Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

Understanding our being in terms of our place: Poems in ‘Rift Zone’ and ‘Last West’

“What is being?” Philosophers often ask this, but when the proposed answers are shrouded in jargon, the effort may cloud more than it reveals.

We already know in our bones what being is because we are. “To be” is to exist in a place, to grow, to break off, to feel how this ties you to what has come before and what is still to come. That’s why I often turn to poetry. It’s both sensory and intellectual. It awakens the personal core to new ideas, or to old ideas perceived from new angles, and it freshens the question of Being with a sense of immediacy.

An old-fashioned car in the California desert. Black-and-white photo. Image from Tess Taylor's poetry book Last West.
Detail of a photo in Tess Taylor’s Last West.

Tess Taylor’s new poetry collection Rift Zone is titled after California’s geological fault lines. “Continents are milk skin / floating on cocoa,” she writes. (“Preface: Pocket Geology”) Next, she homes in on “a radiolarian outcrop / of Jurassic limestone” near where the Golden Gate Bridge is today, where one may find “Hidden in a cave, Ohlone petroglyphs,” the site of a town eventually populated with a “bowling alley, Wild West Gun Shop.” (“Song with Schist & County Line”)

Taylor remembers girls who, in high school,

Decorated each other in white reindeer lichen.
Recited the Tao Te Ching. Had sex on a cliff.
Reindeer lichen was the revolution.
Our new breasts in rain were revolution.

“Berkeley in the Nineties”

This immediacy and specificity is where we affirm and cannot argue against our being. These experiences are as far from illusion as we can get. What algorithm today can give us wild horses, “the rippling ponies / that roamed outside Fremont?” (“Train Through Colma”)

As a poetry collection, Rift Zone is split by personal markers of threat and survival: the killing of a classmate, a husband’s illness, the environmental risks inherent in homeownership, the protection of a newborn, an organized hate group…an elk skeleton. “Now ferns glisten, redwoods blacken. / Now cold buckeye seed & lemons come.” What of these redwoods? They measure the passage of time; they undeniably exist. “Each ring is still a living record; / a transitive, ongoing, / giant conjugate for being…” (“California Suites”)

We are tied to the place where we live, this place of “Blackberry, wild plum, all overhung” (“Song with Wild Plum & Thorn”) and also to other continents from where our ancestors came. “Our gravestones are signposts to everywhere: / Yun, Kobayashi, Menendez, Revere.” (“Song with Poppies & Reverie”) To be finally buried in one place forever is also to open up an imagined everywhere. “Our life is splattered star.” (“Song in Which We Yet Sidestep Disaster”)

Book cover: Rift Zone by Tess Taylor
Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

Another recent book of Taylor’s, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, is also rooted in California. It celebrates Dorothea Lange’s 1930s cross-country travel out West. After choosing to stay in California, Lange photographed migrant workers during the Depression and, later, she documented the internment of Japanese Americans. What Lange saw then is juxtaposed with what Taylor sees today.

It is a story of the “industrial almond fields” and the people who are “unhoused, / unsheltered also migrant / also escaping fleeing / or being moved along—” They work with the “hard rhythmic toss of kale; / & row by thorny row”. The detention facility for immigrants is “Surrounded by at least three gates. Four levels of barbed wire.” This, too, is a question of being; after all, it’s about what it means to “get treated as real people”.

When you live beside train tracks
you pause so much between the trains

it changes how you think.

In Inyo County, there are “mineral mountains / goldenrod & rabbitbrush. / Burnished creosote rusts away for miles—” Any of this natural landscape may be photographed, but “what does it mean to photograph home?”

Book cover: Last West by Tess Taylor
Last West by Tess Taylor

Part of poetry’s power lies in how it raises the question of being, reminds us that there are many words with which to describe our being, and helps us to feel our existence and thereby assures us that we are here right now.

When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness

“Everything must have a beginning,” as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley introduced her novel Frankenstein, and that beginning, in turn, “must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise.” In the introduction to A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking told the story of an old woman who questioned an eminent scientist on his understanding of the cosmos. The Earth, as the woman understood it, “is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” When the scientist asked smugly, “What is the tortoise standing on?” she replied, “You’re very clever, young man, very clever…But it’s turtles all the way down.”

