Melbourne Lanes street art 2011 by Katerina Hanzl
A symbol is a visible sign – an object or action – that points to a world of meaning beyond itself… A symbol is a thing that points to the abstraction… symbols are usually objects, but actions can also works as symbols – hence the term “symbolic gesture”… Symbols are powerful figures, capable of bearing the weight of a hundred lesser metaphors…. A symbol means more than itself, but first of all it means itself. (McClanahan 1999).
Contemporary society resonates with symbols, many existing as numerals, graphics and moving images. Symbols come in all forms: ancient, religious, political, mathematical, language, architectural, colour and advertising and are universal, cultural and more personal. Many cultures have complex universal and/or cultural symbolic systems which assign certain attributes to specific things, such as the planets, animals, plants and trees, the elements and the weather, while personal symbols can be representative of the events, emotions or experiences in an individual’s life.
A symbol is a representation of an idea, concept, object, or abstraction, a sign for some ‘thing’ or some meaning which is concealed, rather than obvious. They are a way for us to express what is really felt or believed, and are given meaning beyond the literal existence of the object or word by those who are aware of them.
Symbolism refers to the use of symbols in order to represent or allude to something, and can be best understood as ‘the gateways to non-material soul states’ (Irvine, 2010); they are experiential rather than intellectual. We may not know why we are moved by certain symbols – but we are, and it is due to this response that we give meaning to them.
In their most literal sense, words themselves are symbols, and language itself, symbolic of an idea, thing, concept, or quality. We only need to consider Chinese or Japanese pictorial languages to understand how this is so. ‘Symbolism is language. It is a way of conveying meaning through the use of imagery, ideas, sound or metaphor by way of association.’ (Marcus, 2008)
Kenneth Burke (1966) has described man as
…the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection
by which he means that humankind is different from other creatures due to its use of symbols to communicate, its understanding of negation, its separation from nature by its own techniques, its existence in differing social structures, and its goal to become better than it presently is (Anon, Wikipedia 2010).
Our ability to manipulate symbols allows us to explore the relationships between ideas, concepts, objects and abstractions. For a writer, symbols allow for a subtlety of meaning and can communicate a great deal. They can be simple, understated but also complex. While the reader may not intellectually experience or even fully comprehend the importance of a symbol, a well-placed and loaded symbol can say so much more than any amount of “telling, not showing” text could do.
Like a developing image in a photographer’s tray, a symbol reveals itself slowly. It’s been there all along, waiting to emerge from the story, the poem, the essay – and from the writer herself. McClanahan (1999).
Symbols work on both the conscious and unconscious level of the mind and the emotions; the goal for the writer is to stir the reader’s emotions. The symbols regularly employed by writers and creative people are often associated with moments of ‘epiphany’ (the dictionary definition being “a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence”).
In Carl Jung’s view, ‘a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise…’ (Anon, Wikipedia 2010).
According to Jung, symbols can activate “complexes” – the repressed id, the unconscious part of the psyche and the source of primitive, instinctive impulses and drives that people don’t want to acknowledge. One of the roles of the symbol is to tap into, activate, and even heal the unconscious; symbols can be used to access the unconscious and trigger complexes in a way rationality cannot, when people are forced to feel and use their intuition.
Jung divided the unconscious into two parts – an individual (or personal) unconscious and something he called the collective unconscious, containing universal symbols Jung called archetypes.
Peter O’Connor (2003) has said that
…we don’t come into life … a blank sheet; we come in with a history. Just as we come in with a history of our physical being, we come into it with a history of our psychological being, and the collective unconscious refers to our experience as a race, not as a particular individual, whereas the personal unconscious refers to our individual history. …In times of major transitions …such as loss, birth and death, the psyche tends to dip back into history, into collective history, to find ways of dealing with them and hence we produce archetypal symbols. One of the wonderful parts of mythology is that it does actually help us to understand these archetypal symbols in the collective unconscious …such as story of Demeter and Persephone.
Persephone, 2006 by Amy Erickson
Jung emphasised the importance of symbols to humanity’s psychic life; how they are powerful manifestations of the human consciousness and can be used to heal the human psyche. Consequently, writers, poets and artists are important to the health of a culture; they are “healers and truth-tellers” (Ian). Jung influenced many theorists, educationalists, writers and artists with his emphasis on the role of the non-logical, emotional, mystical aspects of the human experience.
Many past and contemporary writers (in fact most or all fiction authors), poets and creators use symbolism as a rhetorical device central to the meaning of their works.
For example, the French Symbolist poetic movement, which emerged in the mid-1880s (critics suggest in reaction to the negative criticism of the Decadent movement), became a major influence on the development of the Modernist movement, and was itself strongly influenced by the dark, meditative romanticism of the writer-poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe. The principle Symbolist poets were Stephane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, with Charles Baudelaire, writing in the 1850s, often seen as its leading pioneer.
