Plato’s Cave: Rebel Without a Cause and Platonic Allegory

Nicholas Ray’s 1955 cult classic film Rebel Without a Cause[i], starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo is broadly understood as a violent, tragic recapitulation of the family. It is—‘following’ abstractedly, at least in title, Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath—a character study of suburban alienation in youth, and of latent psychopathy, influenced also by Freud, particularly ‘Family Romances’ (1909), Oedipal conflict, absence, surrogacy, and displacement. The pseudo-family created by Jim Stark (Dean), Judy (Wood), and John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Mineo), tends to dominate critique. But the anachronistic nickname ‘Plato’ gives further structure to Rebel Without a Cause than the commonplace psychosexual Freudian and Lacanian[ii] readings, for Nicholas Ray intended us to see his existential melodrama as a version of the ‘allegory of the cave’ from Plato’s Republic (circa 370 BCE). A moment of Lacanian/Platonic crossover: At Dawson High School, Plato sees Jim in the mirror he keeps inside his locker above a taped-up photograph of his absent father, or the compact mirror passed between Jim and Judy. Plato idealizes Jim in a homosexual version of Oedipal conflict where the mother is exorcised and replaced by the desired substitute father-lover. Sal Mineo idealized James Dean in the same way, even seeking him via Ouija board after Dean’s death. The mirror in the Plato’s locker—both closet and ‘cave’—is formative of Plato’s queer desire and his sense of himself as a embodied desiring subject.  A double reality is present, a counter-narrative. The film revels in such ambiguities and instabilities. Originally titled The Blind Run, inspired by a subterranean juvenile delinquent subculture automobile racing/chicken scene that existed literally underground, in a tunnel on Mulholland Drive, Rebel Without a Cause uses Plato’s allegory to frame the transit from darkness to light, from one delinquent/arrested subjectivity to another with its own disorientations.

Plato’s allegory, commencing Book VII of Republic[iii] employs metaphors of imprisonment and illumination to describe the disorientation and trauma experienced by any who move between the shadow-world of ignorance and illusion and the numinous world of knowledge, direct perception, education, and enlightenment. Plato describes beings who are both prisoners of ignorance or the consensus of limited experience.

Imagine human beings as if they were in a cave-like dwelling underground, with a broad opening to the daylight across the whole width of the cave. They have been there since childhood, chained not only by their legs but by their necks, so that they can’t move and can only look ahead of them — the neck-chain makes it impossible for them to turn their heads round. (239)

The ‘strange prisoners’ (240), as Glaucon describes them in the dialogue, are fixed with a fire at their backs that casts shadows upon the cave wall before them. Enslaved thus, since childhood, the prisoners perceive the insubstantial shadows and the echoes of things reverberating from the cave wall as reality; with no other experience, they understand this as the totality of being. Prisoners drawn from this cell into the light, are confused, blinded. The confrontation with experience, the acquisition of knowledge, illumination, creates dissonance, agony before it yields to pleasure and ecstatic contact with higher things.

And as he remembered the place he lived in first, what counted as wisdom there, and his former fellow-prisoners, don’t you think her would call himself happy for his change of residence, and pity the others? […] And if he had to compete once more with the permanent prisoners at “discriminating” between those shadows of theirs while his eyes were still not functioning properly, and hadn’t yet had the not inconsiderable time they’d need to settle down in the new conditions, don’t you think he’d make a laughing stock of himself? It would be said of him that he’d only gone up to come back down with his eyes ruined, and that it wasn’t worth even attempting the ascent? As for anyone who set about trying to release them and take them up there, if they could somehow get their hands on him and kill him, don’t you think they would? (242)

The cave yet remains. It can be revisited. One can return to the strange prison, but the sometime comforts and forced stabilities of the artificial and superficial themselves turn to work dangerously against the psyche. The subjectivity of the remaining prisoners rejects the returning escaped or freed prisoner. His return is so disorienting as to negate, cruelly, his ‘higher’ experience. It is, Plato says, the same with the experience of the divine and the return to human affairs,

[…] blinking and not yet properly adjusted to the surrounding darkness, he’s forced to compete in the lawcourts and elsewhere about the shadows of justice, or the statues that cast the shadows, and wrangle about the way these are understood by people who have never yet caught sight of justice itself? (243)

Plato shows Glaucon the twin disorientations: the transit from darkness into light, and from light into darkness. He describes the delicate balance in the ‘turning round of the soul’ [244]. This conceit in Plato is vital to Nicholas Ray’s framing of Rebel Without a Cause. Mineo’s callow character is given this classical philosophical marker to direct us back toward Ray’s use of the allegory.

