Plato in The Neverending Story
As we established in Part One, Platonism and Neoplatonism were part of the philosophical soup contributing to the development of alchemy in ancient Egypt. Much like with hermeticism, Neoplatonism is one of those things that continually comes up when describing most alchemists’ core beliefs. When we say Neoplatonism, it’s important to remember that we’re not necessarily referring to an easily codifiable system of ideas so much as a school of thinkers extrapolating from Plato in the early centuries CE. The term Neoplatonism itself was more of a pejorative in its heyday; the people we think of as Neoplatonists today, like Plotinus and Porphyry, would have simply called themselves Platonists. Some scholars would actually prefer to strike the word Neoplatonism from our discussions of the later Platonists, but after nearly two thousand years, I’d say we’re stuck with it.
Despite this nomenclature confusion and the fact that the movement’s thinkers were all over the place in terms of philosophy, there are a few common themes we can extract that give us insight into both alchemy and The Neverending Story. The most cogent of these themes is the concept of the “One.” Perhaps best expressed by its relationship to Plato’s theory of forms, the One comprises a singular, indivisible first principle from which all sensible reality is derived. Plato’s forms are the essence of the sensible world—the world we inhabit—and constitute a higher reality than we interact with every day (see Plato’s allegory of the cave for the ultimate illustration of this theory). So, the coffee cup on your desk is merely a base copy of the FORM of CUP, the essence of cup. We are essentially watching shadows on a wall, cast by a source as massive and unknowable as the sun as the true objects—the forms—parade by behind us. To the Neoplatonists, all these forms were themselves derived from a kind of super form, the form of good. You could equate this to something like Plato’s demiurge (a divine craftsman/primordial creator). But it’s beyond even this super form that we describe the One, for the one is totally singular, free of any multiplicity.
For leading Neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus, the end goal of philosophy was communion with the One. Their practice of philosophy was largely based in reading and the interpretation of texts rather than empirical research and experimentation—though alchemists would later incorporate Neoplatonic concepts into a pseudoscientific method. But if your goal was to commune with a singular first principle, you’d have to be interested in transcending the sensible world—or at least reaching a pure acknowledgement of its illusory nature.
In a famous anecdote recorded by Plotinus’ student Porphyry, Plotinus refused to sit for a portrait, asserting that an image of his body could not capture his true nature. “My body is only an image of my true self,” he said. This hearkens once more to the Southern Oracle’s feared Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu looks into the glass and glimpses his true self, something Engywook insists is a terrifying experience for most. I’d argue that Atreyu does glimpse something terrifying when Bastian appears in the mirror. Like with the prisoners in Plato’s cave, content to watch shadows dance across the walls, the revelation of one’s reality as illusion produces pain, fear, and rage. The Magic Mirror Gate even alludes to cavernous imagery. Bastian is positioned as a higher being; for the denizens of Fantasia, he’s the forms. He’s the demiurge, even; the action of reading brings Atreyu’s adventures into existence. Near the end of his quest, Atreyu encounters a series of murals depicting his exploits in the Swamps of Sadness, riding the luckdragon Falkor, and even events that haven’t happened yet, like his meeting with G’Mork. Atreyu is once again confronted with the truth that his existence is a shadow cast from a higher plane of reality—one that’s been read and reread and reread…
One more Plotinus example. In the Enniads of Plotinus, compiled by Porphyry, Plotinus is asked how we might know or articulate the one. His answer? “Cut away everything.”
The One, The Nothing
To comprehend the singular first principle, higher than the sensible world, the forms, and even the demiurge, Plotinus suggests that we must take away everything. Only in total nothingness can the one be known. The primary evil of The Neverending Story is a phenomenon known as the Nothing. Its cinematic representation is a swirling dark cloud that engulfs Fantasia a bit at a time, but we’re led to understand through firsthand accounts by the characters that it’s a darker, more incomprehensible thing. “A hole would be something,” cries the Rock Biter, desperately searching for the words to describe the total negation of his home.
In The Neverending Story, the Nothing comes to express apathy, hopelessness, lack of imagination—all the things that threaten the existence of Atreyu’s homeland and Bastian as he wrestles with grief and parental disappointment. But taken in the context of the Neoplatonic first principle, I think we can find a deeper metaphysical significance. Let’s revisit Plato’s cave and the forms for just a moment. If, as the theory suggests, objects of the sensible world are merely facsimile of their higher essences, then the names we use for those objects are even further diluted from the higher truth of the forms. The names refer only to the copy and have no direct relationship with the pure form. In questing to save Fantasia, Atreyu learns that the Childlike Empress requires a new name. Easy. But Atreyu can’t give it to her—no one from within the borders of Fantasia can. And, conveniently, Fantasia has no borders. Fantasia is a land created from the imaginations of mankind, which means only a human child can give the Empress her new name. Atreyu and the people of Fantasia, blind to the illusory nature of their phenomenal world, can’t be expected to bestow a proper name on a fellow shadow. Only a being of a higher essence, a form, a demiurge, can intervene. Bastian names the Empress Moon Child, the name of his deceased mother, accessing the highest truth he can. The act of imagination is a response to the Nothing; multiplicity in the face of singularity. The Nothing isn’t evil, in fact it might be the highest form of truth there is—but Bastian chooses creation. With the last grain of sand of Fantasia, he recreates a world.
The story never ends
Alchemists looked to the Neoplatonic first principle to inform the metaphysical aspects of their practice. The indivisible one corresponds to that foundational material we discussed in the development of alchemy. Both schools developed metaphysical hierarchies to explain relationships between the body and soul, the earth and the stars, the physical plane and the heavens… What The Neverending Story adds to the equation is a level of individual agency and empowerment. Bastian is just like you or me, and yet he’s a creator of universes. The story of Fantasia, Atreyu, Falkor, and the Childlike Empress springs into being through the act of Bastian’s investment, or likely through the investment of any and every reader. The story challenges a classical hero, Atreyu, to confront the fact that he’s an illusion, and it challenges a non-traditional hero from a seemingly sensible world to recognize his dominion over another. Bastian, like us, may be a prisoner in Plato’s cave, but in relation to Fantasia, he’s the sun. He’s the one casting shadows and defining essences.
Storytelling is an alchemical practice, capable of creating metaphysical infinites within finite restrictions. A closed book may have a front and back cover, but its contents are limitless. It can unlock a boundless imaginative spirit in a single reader. It can be shared the world over. Its story continues past its beginning and end in all directions. Through the participatory act of reading, Bastian suffuses every particle, every grain of sand, every heart in Fantasia. He becomes the foundational material, the indivisible intellect, the first principle, the philosopher’s stone. In living through stories, we live countless lives. We heal ourselves and remake broken worlds. We live forever.
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