“When there is merely the image, then there is simply a word picture of little consequence. But by being charged with emotion, the image gains numinosity (or psychic energy); it becomes dynamic, and consequences of some kind must flow from it.” (Jung, Part 1, location 1438-1439)
The idea that something means more than what it presents to the eye has become part of our modern culture. Commerce uses a complex path of associations to get people to mass consume their products (witness that the image of an apple no longer means only the edible property to most of us but also a host of technological ones). I think the idea that seemingly innocuous objects, words, phrases hold a deeper meaning, sometimes personal, sometimes collective, is what makes the human mind such a rich store of intellect and emotions. And there is no denying that symbolism makes up part of psychological reality.
Simply put, symbolism is “[A] word or an image [that] implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.” (Jung, Part 1, location 178; emphasis added). Like other parts of psychological reality, what we see only scratches the surface. Most students of literature know symbolism as a movement headed by the decadent French poetry of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and in the stream-of-consciousness narratives of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. But symbols are living breathing organisms that touch our senses in ways that we least expect, in real life as well as in art. In her book on writing, Anais Nin gives the now infamous example of 1960’s newspaper headlines of young radicals burning their draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War. But symbolism exists even in today’s headlines. A recent incident in Marin of an old fishing boat that was burned by arsonists incited regret from residents who saw the boat, salt-eaten, lying unmovable on its shores, as a symbol of innocence, stability, sentiment.
The power of symbolism, in art especially, lies in its ability to evoke a much larger net of meaning that it originally presents. Like a spider building a web, the initial thread spins with associations, memories, feelings. While the symbol gains some mystical power, it also remains within our reach. Jung says:
“What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us.” (Jung, Part 1, location 167-168; emphasis added)
This idea of the ordinary becoming something extraordinary is the basis of all art which is why symbolism is so often present. In the film The Other Man (2008), the symbol of the chess game becomes the basis of the relationship between the husband and the lover. Liam Neeson has gone in search of his wife’s lover (Antonio Banderas) and encounters him in a café in Italy over a chessboard. As the two men talk, one fishing for information from the other, the fierce competition to win the game becomes a battle of possession and male potency between the husband and the lover.
In my novella The Dark Haired Daughter, windows hold symbolic significance for the main character. Trapped in an obsessive relationship with her ill aunt, Gena’s desire for freedom takes on the image of the open window:
“It was a ritual, opening the living room window that had no screen and sitting on the parapet, white paint faded, my legs dangling over the side. The window faced the sea though the neighbors had planted tall trees to obscure the view, a vendetta against a long-forgotten wrong-doing. A canopy of stars cast a tulle delicate as Swiss lace into the black sky. The breeze calmed now by a vision of midnight, seemed to stir them and I began to really feel them a part of me, a small thing of flesh and bones in a slip, feeling the warm touch of the darkness. The tree just above the window released a cascade of leaves and a few brushed my shoulder, wet and scratchy as a flicking tongue. One settled in my hair, the feather of the freedom bird.”
Later in the novella, closed windows, like those in the dark room where her Aunt Hetty spends her days, her mind wasting away or her delusions and jealousies, becomes the parallel of Gena’s toxic claustrophobic relationship with her.
The beauty of symbolism lies, like poetic prose, in its ability to engage. It is the power of art at its best.
Jung, Carl G., Von Franz, M.L., Henderson, Joseph L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe Aniela. Man And His Symbols. Dell Publishing, 1964. Kindle digital file.