Rebel Without a Cause is an almost entirely nocturnal film. Originally slated to be shot in black and white, the saturated Cinemascope color of its scenes, interior and exterior, is haunted by shadows; shadows cast by automobile headlights, police searchlights, flashlights, streetlights, and candlelight. These are the shadows on a suburban Platonic cave wall. In Republic, Plato describes the prisoners of the cave as ‘ones that resemble us’ (240) and this is Ray’s point. The existential agony of Rebel Without a Cause is in large part the struggle of youth to ascend away from the insubstantial and cloying platitudes of post-war suburbia toward the sincerity embodied by Jim Stark. In the nocturnality of Rebel Without a Cause, one of its few daylight scenes occurs when Jim Stark attends Dawson High for the first time: his eyes not yet properly adjusted, he fails to notice the school shield after he ascends the school steps in a vivid crowd, and transgresses by stepping on it.

The most overt reference to the allegory of the cave occurs shortly afterward, during the Griffith Observatory planetarium scene, where the junior and senior students of Dawson High, including Jim, Plato, Judy, and the gang led by Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), watch a projection of classical constellations—Orion ‘the hunter’, Cancer, and Taurus—and a light show that includes the dramatization of the destruction of the Earth ‘in a burst of gas and fire’ by an expanding, dying Sun. Later, when Plato fantasizes Jim as his surrogate father-lover, he describes to Judy a pastoral antidote to suburbia in which Jim will teach him to hunt and fish. He aligns Jim with the ascended Orion, returning. Under the planetarium projection, Jim tells Plato, ‘I was thinking that once you’ve been up there you know you’ve been someplace.’ Jim, implicitly, has been up there, at least in Plato’s idealization of him[iv]; this is part of the film’s subtext of divinity, the leitmotifs of ascent and ‘standing up’ are also present in the original Platonic dialogue. Finally, as the expanding star brings blinding deathly light to the audience, Plato cowers behind Jim’s seat in terror. It is the same traumatizing fire of Republic. Plato’s horror, his disorientation in which he covers his eyes and falls to the floor, is the same as that of the strange prisoner emerging into daylight. He is not ready. This projection scene, in which Ray collapses the POV between the protagonists at the planetarium and the cinema-goers watching his film, furthers the conceit of the cave in that cinema itself captivates with the projection of light from behind its audience to create an illusory subjectivity with a soundtrack of echoes. The medium amplifies the message from an ironic position.

Another of the sparse daylight scenes follows the planetarium/cave scene: the switchblade fight outside the Griffith Observatory when Jim emerges and is confronted by Buzz’s gang. The Griffith Observatory and its planetarium are neo-Classical spaces. Nicholas Ray intends them to function as tragic theatrical spaces, but also as a recapitulation of the allegory of the cave. The Apollonian symmetry of the observatory entrance is used to close out the film. Jim’s antagonist in the knife fight is Buzz Gunderson. The fight is symbolic, a rite of passage, for Jim to establish with Buzz and his gang that he is not ‘chicken.’ Plato tries to intervene on Jim’s behalf, and Judy warns ‘Look out, Buzz, he’s got a chain!’ The intervention is ineffectual, and importantly, Plato never properly wields the chain as a weapon. Plato holds it as if it might become a restraint. The fight—a numinous ritual in daylight—threatens Plato both by endangering Jim (Plato’s homoerotic divinity), and by suggesting Jim’s ascent, where Plato is afraid he cannot follow. When Plato is attacked by Buzz’s gang near the climax of the film, once he has descended into the sunken swimming pool at the abandoned mansion, it is with chains that he is threatened.