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz understood this myth as a wise commentary on our own ignorance about the cosmos. On that point, we can take a few lessons.

Don’t try to chase things back to some pure origin.  

The humorist Dave Barry warned against yardsale furniture which, when brought home, leads you to find that “after just a few hours you have scraped away a small patch of that hideous orange paint, and underneath it you find…a layer of hideous green paint!” There is no consolation, only the inevitable admission of defeat: “You repeat this process for two, maybe even three more layers of paint, and finally the truth dawns on you: This is not really a bureau. This is an enormous, bureau-shaped wad of paint.”

The advice applies to our investigations of our own personalities. The word “person” derives from the Latin per sonare, to project sound through—that is, personality is the voice that comes through an actor’s mask. We still use the word “persona” to emphasize a character performance, distinct from the “true self” underneath. But is the true person different from the performance? How? Peering inside ourselves, if we are lucky enough to find a “true self” there, when we try to express that personality, don’t we nonetheless stumble across masks all the way down? “Stare into a mirror long enough,” Benedict Carey wrote, “and it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s a mask staring back, and if so, who’s really behind it.”

Recognize illusions to gain power over them.

Realizing the lack of anything there was the basis for Neo’s enlightenment and omnipotence in the science-fiction movie “The Matrix.” Discovering the absence of any hard reality, Neo could bend nature according to his imagination. A psychokinetic child prodigy mentored Neo: “Do not try to bend the spoon [with your mind]. Only realize: there is no spoon.”

A potential consequence of believing there is no giver of forms outside of ourselves or the storyteller, however, is that we might give up caring altogether. As philosopher William Ian Miller put it in Faking It: “The risk is that irony ends in self-involved shallowness, irony all the way down, a chronic refusal to take anything seriously. Ultimately there may be no there there.” What we may wish to do, then, is to choose carefully what images we replicate and amplify and also to admit that even our good-faith attempts at knowledge may be inadequate and illusory. David and Nanelle Barash wrote in Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “In his advice to the traveling players, Hamlet suggested that the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to nature—not, as some theorists would have it, to hold a mirror up to another mirror and thereby reflect only the infinite emptiness of mirrors.”

The question of whether God exists may not address what we really need to know.

As the mathematician John Allen Paulos framed it in Irreligion: Either there is a foundation—the world itself, or a tortoise that supports the world, perhaps—or else nothing is the foundation, in which case even God, if God exists, has a creator who in turn must have an origin.

“Now, do you or do you not believe that one of those turtles must necessarily go all the way down?” asked the character Ram in Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2. “That’s it. That is the single question we are granted to ask while in this body. East, West, North, South. Is there a base terrapin or isn’t there? Cosmology. This is the issue dividing us. The one we must each answer.”

Some long-established theologies maintain that God exists but can’t be described. “Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) spoke eloquently of the via negativa,” as Stephen Prothero explained in God Is Not One, “the ‘negative way’ to a God who is beyond space and time and description and therefore can only be said to be, as Hindu thinkers put it, neti neti (‘neither this nor that’). Even Aquinas admitted that ‘it is easier to say what [God] is not than what He is.'” Aquinas, in turn, labeled Maimonides an agnostic for going a step further and “deny[ing] that we could say anything positive about God’s nature (though we could speak positively about what God did),” since “there is nothing to compare God with and we cannot know literally what God is ‘like,’” as Eugene B. Borowitz put it in Renewing the Covenant. That is why asking whether God exists may not get at our true question. Suppose God exists; we still want to know what God is like, and this is much harder to answer.

A better question—one we hope we can actually answer—is what we want to do with our lives.

Often part of the answer is that we simply don’t know, and cannot know, because there is no final answer. We have to pass through this phase (or this level) of not-knowing before we can get at the type of knowledge that lies beyond.

