppeteer Indonesian name is “Dalang”. The dalang is not just a puppeteer; he is the mediator between the spectator and the divine. Hours before the show, the dalang meets with his future viewers and hears about their troubles. The show will contain clues for possible solutions for these troubles, often in the form of the good against the bad theme. Before the show, the dalang lights his oil lamp, talks to the dolls like they were humans in all respects, sits cross-legged before the white screen, and the orchestra, the Gamelan, begins to play. Soon after, with the start of the show approaching, the dalang burns some incense and prays to the gods to protect him. The actual show is continued throughout the night until dawn and always adopts its themes, as mentioned above, from the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana. The dalang is governing the puppets with both hands while tapping on a wooden box. He changes his voice tone depending on the figure: sometimes his voice was like soothing melted chocolate and sometimes it is like a thunder storm. He laughs whispers, shouts, groans, mocks. Each puppet figure has its gestures and manner of speech. An average performance consists of 80 shadow puppets. The bulk part of the show is spoken in a language the villagers don’t understand – the Kawi. However, this does not bother the spectators who know the stories and characters by heart. Just in case, the dalang recruits a local clown who presents the basics of the story in the local language or dialect.


The dalang, just like our cave’s prisoner- philosopher, aims to entertain his audience – he strives to be understood. This is a most difficult profession – much more than just convincing the prisoners to escape their cave. The dalang must remember long religious texts and simultaneously keep the collective tradition intact and improvise in a creative manner. Thus, the dalang is not like the gloomy cave’s philosopher – he is a philosopher and an artist in one act. In every performance he must regain the balance between these kingdoms. In fact, the dalang is a prisoner in Plato’s cave but not a regular one: he is the prisoner-philosopher that is not bound with chains. He chose to stay in the cave and view the shadows in his artistic and creative wisdoms. The Waiang Theater tells us that we should strive to be like the dalang, that is, to re-experience our inner shadows and not just watch them passively. It might not get us out of the cave but we could ascended beyond our human condition and create our own walls.


The Tarot card “The Sun” describes the arrival of the released prisoner-philosopher to the cave. The boy on the right had just discovered the sun, the good. Until now, he bathed in the wise ray-lights of his cosmic father and now he wants to share his knowledge with the boy on the left. However, the boy on the left has a little tail which signifies that the animal sensory impulses still control him. He wants to achieve the happiness of knowledge but will not give up his tail so effortlessly. We see it in his gestures: while the boy on the right is trying to help and trust her hands on the shoulders of his fellow, the boy on the left hand is reaching to his fellow stomach. We can only speculate that they maybe share a collective consciousness but we can also imagine that the boy on the left is trying to reach his fellow heart and limbs. Like Wayang Kulit’s atmosphere, the card is telling us that one must strive to reach solidarity in order to be understood by your fellow people. However, the road to knowledge of the common good for all of us is not easy: we may encounter the beast inside us. The Sun card, the card without a name, The Allegory of the Cave, Werner Herzog and theater of Waiang will guide us in our journey.


Filed under Tarot Philosophy

Fortune Kills: Boethius, Boccaccio, Pasolini and Tarot

The idea that there is a hidden force behind human actions known as fate or fortune was prevalent in the middle ages. One of the most important books from that period is “The consolation of philosophy”. “The Consolation of philosophy” was written by the Roman philosopher from sixth century AD, Boethius. It was one of the most revered books in the middle ages and even though today it is almost forgotten, its vivid ideas still prevail in our culture. The book is a semi – autobiographical dialog, which expresses a rare philosophical profundity. It was written in prison before the execution of Boethius and expressed its ideas through allegory, vision, human drama and even humor and self-irony. Boethius sits in his cell, waiting for his death by the cruel and despotic ruler; he gets a visit from a woman – Philosophy and they talk heartedly. The consolation of philosophy ultimately becomes a double victory of spirit: the victory over human body and over cruel destiny.

consolation of philosophy

According to Boethius, inner happiness is the only thing which is immune to the vagaries of fortune. The whims of fortune are inevitable and only God knows the plan of the world. History is like a large Ferris wheel whose essence is fickle, thus you should not complain if you will be thrown back into the abyss. Good times pass, but so bad ones. The ability to change is our obstacle, but at the same time it is our only hope. Boethius describes how destiny is haphazard and undirected in the eyes of the common people and wants to offer a true model for a better life.

