It is a common theme in fiction for the core objective of the protagonists, or rather the event that starts the story proper being an attempt to escape an oppressive ideological prison, a Platonic cave of sorts. In fact, it is the core of The Hero’s Journey, wherein the most important point of the story is the crossing of the threshold between the known prison, and the unknown outside world. This is easily and frequently seen in fiction: Rapunzel’s tower in Tangled, or the entire ocean for Ariel in The Little Mermaid; beyond the city walls in Divergent’s Chicago, the 13th District thought to have been destroyed in The Hunger Games, — this seems to be a frequent trope in YA dystopias — the “vaults” in the Fallout game series, a self-inflicted prison.
Plato’s cave was used to discuss epistemology, the discourse surrounding knowledge and its nature, and this is precisely what this article is about. Applying semiotics to Plato’s cave; the real animals are the signified, and their shadows cast upon the walls of the cave are the signifier, meant to represent the signified, but not quite it. The idea in Plato’s allegory is that because its prisoners only know the signifier, and not the signified, the former is thence become truth, the signifier is indistinguishable from the signified in their mind. In philosophy, this would be more commonly known as the map-territory relationship, which describes this specific dichotomy between the object and its representation.
Interestingly, philosopher Jean Baudrillard would go on to explore a strangely similar analogy in Simulacra and Simulation, by invoking a fable written by Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science.” In the story, a great Empire is very proficient in cartography, so much so that it eventually creates a map which is the exact scale of itself, which can be amusingly imagined as an entire continent covered by a paper rendition of itself. As the Empire falls, as any empire seems doomed to, all that is left is the map. Just like in Plato’s cave, the figurative representation has become the only reality left. However, Plato’s cave is not quite Baudrillard’s simulacrum, in that the animals are still very real out there; they simply will never come in sight of the prisoners, unless they somehow escaped the cave. In Baudrillard’s mind, the situation is different. Dissimulation is the act of hiding the presence of something. Simulation, on the other hand, is the concealment of its absence. The simulacrum, while a very interesting concept in its own right, is not relevant to this explanation: it is the truth (or rather, therefore become truth) that conceals the fact that there is no truth, no Real.
One film actually takes inspiration from Baudrillard’s works: The Matrix. However, Baudrillard considered the Matrix to be a misunderstanding of the simulacrum. The eponymous computer program is a simulation in which all humans are trapped, a Platonic cave, the “desert of the Real,” directly quoting Baudrillard. However, Baudrillard defined the desert of the Real as the fact that the Real simply didn’t exist anymore, destroyed by “hypercapitalism,” and all that was left was the simulation. This is not true in the film. The “red pills” can simply exit the Matrix, and come back to a real, albeit diminished world. A true simulation would have simply left no alternative to itself, no Real to go back to. The Hero would simply find themselves crossing the threshold only to find nothing beyond; not the Real they sought for. Nothing at all, as a matter of fact.
Samson and Delilah is, interestingly, both a return to the real and yet perfectly exemplifies the above idea of crossing the threshold into nothing. The way this happens is because it is on separate layers: textual, and metatextual. Samson and Delilah deconstructs the fantasized imagery surrounding aboriginal culture on the metatextual level, and deconstructs Samson and Delilah’s fantasized ideal. It therefore also deconstructs Baudrillard’s simulation, in that they view the hollow real behind the virtual. The simulation simply does not substitute itself to the real, because there wasn’t a real anywhere for them. It is especially self-evident in the presence of Delilah’s artworks, and Samson’s petrol addiction; they both exist in semblances and maps beyond the territory, however the only thing, in a darkly ironic twist on romance, is the bond between the two. As the director put it, the film is a survival love story, a wordless story of human attachment in the deepest abysses of these characters’ misery. Even the tenuous connection with the Biblical characters of the same name, only having in common the cutting of their hair, and the character of Gonzo being seemingly saved by Christian goodwill, although whether this is true or not seems to be a simulacrum in and of itself, seems to be a hollowed-out image. These characters seek a better tomorrow outside of the community, and simply do not find it — in fact, find even worse. In a sense, Samson and Delilah is the death of simulations and semblances.
This is actually an interesting response to Frances Peters-Little’s paper on nobles and savages in television. The notion of “noble savage,” misattributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps for his belief that man is born good and is thus corrupted only by society, refers to the idea that the “savage,” born outside of civilization — or at least Western civilization, as the implication of the colonial view is that no civilization besides the West’s is actually civilized — is therefore as a child, untouched and untarnished by the woes and temptations of the civilized man, that no “devil” can tempt a creature which simply does not understand morals and laws. In a sense, it is a form of magical thinking that attributes to the Aborigine a child-like purity which does not exist. Split in halves, this dichotomy of noble and savage refer to both the immoral and lawless savage, and the pure and angelic noble. In that regard, the notion of noble savage is also a simulation, concealing the lack of a real distinction between men.
Ironically, Australian television, even in some of its attempts at decolonial thinking, sticks to this racist and backwards imagery nonetheless. There are some caveats, in the sense that a film such as Ten Canoes does not deliberately perpetuate the image of the unequivocally noble Aborigine — it is rather a result of the filmmakers telling their story, not attempting to portray the characters in any particular light, but looking fondly and sympathetically upon them. In their article on the question, what Peters-Little actually blames, is expectations from the audiences. Nothing is always quite clear-cut and categorised, and yet, audiences expect that Aboriginal Australian and White Australian cultures should exist separately in their own respective vacuums, unaffected by one another’s existence, although this has been a disappearing trend in the last decade. The true Aborigine must live with their own, and any attempts at integration, whether deliberate, or simply a result of their personal life, is therefore a betrayal of the authenticity of the Aboriginal identity. One such extreme example of this is seen in the NIMAA, the National Indigenous Media Association of Australia, which was presumably founded with a progressive and inclusive goal, and yet attempted to exclude Aborigines working with national television channels, as somehow their mingling with White society made their Aboriginal television not “real.” Authenticity is, in a sense, a purely arbitrary distinction. The attempt at erasure of mixed-race Aborigines and whatnot is not entirely dissimilar to the premise behind the “separate but equal” policy of the United States. There is, of course, no equality when everyone remains neatly in their own little box. Ten Canoes is at least in parts genuine, an authentic Aboriginal film, because Djigirr told an Aboriginal story of his own, despite the presence of White director Rolf de Heer. A work featuring multiple artists is a work not of one of them, but of all of them: writers, actors, directors. There is neither genuine nor false in this.
Samson and Delilah is not just authentic, it’s extremely naturalistic and bleak in its depiction, refusing any magical thinking and any absurd notion of noble, or savage, or noble savage. It is not to say that there is no moral compass, or a pure, stoic neutrality. The depiction is both cynical and hopeful, part light and dark. Nothing besides Samson and Delilah matters, as long as they have each other. It’s not a story about what’s around them so much as it is a story about them, and only them.
Work cited: Peters-Little, Frances. ‘Nobles and Savages’ on the Television [online]. Aboriginal History, Vol. 27, 2003: 16-38.