The Symbolists held the belief in a reality beyond normal perception and the material, and for the need to attempt to capture “absolute truths” and “ideals”. They believed the most effective way to do this was to use symbolism and metaphor to explore and express their personal, subjective world and to immerse themselves in synesthetic experiences. Holcombe (2007) writes of how ‘the open-ended symbols created by Charles Baudelaire… brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions, notably smell and sound.’
As they explored and expressed this “expanded consciousness”, Symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and Verlaine developed a more fluid, musical way of writing, enabling them to express their highly interior way of looking on the world, and as a consequence, became part of the movement towards free verse. Their symbols did not so much allude to, but rather induced a particular awareness or mindset – in fact, the Symbolists advocated the entire ego should be collapsed.
As an example, in The Drunken Boat, Rimbaud writes of: ‘…blue cities’ and ‘…bitter russets of love’ and of a ‘kiss, rising through the sea’s eyes’. This strange subjectivity, this expanded consciousness was an essential element of symbolist poetry. Symbolist poets wanted to suggest, rather than to explain, to show, and not to tell; symbolic imagery was used to indicate the poet’s soul. They wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.
The use of symbols can be challenging for many writers, but it is important to learn how to effectively employ them, as they can represent the change, growth and transformation of characters and situations. Symbols themselves can consequently undergo transformation themselves over time.
While folk tales, legends and myths tended to make greater use of universal symbols, in more contemporary literature (and in contemporary life generally), personal symbols have also become increasingly important, used to reflect the interior, psychological state of the character or subject.
Almost any story can have a combination of universal/group symbols and personal symbols, each of these having meaning and emotions attached to them which represent our lives, and there are often symbols which cross over from one to the other.
Personal symbols tell people about us (or the character we are creating) without the need for us to give overt or extensive explanation.
As writers, we are interested in the way symbols become charged with meaning. The writer/creator needs to load, or show, what a personal symbol is and what it means to the individual, for it to have any meaning to the reader.
Loading is the process of showing how the symbol is connected to relationships, events, emotions or experiences in a character’s life. You can therefore load any object or phenomena this way.
Universal and cultural symbols can convey their meaning without having to be loaded; they appear to be part of the “collective conscious” and “collective unconscious” (or as Ian Irvine puts it (2010), our “psychic DNA”) of many cultures of people, even humankind as a whole.
Universal symbols – religions
Symbols such as the planets (sun, moon and stars), the elements (fire, water etc), the seasons, the weather (rain, thunder and lightning and sunlight), the landscape (mountains, open plains, the shoreline) the times of day and night, and of plants, trees, animals, birds and sea life are universal. It is also possible to transform symbols from negative to positive meaning (often this is an expression of healing) – and back again.
I am aware that many of the themes and symbols predominantly employed in my own writing are universal and cultural and consequently, not unique to me. I recognise the influences of writer-poets such as Walt Whitman, Hermann Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Manley Hopkins, Yeats and Auden to name a few. Yet there are a number of symbols which take on my own, personal relevance, symbols which become transformed by, and in turn, transform my Self.
I use the colour red to symbolise the (and my) life force: passion, courage, vitality, impulsiveness, creativity, warmth and even hope. I have previously written: ‘Red is the colour of life itself, and the pulse of my own living heart, held within the greater, encompassing heart of creation. It defines my own journey through life, as Julia, and as a writer-poet.’
I also use the symbols of the elements: particularly water, earth and air in all their elemental guises and related weather conditions.
Consequently, I write of water in the form of oceans, rivers, streams and ripples and waves, and of rain and mist to symbolise emotions, journeying, life and of changes to relationships (personal, social and cultural), e.g.:
‘I wash in the words of the seanchaidhe, /seeking absolution, /perhaps identity, or at least/a name for what I bear’, and ‘Choked with drifting river weeds, Ophelia am I, water deep, and not waving at all, but drowning in sainted rains’ and ‘flooded plains/and the flow of the river through the heart of our actions.’
I use the earth symbols of rock, stone, earth and soil, of hills, mountains and caves in order to denote stability/instability, endurance, timelessness, the inner journey towards self-understanding, of travail, and of the search for attainment, e.g.:
‘I will keep this to myself, and you/will walk across the moors of me, pointing out land features/ and remarking on the elements/ which move across the landscape’ and ‘Quartz of the miner’s grief, /and mine, / underfoot and beneath my ribcage…’
I also employ the air element (in the form of wind, breeze, even a whisper) to symbolise the life-breath, the “weird” – the otherworldliness, the other voice or life-force, e.g.:
‘Let a cool wind stir the embers/ Of a fire that still burns, bright’ and “Undulating grass and breath,/and a flickering, enclosing silence… the ghost of past voices, singing/on the suck and pull/of the wind flowing through the valley.’
