Last time, we talked a little about symbolism. Many of you may have thought ‘Oh no, symbolism! I don’t understand that!’ or even ‘But my stories don’t have any symbolism! Whatever shall I do?’
Fear not. If you’re a fiction writer, it’s almost inevitable that you have been using symbolism without realising it. That’s because, as we have discussed before, fiction comes from a time or a place within us prior to, or out of the reach of, the more modern and superficial division of the mind into binary halves: ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, ‘literary’ and ‘genre’, ‘rational’ and ‘imaginary’, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ and so on. It’s hard to shake these notions because they seem to be hard-wired into us by our culture — but fortunately, by studying fiction and paying attention to what it does, we can slip out of this cultural mind-set and start to see what’s really going on.
We run into immediate trouble with definitions, though, because they are usually set in place by a society which is blind to this progression towards or preference for the binary. ‘Symbolism’ is usually defined as ‘the practice or art of using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning.’ Nothing wrong with that, you might think, until you start to recognise that the splitting apart of actions, persons, places, words, or objects and everything else from their meanings is a historic movement, not a truth.
In other words, symbolism is what we are left with, like metaphor, to try to bridge the gap left by the separation of things from their meanings.
To an earlier, or more primal, or more innocent, or more unified mind, the action of breathing (for example) is a spiritual action as much as a physical one. Such a mind makes no distinction between the two (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin spiritus ‘breath, spirit’, from spirare ‘breathe’) - the modern or more binary mind distinguishes the act of breathing from a ‘subjective notion’ of something ‘spiritual’.
If you’re struggling with this, you won’t be alone. Binary thinking has infected us psychologically and culturally. But one of the best ways of seeing it for what it is is to watch very young children: they tend not to see the difference between an object or action and its meaning. For them, Life is a unified whole — only later do they begin to split it into parts. ‘But children operate that way because they can’t tell what’s real and what’s not,’ says the modern voice. Do they? Or do they simply appreciate reality differently, having not yet gone through the process of polarising it into all the binary opposites listed above?
Getting back to fiction, we see in storytelling a mode of communication which operates for both writers and readers in a more unified way. We could say that ‘when an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion, he can use symbolism to hint at it, rather than just blatantly saying it’ but that’s not what actually happens, is it? As a fiction writer, you don’t sit at your keyboard and think ‘Now, how can I make this scene symbolic?’ Not normally, anyway.
It comes out symbolic, doesn’t it?
Then, when a reader says later ‘I love the way that you made the flowers symbolic of their love’ or something like that, you think ‘But I didn’t - I just wrote stuff.’ Both you and the reader are right: you ‘wrote stuff’ using fiction’s unified vision of ‘stuff’; the reader picked it up, appreciated it, and deconstructed it a little to see the ‘symbolism’.
You could say that we are ‘surrounded by symbolism’. But the truth is that we are surrounded by a unified mode of communication which we step back from and describe as 'symbolism'. Language contains an immense number of symbols whose intended meaning or significance is well-known and accepted by the majority, and many of these end up in books, magazines, stories, and other written works, as you might imagine. But the writer didn’t inject symbolism into the tale he or she was writing, like some kind of vitamin boost or vaccine: what we call ‘symbolism’ was there all along.
I’ll let that settle in for a bit before we go on. It’s important.