The knife fight proceeds to the ‘chickie run’ on the bluffs where Jim and Buzz race stolen cars toward the cliff edge to see who has the courage to remain in their car longest without bailing out of the driver’s door. The track toward the cliff is made by two inward-facing rows of the gang’s cars, their headlights on. Judy steps into this projected lane to start the race. The protagonists enter the absolute subjectivity of the juvenile delinquent, projected by the headlights. Judy’s shadow extends across the dirt. Again, Plato cannot bring himself to look. As she starts the race, she leaps into the air, her body and shadow momentarily disconnected from the earth, ascendant, orgasmic, as Jim and Buzz’s priapic automobiles race past her and her skirt flares up. Jim jumps from his car. Buzz’s leather jacket catches on the door handle. He is the ‘strange prisoner’ of delinquent subjectivity (even as he recognizes Jim’s authenticity, and likes him) and like Plato’s cave prisoners, he finds himself restrained, bonded to his mythology by his leather jacket. Trapped inside, Buzz plummets from the bluffs and the car explodes in a fireball. He dies, as one of the cries out, ‘down there!’ in the darkness.

No! Don’t turn on the lights. It’s too bright. Plato doesn’t — Turn out the lights!
—Jim Stark

The climatic moments of Rebel Without a Cause take place after the substitute family of Jim, Judy, and Plato have been forced from the abandoned mansion—tall shadows projected by Plato’s candelabra—and have retreated to the Griffith Observatory, and the planetarium. Hiding in the auditorium, Plato asks, ‘Jim? Do you think the end of the world will come at night time?’ Jim replies ‘At dawn.’ The two are half in shadow and half in light. Jim asks Plato, ‘You’re not ready to come out yet?’ Outside the observatory, the police are waiting to arrest Plato. The lights from their patrol cars invert the ideological space created by the delinquents in the chicken run; they cast ‘the shadows of justice,’ or represent ‘the statues that cast the shadows’.  Jim attempts to negotiate for Plato, who, seeing the searchlights of the squad cars projecting toward him says, ‘It’s too bright…’ He is afraid to leave the observatory-cave, partially blinded and disoriented by the police lamps. Momentarily, Plato is reassured as Jim convinces Ray Fremick to order the police to turn out their lights. Plato bolts into the security of the darkness before the police lights are turned on again, and—briefly staring directly in to the light—Plato is shot. What Nicholas Ray wants us to experience is precisely the ‘turning round of the soul’—the camera tilts and rotates around Plato’s death. As Jim cradles Plato’s body, he is caught between grief and absurdity, inarticulate pity and the awful laughter of sorrow. Rebel Without a Cause is a hip dramatization of classical suffering.

‘A person of any intelligence,’ I said, ‘would remember that the eyes become confused in two ways, and for two reasons, namely, when their owners move from light in to darkness, and when the move from darkness into light. Thinking that just the same will hold for souls, he would not laugh when he observed one in difficulties and struggling to see, because that would be irrational. Instead, he’d look first to see whether it has come from a life of greater brightness, and is clouded by unfamiliarity with its new surroundings, or whether it’s moving from a deeper ignorance to somewhere brighter, and it’s the glare of the light that is dazzling it; and if it was in the first condition, he’d call it happy for the way it is, and for the life it’s living, and if it was in the second condition, he’d pity it — or if he did choose to laugh at it, it would be less ridiculous than laughing at a soul that has come down form the light above.’ (244)


—James Reich, April 2017

[i] Ray, Nicholas, director. Rebel Without a Cause. Warner Bros, 1955.

[ii] See Jacques Lacan ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ (1949) in Écrits. New York. W.W. Norton and Co., 2006.

[iii] Plato. Republic. Trans. Christopher Rowe. London: Penguin, 2012.

[iv] Jim has been through a similar scenario in another town where he ‘messed up a kid’ for calling him chicken. His family insist on moving him away from the scenes of experience. He is, in a sense, returning to the cave and negotiating with its inhabitants and their shadow subjectivity, cast by the existential bondage and conformity of suburbia, and the psychopathology nurtured by their perverse environment. In the final scene of Rebel Without a Cause, it is Jim’s previously emasculated father who agrees finally to ‘stand up’ (see Plato, p. 240) with Jim and to face the metaphorical sunlight.

Cite this essay:
Reich, James S. “Plato’s Cave: Rebel Without a Cause and Platonic Allegory.” Outsider Academy. 24 June, 2017. Web. [Date Month Year Accessed].

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