Symbols

January 20, 2019

Dorothy Lee has argued: ‘Symbols are a part of the process whereby the experienced world, the world of perception and concept, is created out of the world of physical reality.’ As such, symbols do not refer to a separate world but instead constitute an essential part of the world in which they speak. Along these lines Ray Wagner has argued that ‘neither signifier nor signified belongs to the established order of things,’ that symbolization constitutes the ‘act of invention in which form and inspiration come to figure each other,’ and that ‘[t]hus the tension and contrast between symbol and symbolized collapse[s], and we may speak of such construction as a “symbol” that stands for itself.’ Symbols, in other words, articulate the relationships that they create with, and within, the world that is conceived through them.

Harry G. West
Ethnographic Sorcery

Religion does not help me. The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at.

My gods dwell in temples made with hands; and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete: too complete, it may be, for like many or all of those who have placed their heaven in this earth, I have found in it not merely the beauty of heaven, but the horror of hell also.

When I think about religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.

Every thing to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. It has sown its martyrs, it should reap its saints, and praise God daily for having hidden Himself from man.

But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating. Only that is spiritual which makes its own form.

If I may not find its secret within myself, I shall never find it: if I have not got it already, it will never come to me.

Oscar Wilde
De Profundis

Perhaps that had been one of the ineradicable faults of mankind – for even a convinced atheist had to admit there were faults – that it was never content with a thing as a thing; it had to turn things into symbols of other things. A rainbow was never only a rainbow; a storm was a sign of celestial anger; and even from the puddingy earth came forth dark chthonian gods. What did it all mean? What an agnostic believed and what the willowy parson believed were not only irreconcilable systems of thought: they were equally valid systems of thought because, somewhere along the evolutionary line, man, developing this habit of thinking of symbols, had provided himself with more alternatives than he could manage. Animals moved in no such channel of imagination – they copulated and they ate; but the the saint, bread was a symbol of life, as the phallus was to the pagan. The animals themselves were pressed into symbolic service – and not only in the medieval bestiaries, by any means.

Such a usage was a distortion, although man seemed unable to ratiocinate without it. That had been the trouble right from the beginning. Perhaps it had even been the beginning, back among the first men that man could never get clearly defined (for the early men, being also symbols, had to be either lumbering brutes, or timid noble savages, or to undergo some other interpretation). Perhaps the first fire, the first tool, the first wheel, the first carving in a limestone cave, had each possessed a symbolic rather than a practical value, had each been pressed to serve distortion rather than reality. It was a sort of madness that had driven man from his humble sites on the edges of woods into towns and cities, into arts and wars, into religious crusades, into martyrdom and prostitution, into dyspepsia and fasting, into love and hatred, into this present cul-de-sac; it had all come about in pursuit of symbols. In the beginning was the symbol, and darkness was over the face of the Earth.

Brian W. Aldiss
Greybeard

In 1925 Joan Miró embarked on what would be a two year long experiment into the world of ‘dream paintings’, the culmination of which can be seen in his Peinture of 1927. This small Miró painting is situated in the Roland Penrose room of the Edinburgh Dean Gallery, placed unassumingly to the left of a Giacometti sculpture Femme égorgée and above an Andre Breton assemblage Poème Objet. In line with the other two works which push at the traditional boundaries of their discipline, Miró’s Peinture quietly destroys the boundaries of conventional notions of painting. In the words of André Breton, Miró ‘crossed at one leap the final barriers restraining him from total spontaneity of action’.

However, although Miró stated that many of his works from 1925-7 were painted automatically, and indeed many of Miró’s paintings often started out as automatic drawings (with the hand being allowed to move randomly across the paper, or at least without a conscious form of self-censorship), the Fundació in Barcelona possesses an incredibly similar pencil sketch. Hence it would be extremely problematic to speak of this work as solely an outpouring of the much explored unconscious mind.

What Peinture does do, is represent a highly personalized language of pictorial forms and symbols – placed upon a loosely painted, many layered blue-grey background. Blue, universally being acknowledged as the colour of infinity (and a colour which Miró explicitly associated with dreams) is often seen as the background to what could be considered Miró’s ‘dreamscapes’.

Amelia Carruthers
Examining Miró’s Reality

The girl who died

April 9, 2017

You are twenty. You are not dead, although you were dead. The girl who died. And was resurrected. Children. Witches. Magic. Symbols. Remember the illogic of the fantasy.

Sylvia Plath
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Symbols