Richard Kearney said in Anatheism: “One thinks of the apophatic breakthroughs of theologians like Dionysius the Areopogite and Gregory of Nyssa or the various professions of mystical unknowing by the likes of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Ruzbihan Baqli, and Meister Eckhart (who went so far as to ask ‘God to rid him of God’). Almost all the great mystics and sages attested to a moment of agnostic abandonment as crucial transition to deeper faith. They called it by such names as Abgeschiedenheit, Gelassenheit, nada. Such anatheist suspensions of theistic certainties allowed for a return (ana) to a second kind of faith, a faith beyond faith in a God beyond God.” (Although there is a long Christian tradition of this type of thought, terms like “nescience, unknowing, negativity, apophaticism, using reason to defeat reason” were, as of the 1990s, “unlikely to appear in a university catalogue” in the West, according to Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody in Mysticism.)

“Somehow this process of the via negativa, the ‘negative way,’ in which we wander down divergent paths exploring what something is not, brings us closest to the place we want to go,” Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham wrote in The Spirituality of Imperfection. “We discover a helplessness before the very word [spirituality], the powerlessness that is the necessary beginning of spirituality itself.”

Indeed, when Shakespeare’s Cordelia stood up to her father, King Lear, speaking her truth although she knew she would be punished for it, she was recognizing that a person “must travel by way of the via negativa as a precondition to having life,” as Eric Rhode put it in On Hallucination, Intuition, and the Becoming of O. The emptying of ego and the willingness to let go of social bonds can be a necessary step toward becoming a better, stronger person.

That is what we open ourselves up to discover and live when we acknowledge there is no final turtle. The turtle on which we are standing is never the last turtle. There is always another one to reach. Setting our sights on the next turtle and moving toward it is the way we will live.

What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

Displaced Hours is an out-of-print novel by Ace Boggess (Gatto, 2004). In this tale of magic realism, a professor develops the belief that he can insert his consciousness into other people’s bodies, whereby he briefly controls their actions and enjoys their experiences before returning to his own body. The mechanism for this consciousness shift is a haunted clock. The device “gave me everything I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing I couldn’t find in time. Now I used that clock like a wiretap or a hidden camera.” He takes the journey many times.

Book cover of Displaced Hours by Ace Boggess.

Another character in the novel calls the concept “cross-consciousness.” Whatever such experiences may properly be called, they allow the professor to “go anywhere and do anything” and thus turn his life into a series of philosophical “thought experiments,” especially of the ethical sort. That is: By granting him a temporary lease on life that is measured in minutes and is devoid of consequences, these experiences allow him to make choices that are ethically questionable and that he would not otherwise make. The professor refers to the haunted clock as an “ethical device” and a “morality machine” because “it set up an infinite number of hypotheses I could test to their extremes.”

Cross-consciousness experiences become increasingly alluring for him. They also lead him to madness.

“…I locked myself away like the changing werewolf in an old horror film, except that I was more dangerous in my cage than out. I think I might have said a prayer of some sort, but I doubt anyone heard it. These were idle words without repentance and just a few hints of remorse. I pulled my chair over as usual and opened the dome of the clock.”

—Ace Boggess, Displaced Hours

The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? Is the assumption that, if the consequences were bad, we would immediately end the thought experiment rather than stick around and take responsibility?

It also reminds me that there are many real-life consequences we never face because our actions cannot be tied back to us in a straightforward manner with evidence a detective could use. This happens for nearly all collective actions (as when a million people use a scarce resource that is denied to another million people, for example), and also for personal actions that no one else happens to witness or follow up on. By some twist of fortune, we often escape others’ prying eyes and don’t have to take any more responsibility for our choices. But in another sense, the lingering consequences are tied to us in (shall we say?) a “spiritual” sense. That’s because, after all, we were the ones who did it. Not some experimental personae. It was we who made the choice. We remember (even if no one else does) that we used our conscious minds to make the choice. We know this is true, even if there is little evidence in the material world that traces the current state of affairs back to us. We live with the knowledge of what we did.

Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden-variety lie?

Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.
Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.

The traditional definition of a lie is intentional delivery of false information to mislead someone else into believing that it’s true. Juan Samuel Santos, Andrea Catalina Zárate and Gustavo Gómez, philosophers at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, suggest that political lies are different from other kinds of lies. The university held a symposium on the subject last August.

