Symbols

I just read five articles about symbolism and I got to tell you that I’m really none the wiser.

Aside from the common agreement that any long pointy object in a story is a symbol for … erm … fertility (or something like that); and that red is a symbol for either love, jealousy or death (depending on the context), I’m lost as to how to apply symbolism to story-writing in any coherent way.

A little help here guys?

No?

Okay – after reading a bit more I’m a tad further on.

Starting with a basic definition of a symbol as ‘something which stands for something else’ (Edmund Spenser – Faerie Queene) …

Wait – no – we have to go further back. There are ‘things’ out there. Let’s call them ‘sensory objects’. Those ‘things’, by themselves, are just things. They just sit there politely and behave themselves. They are what they are. A cat is a cat and a dog is a dog. Not symbols. Real things. Symbols only arise when we (humans – mostly) need to communicate stuff to others (again – mostly humans).

As soon as we feel the need to communicate, we have to have symbols.

This post is a communication. The words I am using here are symbols. The combination of three letters (c, a and t) in this particular order becomes a symbol for the real cat.

But again – maybe we should go even further back. It seems to me that this ‘cat’ I’m communicating about isn’t a real cat either. I certainly don’t have a cat in front of me and I don’t even have one in my mind. I just have that word. I have what Plato called a Form in mind. I have a general purpose image of a cat – I have a symbol in my head. There is no real cat around (you’d hear me sneezing if there was) – there is only this symbol.

So where does the real cat live?

Even when I have a ‘real’ cat in front of me – how does that cat get into my mind anyway? Light, in the form of photons, sets off from the sun, hits the cat and is reflected back towards my eyes. When the photons hit receptors on the retinas at the backs of my eyes, they trigger signals that travel down neurons, and when they get to a part of my brain that processes these signals, somehow (no-one seems to be clear how) I get the image of a cat in my mind. I don’t really got a cat in here, all I have is some signals provided by photons and a little bit of brain chemistry. All I wind up with is ‘something (an image in my mind) that stands for something else (the ‘real’ cat)’.

When we look at it in this way – I think that all we have is symbols – all the way down!

So what’s all this got to do with writing? Well, I guess the point is: every single aspect of writing is about symbols. Alphabetic letters are symbols for sounds The letters clump together to form words, which are symbols for ideas, visual images, beliefs, actions, material entities of all types and … well, pretty much anything really. The act of writing is the act of throwing stuff from one mind to another via symbols.

So to say that one should incorporate symbols into one’s stories in order to enrich one’s meaning is plainly nonsense. We already do that just by the mere act of writing; or speaking, or even thinking.

Why, we couldn’t even think without symbols. If you think about your thoughts for a moment (and then for an encore – try to lift your own body by picking up the chair on which you are sat) then don’t they consist entirely of symbols?

There are however different kinds of symbols; different levels, or layers, if you like. To illustrate this, let us analyse a minor literary classic:

The cat sat on the mat.

It is evident that there is no single meaning associated with this sentence. It only symbolically represents an idea. Even considering just these two questions: ‘Which cat is sitting here?’ and ‘Which mat is the cat sat on?’ makes it clear that the meaning of the sentence differs according to who is speaking. There are as many cats and mats as there are people to ask the question.

The ‘cat’ holds many meanings as well as many versions of itself. The word is symbolic of many different types of cats, but in addition to that:

  • In Celtic mythology, the cat represents the guardian of the Otherworld/Underworld
  • In Western tradition, black cats have been associated with witchcraft
  • In Ancient Rome the cat was considered to be a symbol of domestic goodness
  • In Norse legend the cat is depicted as a symbol of fertility
  • In ancient Egypt cats were sacred, and were routinely mummified (along with mummified mice for them to eat).

Similarly, there is symbolism behind sitting (consider the difference between sitting on the left hand side and the right) and mats (prayer mats are particularly symbolic).

When you bring all these symbols together it’s plain to see that even a simple story such a ‘the cat sat on the mat’ hides a wealth of meaning. A black cat sat on a wicker mat would certainly hold a very different meaning to a rabid jaguar poised on a rug spread over the back seat of your immaculately maintained safari vehicle with the window accidentally left wound down.

Symbols have consequences as well as meanings.

And finally – the punch line: writing is complicated stuff, and is so full of symbolism due to the very nature of its being, that I wouldn’t recommend that you try to build any more complexity in.

And if you made it this far … congratulations.

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4 thoughts on “Symbols

  1. Seeing doesn’t take place in the eye at all. It all takes place in the brain. The brain gets information from the eyes and has to figure out what it is we are looking at. Have you ever seen something that, at first, looked like something weird and unnatural? Like an animal that was half machine but turned out to be neither one. It was a weird little glitch in what I saw that was quickly resolved into ordinary trash. The brain sees. How do I know that what you see as a cat is exactly the same as what I see as cat? There is no way to tell that at all.

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    • I absolutely and totally agree with you Orpha.
      I read of one experiment where researchers issued their subjects with glasses (spectacles) containing prisms that turned the light that was about to enter the eye, through 180 degrees (i.e. upside down). When the subjects first wore these glasses, they saw the world as being upside down. But here’s the kicker – after a time, the subjects noticed that they started to see things the ‘right way up’ again. Their brains had transformed the images entering their eyes into something that made more sense!
      After becoming accustomed to the glasses for a further period of time, the subjects were asked to remove them. Again – without the glasses, the subjects reported that the world was upside down!
      I love these little demonstrations of the power of the mind. I also stand in childlike wonder, with wide eyes and mouth, at the implications of these studies: we do not really know, for sure, what is ‘out there’.
      Thanks for your reply and your example Orpha – I appreciate your company in what could, potentially, be a very scary world! 🙂

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  2. The images on our retinas are actually upside down! Thus the eye has been turning them right side up all this time. The weird glasses You mentioned actually turned the image so it was right side up. The brain, naturally enough, flipped it over as it had been doing for many years. But it is wonderful that after a time the brain once more saw the images as right side up. Of course it had to start over once more when the glasses were removed. You have provided a great illustration of the fact the brain does the seeing not the eye. I find the world amazing and wonderful and, yes, at times a bit scary.

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    • You’re right of course, the image is turned upside down right from the start by the lens – I totally forgot that part of my ‘O’ Level Biology. 🙂
      How’s your writing going Orpha? I must pop over to your blog sometime soon and check out your latest posts. 🙂

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