Friday, 8 October 2010
In the Burning Darkness
I’ve been reading an interesting play called In the Burning Darkness by Antonio Buero Vallejo. It’s a three-act play written in 1950 that is set in a special college for the blind. It was written in Spanish, as you can probably guess from the author’s name (In fact the author is one of Spain’s most prominent and respected writers). It was originally titled En la Ardiente Oscuridad, and I can’t speak Spanish so wouldn’t have been able to read it if it wasn’t for my lovely Ustane. As you’ll see if you look at her blogs on the Links column, Ustane is a Spanish translator. She made a translation of the play especially for me (This does not breach Copyright because it's only a single copy not for sale; it's the only English translation of the play as far as I know- Writers and Artist Yearbook 2002). The reason she wanted me to read it, and that I wanted to as well, was that the play features an interesting philosophical dilemma, one that we deliberated at length between ourselves. For some reason philosophy and philosophers are not thought much of in Britain. How many of my British HPANWO-readers have heard of David Hume, Bertrand Russell or Julian Baggini? Few of you I bet! However in France philosophers are revered as heroes. Everybody beyond France, let alone within it, has heard of Rene Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. I wonder why that is…
The story begins with a group of happy and easy-going students enjoying their life at their college. They are intellectually aware of the fact that they are all blind, but don’t understand the implications of their disability. They were all born blind and their conditions are all incurable, so they have trouble understanding exactly what it means to be able to see. Many of the early lines are their discussion where they speculate what the sense of vision must be like. Like most blind people, the students have excellent hearing and spacial awareness. They walk around their colleges as easily as non-blind people. They recognize each other’s footsteps and breathing sounds and even play sports together. They live in a kind of Utopian idyll; since they have no concept of sight they don’t miss it. They don’t see sighted people as any better off than they themselves are. But then a snake appears in the garden! A new student called Ignacio is enrolled and immediately begins to sow discord and resentment among the incumbent residents. It’s not clear why; maybe he used to be able to see and lost his sight (like my late mother did), but Ignacio understands what vision means and explains to his new companions exactly how deprived they are. This news is devastating to the students, and the harmony and contentment of the college begins to break down. The poor students, aware that they are blind for the first time in their lives, lose their dexterity and manoeuverability. They stumble and trip as they walk the college’s corridors and bump into each other. Their almost psychic ability to sense each other’s presence becomes dulled and their sporting activities turn into a shambles. The play ends with Ignacio’s dying as he falls from a high slide in the college grounds and the audience is left guessing whether another student, Carlos, murdered him.
The philosophical conundrum is this: Did Ignacio do the right thing? Was it right to inform the blind students of their predicament? Actually Ignacio was quite an antagonistic character who was riven with bitterness and envy. He was something of a Dog-in-the-Manger who hated the students because their peace and joy accentuated his own mental squalor. His motive was not to enlighten them, but to drag them down to his level. However, suppose somebody did what he did with benevolent motives; what would those motives be? Could there be any justification for this revelation, which would be very painful for the students no matter how gently you let them down. Wouldn’t it be kinder simply to leave them to their happy delusion? What benefit could telling them the truth possibly do? Their blindness was incurable so they’d be left in despair. This is what is known as a Platonic Noble Myth, the idea that it is sometimes good to tell or maintain a falsehood. There are many other examples in literature, like in the film Casablanca where Rick insists that his lover Ilsa leaves him at the airport, hiding from her his own heartbreak so that she will be flown to safety. The situation in The Burning Darkness could be seen as similar. Then again: are there really circumstances in which a lie can ever be held morally superior to the truth? Isn’t there something sacred about truth and reality? Surely it is better to live with what is true and real, however painful, than with a delusion, however pleasurable and comforting? Who knows what might have happened when those blind students were told the truth. After the initial trauma they may find a way to integrate the experience and mature as a result. In a while they may even find a new lease of life from learning what their existence is really like. A good example of the promotion of this moral can be found in the film The Matrix. It is exemplified by what Morpheus says to Neo when Neo asks: “I can’t go back can I? (into the fake simulated world)” and Morpheus says: “No. But if you could, would you want to?” In this film one of the characters, Cypher, betrays this moral and turns coat in order to reenter the false world which he misses because the truth is so distasteful. In one scene he tucks into a holographic meal at an illusory restaurant and exclaims: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned... it’s that ignorance is bliss!” Another classic line is: "If we'd known we would have told Morpheus to shove that Red Pill up his arse!"
So what’s the right thing to do and what’s the wrong? What’s good and bad here? How can we know unless we ask what we ourselves would do?: What if I were actually in that position? What would I do? Think it over…
Latest HPANWO Voice articles: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2010/10/norman-wisdom-dies.html
Latest HPANWO TV films: http://hpanwo-tv.blogspot.com/2010/10/uk-probe-conference-2010.html