For last week's seminar on symbol, the students were asked to read a short excerpt from Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols, plus Flannery O'Connor's essay, "Writing Short Stories" from her book Mystery and Manners. After drawing in silence from projected images, and enjoying tea and birthday cake (Happy Birthday, Helen!) in the garden, O'Neill Cushman and Eli Blum presented their questions to the class that would lead the seminar.
First, they read a portion of the Jung reading:
"Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or brush in his hand and said: 'Now I am going to invent a symbol.'"
Followed by a sentence from the O'Connor essay:
"In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work."
Their questions were: As an artist, is it possible to knowingly create a symbol? What is it about the "natural and spontaneous" nature of creating a symbol that makes it symbolic?
Examples of symbols—the Christian cross, the American Flag, and the Statue of Liberty—were quickly introduced to work with in the discussion. However, we pointed out the issues raised by each. The Christian cross, although a widespread symbol, could mean different things to different people. The American flag might be a symbol of patriotism to an American citizen, but it could represent tyranny to a caveman (as Alan put it). The Statue of Liberty might hold no meaning to indigenous tribes in South America who have never seen it before.
From there we began to explore whether symbols need to be universal. Do symbols need to relate to the entire human experience? What is an example of a universal symbol?
We didn’t make it very far in that direction, but we agreed that symbols reached into a deeper mystery in the human experience. This brought us back to the text. Immediately before the O’Connor passage mentioned above, she writes, “The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement...his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.” Symbols, then, facilitate the author’s efforts to communicate deeper notions.
Alan then posed a question to a class. He drew a cross on a blank piece of paper, showed it to us, and said, “Now if I paint a cross on my canvas and say that it symbolizes suffering, is that all that I have to do?”
O’Connor explains why this is not all you have to do. She cites a wooden leg from a story she wrote called “Good Country People” as an example. In the story a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman, and “a wooden part of her soul corresponds to her wooden leg.” O’Connor explains that the meaning of the wooden leg is never explicitly stated, but instead it slowly accumulates meaning through other things that the reader is shown. She then writes, “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface.” Symbols emerge from and operate in harmony with the work of art in which they are contained, not as superimposed icons or signs.
Though we hadn’t explicitly answered the questions posed, we had arrived at a well-grounded understanding of symbols and decided to break for lunch before taking what we had just discussed to an image.
-Nick Velleman, Alumni Fellow