“The Consolation of philosophy” influenced many Renaissance writers and its central motif received many beautiful literary adaptations in Italy of the 14th century. The Image of Lady Fortuna captured the hearts of many poets such as Petrarch and other excellent writers. In literature Lady Fortuna gave favors and gifts for some, and snatched cruelly from others what they thought they rightly deserved. Her image was used for explaining why the nobility fall from grace and their place in society is taken by the common but talented people.


Fortune is one of the central motifs in the work “Decameron” by the 14th -century writer and Italian Renaissance man Giovanni Boccaccio. For 10 days of its occurrence, the work of Boccaccio does not skip any branch or curve in the twisted fate human life: corruption, lust and licentiousness, greed, deception to death, fraud, religion, mocking the weak, exploitation of women, impoverishment of assets, wastefulness church, vengeful cannibalism, human predation by mad dogs, ugliness and body convulsions – all these are described in 100 groundbreaking stories – in a graphically and erotic manner. The name “Decameron” in ancient Greek indicates the 10 days in the life cycle. Interestingly, 10 is also the number of the wheel card which itself indicates the end of a life cycle that started with the fool card.

Decameron can be likened to a giant wheel of life: the book starts from the worst case of the human condition – the epidemic of “Black Death” and ends after 10 days with a spiritual and intellectual ascension back in Florence. Decameron is a frame story, innovative for its time (Novellino): the framework is a plague that causes 10 young men and women from the upper class to flee from Florence to a village in the outskirts of Florence. The work’s body contains 100 stories told by those young men and woman. Each tells 10 stories in 10 days and every day the topic is changed by the group leader. The circular motif is present in the content of the stories as well: The stories describe how the elite view of the impurity of the lower class that wants to act like the higher class. Even the author himself is trapped in such a circular frame: Boccaccio was the bastard son of a lower-class merchant and an aristocracy woman. In this manner, the bastard tells a story about the mixing of the nobility with the common folk. The motif of beginning and end, high and low are present through the entire work.

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was a modern Renaissance man: a poet, writer, philosopher, artist, publicist and especially a gifted filmmaker. For the intellectual crowd his films are celebrating the festival of life in all their ugliness and beauty – with an extra sauce of unique Marxism. However, Pasolini himself wanted to reach the masses and puff a magical Marxist fart in their face. Thus, his tragic figure as an artist is manifested in the fact that he directed his films for the masses but they did not understand his worldview and brutally murdered him in cold blood. Pasolini life moved erratically on the wheel of fortune: from a haunted poor poet to an estimated poet; then a famous director and finally a hated Marxist murdered by the masses. Like Boccaccio, Pasolini climbed to the heart of the Italian enlightenment from a remote town. Pasolini’s films weave the lowest with the highest form of human existence too. Pasolini liked night-walking in the toughest of Rome suburbs and perhaps under the influence of the Roman Boethius, Pasolini loved to tease wheel of fortune and challenge it again and again. In his films Pasolini renowned some literary classics and added a spice of erotic scent to them.


One of the monumental films of Pasolini works is the interesting adaptation for the Decameron. Pasolini’s version is unfaithful to the original text but this is not the film main purpose. Pasolini is interested in criticizing the contemporary Italian society through ancient metaphors. Pasolini carefully selects 10 stories from the Decameron. The characters in these stories are manipulated and displayed in the context of their socio – economic status to support his unique Marxist position.

