On Symbols

Symbols attract as well as repel, signal good or evil, nearness or farness. Roadside signs first used to advertise products, cigarettes or shampoos, evolve to say something abstract: Jesus Saves. A symbol is a belief.

An abandoned roadside sign, the billboard, its wooden legs leaning askew, its paper layered panel weather faded, becomes a symbol of change, of nostalgia, its country road long ago bypassed by an interstate highway, its message no longer visible or intelligible to the passing strangers, one of whom, at a quick glance, scratches his head and wants to shower or reaching into the glove box finds the pack empty and begins to watch for a filling station, motel, or cafe to appear on the horizon.

A series of signs spaced along the side of a road at planned intervals may form pieces connected to frame a storyline, like a sentence connects words to form a complete thought. The symbols pass fast and furiously. The whole edifice constructed by some outlier becomes part of the local landscape. In town, the abandoned grade school is converted to a micro brewery and bed and breakfast inn. The old one room church is now a real estate office.

The romanticist, who loves symbols, is a quick change artist who substitutes his own for the ones he was given:

“It is always, as in Wordsworth, the individual sensibility, or, as in Byron, the individual will, with which the Romantic poet is preoccupied; and he has invented a new language for the expression of its mystery, its conflict and confusion. The arena of literature has been transferred from the universe conceived as a machine, from society conceived as an organization, to the individual soul.”

Edmund Wilson, “Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930,” Scribner, 1931.

That soul comes and goes like the moon, now new, now waning, and the reader might be caught in the moon illusion, where symbols appear larger when closer to the tree line, where a tree is traded for shade or a home.

In today’s political jargon, as writ large in media, classicism is conservative, romanticism liberal, the symbols of the conservative fixed and permanent, those of the romantic fluid and ambiguous:

“Blake had already contradicted contemptuously the physical theory of the eighteenth century. And to Wordsworth, the countryside of his boyhood meant neither agriculture nor neo-classic idylls, but a light never seen on land or sea. When the poet looked into his own soul, he beheld something which did not seem to him reducible to a set of principles of human nature.”

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The classicist looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement upon the landscape; the romantic looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement as part of the landscape:

There is no real dualism, says Whitehead, between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings, on the other: human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional notions of laws of cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea.

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And, as science advances, the soul retreats. It’s difficult if not impossible to register and catalog the movement of the soul:

“Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature. Each poet has his unique personality; each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements. And it is the poet’s task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to the reader. The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects – for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means – a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors – to communicate personal feelings.

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The classicist wants to be sure of things, and has a fixed point of view, wants to demolish the target; the romantic lives with variable viewpoints, ambiguity – it’s enough to get close. The symbols of the classicist do not suggest beyond convention, but can only denote. In any case, neither seems satisfied with what unwritten laws they develop. A tree at an oasis to a desert nomad is not the same tree as the one under which the family on vacation parks its recreational vehicle in the state forest campground, not to mention the one in the wilderness no human has ever seen. And, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake says in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Or a billboard, for that matter.

The Symbolists

The golden goblets
the silver symbols
crashed down on us
brazen stars falling
into a sea of flowers.

The good news was
there’d be no more
dinosaurs.

A few of us
we survived
underground
with the littles.

We dug tunnels
to a comfort zone
not exactly Paradise
but warm and moist
plenty of bugs to eat.

And we drew signs
on the walls waiting
for the dust to clear
above in the Dear
One’s celestial home.

We tilled the new land
built boats and bridges
peopled the prairies
where ran the rivers
down to the sea.

In church we celebrated
the symbols of the dinos
and prayed they’d never
return even their stories
in time seemed surreal.