Images in Literature and Plato’s The Cave

In the last webinar for the year, my Master’s Elements of Fiction class discussed images, metaphors, and symbols. We discussed their roles in writing, how we approach them in our works, their relation to literary theory, and much more. I plan to (eventually) talk about everything that came up in this webinar in one form or another. For today I want to focus on a particular quote on imagery that we debated:

There are images made with eyes open and images made with eyes closed. One is about clear sight and the other about similitude.  

–Charles Simic

Our main debate was over which images were made with eyes open–the ones about clear sight or the ones about similitude–and which were made with eyes closed. Part of the class thought that images made with eyes open were about clear sight and that images about similitude were made with eyes closed. The other part, myself included, thought that clear sight images were actually made with your eyes closed and that the images made with your eyes open are similitude.

Before I explain both sides, I should give you the definition of “similitude” (I honestly had to look it up myself). Basically, a similitude is a likeness or a resemblance. (For the full definition, check out

Now, I can see why some people think that Simic means for the clear sight to be the images made with your eyes open. First of all, it makes sense semantically. Images made with eyes wide open comes first in the first sentence and clear sight comes first in the second sentence; it would only make sense if Simic meant for them to correlate. Of course, Simic is a writer, a poet in particular, and so what seems obvious in that sense may not actually be the truth.

I can also see people thinking this way because one would assume that you have to have your eyes open in order to have clear sight. However, this is a literal interpretation of Simic’s words. “Clear sight” could mean seeing things as they truly are, not just as they appear to be in the physical world.

This possibility for “clear sight” is what leads me to believe that images made with your eyes closed are about clear sight. Let’s add to this definition of clear sight the definition of “similitude”. “Similitude” is a likeness or resemblance, something which looks like something else. These sorts of images writers must make with their eyes open in order to see that which the image is a similitude of. The example I gave in class is that I see a flower in front of me, I write “there is a flower”, and that image is a similitude.

Clear sight, then, is something beyond what we see in everyday life. It’s the parts which we can’t see, for which we have to expand our sight and our mind in order to steal a glimpse.

The people trapped at the wall can only witness the shadows in front of them, but we can see that there’s much more to the cave and the world beyond it than what they see.

Image retrieved from Learning Mind

Let’s take, as an example, Plato’s allegory “The Cave”. I don’t want to mislead anyone with my summary, so here’s a link to a summary of the allegory on Wikipedia. Essentially, there’s a cave in which people are forced to look only ahead of them. Behind them are people with a fire and puppets, which they use to cast shadows on the wall in front of the observers. The people who are forced to look forward only see the shadows on the wall. It’s not until they’re freed that they can see everything: the shadows, what makes the shadows, and the world outside the cave.

Images in literature work in a similar way. When you only look at what’s in front of you, you only see the shadow–the semblance–of the image. However, if you look around, look in unconventional ways, you can see the shadows and the truth behind them. Seeing with your eyes open is the traditional way to see an image. You only see the “shadows” of physical appearance. Seeing with your eyes closed, on the other hand, involves looking beyond the shadows to reach their essence.

I know that, from a common sense point of view, this comparison seems like a stretch. How can you see something clearly if your eyes are closed? I want you to consider for a moment meditation and imagination. When you meditate, your eyes are closed. I can’t speak for anyone else but when I meditate, I see images. They aren’t the objects that are in front of me. Rather, they can be anything from inverted images of the objects around me to a replay of a memory to some flash of cosmic insight that I can’t even explain. Similarly, the images you see in your imagination are not the objects right in front of you. They are distant world, a plant you’ve only seen in passing once or twice in your life, a person you’ve never even laid eyes on. Sometimes your eyes have to close in order for those images to come into focus, like how dreaming brings images into sharp focus but trying to replicate those images when you’re awake and your eyes are open makes them fuzzy.

When your eyes are “closed,” you experience more than just the appearance of an image. You experience the smells, the sounds, the emotions, the moods, and the significance behind them. If you draw on these sensations, rather than just the similitude, you create for your reader an image beyond the physical world. You show them the rest of the cave and, perhaps, a way out to the world beyond it.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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