An article in the latest issue of the university’s Spanish-language magazine describes their positions.

Santos notes that politicians often speak to motivate their audience to feel something or take some action, but not necessarily with the intent that the audience will believe the statements. Sometimes politicians claim certain accomplishments when the audience already knows those claims aren’t quite true. These political lies nevertheless (regardless of the politician’s intent) do perpetuate false beliefs and are dangerous.

Zárate focuses on why some lies are more believable and popular than others. She examines the relationship between specific speakers and listeners, especially in light of modern mass communication and social media that allow lies to be easily replicated.

Gómez, beginning with Plato’s dialogues and citing Derrida’s notion of a “truth effect,” discusses how a publication or a repetition can create the semblance of truth even if that is not the speaker’s intent. Authors and readers alike, he says, have the responsibility to evaluate the truth of what is communicated.

To sum up: In political contexts, speakers and listeners may not care primarily about factual information. Political speech may instead serve another purpose, and people may replicate those messages because of their existing relationships and platforms, not because of the quality of the information. When they pass on the message, others may begin to perceive it as true, even if it was never intended as a factual communication.


The article in the magazine of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
The article in Pesquisa Javeriana.

“¿La mentira política es diferente a las otras mentiras?” Alejandro Tamayo Montoya. Pesquisa Javeriana. Sept-Nov. 2019 (available free online as PDF). pp. 10-11.

At the end of the article, these sources were recommended as further reading:

The feeling of danger in ‘Shakespeare for Sociopaths’

Sociopathy—the lack of conscience or empathy—has long been a subject of interest for psychologists and criminologists who have defined and diagnosed it as a mental disorder. Philosophers, too, have their own discussions about how much of moral awareness is inborn and how much is acquired. And what do poets say…? Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths (Hedgehog Poetry, 2019), while perhaps agnostic on the definition of sociopathy, takes an entirely different approach: she examines what it feels like to interact with dangerous people.

Rag doll posing with a copy of Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths.

Garth’s sonnets are about poignant moments with unsavory characters. She depicts sociopaths she saw on the news; those she encountered at work (her jobs included “stripping and court reporting”); those she got to know in her neighborhood and in her bed; and those she invented as fictional characters.

One example from each of these four sections:

“A body wrecked requires the best of care. / Your mother with you, examination room, / he talks to her, his hands everywhere.” (“Expensive Leotards,” about a young gymnast abused by her doctor)

“A sting they call / the trap he’s tangled in. A reptile calm, / a predator who still has teeth and tongue.” (“Dora,” about a man who boards an airplane with a doll to bribe a young girl)

“Such faces, flush with heat and glimmer, clone / a sun’s salvation, sequence stretched to Mars, / but I pick you.” (“If the Star Fits…,” about online dating)

“one last acidic sip three letters reveal. / One word at bottom, tea all done. / in cursive, lavender, and it is ‘run.'” (“Insanitea,” about a threatening conversation over tea)

The ordering of the sonnets suggests increasing levels of nearness to danger. After all, a crime overheard on the news can be absorbed impersonally. Sociopathic behavior encountered in the workplace—even if it is part of the job—is riskier, and the sociopath’s presence is felt. A sociopath in the home is of course an intimate disaster. And, lastly, to find such a character in one’s imagination suggests that the bits and pieces of previous threats have been drawn so near that they have finally been absorbed and can appear in one’s own dreams.

Garth doesn’t inquire academically why it’s wrong to treat people like playthings, nor does she interrogate the details of the crimes. Instead, her poems focus on the feelings that the interactions produce. Even though (and perhaps because) she has been hurt by such people, she draws these images romantically. She shows us the aesthetics of the dance. Some poems focus on the predator; others, on the prey. To be entranced or ensnared by a sociopath is to lack a simple path out. “Run,” indeed, if you can.

That may be a shortcut through much psychological and philosophical musing on this topic: Revel less in the bewitching “reptile calm” of the adversary, and focus more on how you feel and what you’ll have to do to escape.