The first story in the film tells the quirky adventures of Andreuccio, a naive merchant (played by the wonderful Ninetto Davoli ) . Andreuccio fortune is spinning on the wheel: in the first scene he appears as a carefree successful merchant in the market, but one day he is seduced by a beautiful young woman to come to her home. She makes him a delicious dinner, after dinner his stomach hurts and he wants to make his needs. He goes to the shit pit but pushed into the hole. The scheming young woman locks the toilet door and steals the money of Andreuccio. Stinking from head to toe he is forced to swim in the sewage and climb to the upper window. He comes down from the gutter and stands dirty outside the house. When he shouts the woman’s name in order to get his money back the neighbors stoned him and threaten to murder him. Smelly and painful he is picked up by two people who tell him that he was actually a fortunate man. They tell him about a treasure which is hidden in the grave and offer him a partnership provided he will agree to enter the tomb and take the jewelry and gold. The grave belongs to a rich bishop who died the day before and the thieves claim that the bishop was buried along with his many treasures. Andreuccio the naive goes with them and enters and the grave. He throws the treasures which to his partners but when he wants to get out they close in the stone cover of the tomb and leave him in the dark with the body of a bishop. Andreuccio yells and screams but no one can hear him. After a while, another two thieves come and are trying to enter the tomb as well. Andreuccio bites the leg of one of them and smuggles the panicked thieves. He takes the gold ring from the Bishop’s finger and leaves the church, happy about his newly found fortune.


The wheel card describes the various life cycles and the opening and closing of the circle of life. Like Andreuccio story the card may describe a person whose fortune is dependent upon external circumstances rather than as an internal act of choice. Thus, Andreuccio entrust his fortune to the caprice of life. The card implies that we should accept life on its ups and downs. Anyone whose life is currently going upward must accept that it will go downhill someday. Like the reader’s track in the Decameron frame, the movement of the animals in the card is framed too. They move from left to right, i.e., from downward track to the rising in the future. Perhaps the opposite direction is true as well: the card tells us that what is now on the top may drop down. Generally speaking, the Decameron’s motif of beginning and end, high and low runs through the card interpretation. The knowledge that life may change is comforting us. We accept the whims of fate but not surrender ourselves to them. The key is knowledge: We remember that Boethius’s initial motivation was to be comforted in the arms of philosophy and the comforting atmosphere is also present in the card. The beast which is coming down now may exceed in another life and form. One of the deepest insights of Boethius was that the cycle of death and rebirth was always moving and its movement is the key to understanding the victory of the spirit.


However, if we go back to Pasolini, it seems that the fortune of Andreuccio is being varied by external forces outside of his own control and knowledge. Thus, Pasolini is implying to us that the wheel of fortune is very dangerous: Andreuccio is spinning on it carelessly and almost dies. The card shows the same rhetorical tone in the complacency of the sphinx at the height of the wheel. The danger to the Sphinx and Andreuccio occurs where they feel secured and safe holding their fortune. In a Marxist manner of speaking: the individual who looks strong today may find his real wealth only in the grave. Just as no one rotates the wheel in the card and the wheel is located on a land that is not stable, the capitalist economy mechanism will not be able to roll on forever. Andreuccio victory at the end of the scene is ironic because he was holding a stinking golden ring.

As described in the card and by Boccaccio and Pasolini as well – life could be a gamble which sometimes can be capricious. We open one circle and close another and vice versa sometimes. Thus, we must adapt ourselves to the routine of everyday life and perceive our fortunes on their ups and downs. Pasolini and Boccaccio want to formulate the rules behind the cycle of death and birth – each in his own unique way. The process of formulating the rules has an artistic conclusion: At the ending scene of the Decameron by Pasolini, the artist, played by Pasolini himself is asking: Why to create the work of art when it is such a great thing to dream about it? The key to answer that question is to look on the wheel of our life: We are the artist who strives to manifest the beauty of his/her dreams in reality, but this striving is actually manifested in real life by celebrating the beautiful and the ugly – just like the spinning wheel of fortune.

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