Trees (along with branches and leaves) are another significant symbol in my writing, representing personally, and universally, life itself; the underworld (by way of the roots), this realm (being the trunk and branches), and the upper canopy (being heaven or the spiritual part of my own self, and of humanity). Trees also represent the cycle of the seasons: loss, growth and renewal, and the wax and wane, the breathing in and out of existence, e.g.:
‘Beith, luis, nuin, / so I begin, /lay out the branches on the ground / to build my ancestral home’ and: ‘From my bed in my old faraway home, over seven years of summers, autumns, winters and springs I watched the plum tree in my neighbour’s garden rise and fall, discard all semblance of its summer self and strip itself back to its main components – its skeleton of belief and existence, revealing its structure and beauty. So I, in my bed, become myself’ (A Bridge into the Unknown).
Linked to the symbols of earth and tree is the universal symbol, archetype and metaphor of The Green Man. Charles Causley’s poem “The Green Man” had a profound effect on me as a young person and I am aware how this personification of, this symbol of, the ever-present life force has had a significant influence on me as a writer:
The Green Man – Norwich Cathedral, 2013 by Katerina Hanzl
Green man in the garden
Staring from the tree,
Why do you look so long and hard
Through the pane at me?
Your eyes are dark as holly
Of sycamore your thorns,
Your bones are made of elder branch,
Your teeth are made of thorns.
Your hat is made of ivy-leaf
Of bark your dancing shoes,
And evergreen and green and green
Your jacket and shirt and trews.
Leave your house and leave your land and throw away the key,
And never look behind, he creaked
And come and live with me.
I bolted up the window, I bolted up the door,
I drew the blind that I should find the green man never more.
But when I softly turned the stair
As I went up to bed,
I saw the green man standing there.
‘Sleep well, my friend,’ he said.
As John Matthews (2001) has said:
From ancient folklore and timeless tradition, the archetype of the Green Man is re-emerging as an image of force and power. Endlessly changing shapes, the Green Man appears in many guises and cultures throughout history… As Wildman of the Woods, he guards the sacred trees and forest. As Lord of the Beasts, he watches over the woodland creatures. As the sacrificial Corn King, he is cut down but grows anew, a natural symbol for all dying and resurrecting gods – such as Christ, Odin, or Adonis – who meet death on a tree but rise again. We know the Green Man in tradition and Merlin, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter, The Green Knight, Enkidu, and Cerunnos…
Eyes: I employ this symbol often, such as: ‘coats of green brown buttons held by winking eyes’ and ‘eyes of amber water’. Eyes are all-seeing and penetrating; they are a symbol of the Seer, the bodily eye, the Third Eye (Shivra), and the eye of the heart, and also of intellectual perception.
Light/day, night/shade, shadows: In my writing, the symbols of darkness, night and shadow all denote the hidden, inner world, and mystery, even unease, e.g.:
‘Emerging from the darkness into darkness,/the still of the night inside daylight…’ or ‘… but the fragile impulse is fading,/I retreat, to the shadows I have cast,/watch the light/play on the walls,/watch the night/close another day…’
In Jungian terms, I recognise the challenge presented by the Shadow, standing as it does at the gateway of my journey towards the Self, and how I am working through this by way of the active imagination. The personal consciousness waits to be released (individualisation), and the Self to emerge, helped along by the use of symbols.
Linked to this concept is my use of the symbols of dwellings, buildings or simple structures to represent both my material home and my actual self (body and soul). My house has many mansions, as it were… Rooms within dwellings are important symbols for me, representing as they do the parts of my own psyche, and my various experiences and relationships. Consequently, doors are also very important, relevant and symbolic, e.g.:
‘I have rooms, /where no-one, including myself/now visit. /I hear the ghosts of voices /and taste the scent of passion/on my tongue for a moment. /And then the door closes…’
The domestic symbol of the bed, within the home is perhaps another universal symbol, but also my own. We go out into the word from our bed-space, as my story A bridge into the unknown describes:
The bed is a tangible, physical representation of the dream, a place where I, the ego, I, the body and I, the conscious mind go forward to meet the unconscious, wherein lies the mystery and the wisdom of myself. The bed, and the dream, are bridges over which I cross into the unknown. I cross my bridge; I pass, trembling, over fast-moving waters.
As a writer attempting to understand and articulate my own poetic, part of what I am can be interpreted as the accumulation, and the consequence, of my cultural history; its religions and spirituality, philosophy and creativity, its systems of government and of social control.
My writing is influenced by collective memory, complex images, symbols and even generational grief (familial and societal); I am a collation, a creation, of past, present and future.
Ultimately, I am aware that many of the themes and symbols I use are not unique to me, but are universal, and yet I place them in ways particular to my own writing, e.g.: ‘in the fire of darkness; ‘eyes of amber water’; ‘blue as sky-bright’, and ‘proud-arch black brows’.
I make use of universal, cultural and my own personal symbols in my writing to connect my own humanity with others, and as a way of illuminating the dark corners, embracing the shadows, and ultimately, connecting with the eternal.
– Julia Birch 2010
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