Logo Home Writing News About Contact Links

Site Map

Home >

Writing >

Books >

Battle of Symbols >

Traditional Symbol...

Battle of Symbols

Traditional Symbol Dualities

"East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

Rudyard Kipling

There is the old admonition that it is dangerous to see the world in terms of black and white. And there was a revival of this admonition after the events of September 11th. Writing in the October 18, 2001 edition of The New York Times Book Review Philip Wilcox, Jr. argues the West needs to search for ways to "strengthen the common bonds between Western values and Islam" in order to "combat the notion" of a clash of civilizations thesis.

Others disagree with Wilcox arguing it is even more dangerous to see things with the gray pluralistic relativism of the postmodern years. To them it is not a matter of "strengthening common bonds" but of reinforcing separate borders.

On an elementary school bulletin board in Sonoma, California there is a piece of notebook paper with a message scrawled on it. The words are written in what looks to be the hand of a young person just learning to write. The note reads "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." I remember it as an statement of Mahatna Ghandi.

As is the usual case, the truth seems to lurk somewhere between these extremes. While the symbolism of western civilization clashing with eastern civilization might be too broad, the symbolism of America confronting an isolated group of terrorists might be too small.

And, apart from questions about size of the symbols in opposition, there are also questions about the nature of the symbols. Here, we hear familiar themes such as a clash between rich and poor, industrialized nations and developing third world nations, liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes, capitalism and socialism, modernity and traditional cultures, freedom and slavery.

Arguments will continue about the true nature of the enemy and the symbols in opposition. In a large sense, they will be arguments centered around politics and ultimate answers will be political in nature.

But these arguments will take place in the contextual arena of symbolism and its dynamic paradigm of two symbol systems in confrontation. Political answers are really expressions of symbolic dualities. Much of these elements are historical. Within this large historical context, contemporary expressions of these symbols battle against each other. Before we can understand the meaning of these contemporary symbols, we must first understand the historic duality of East and West from where they emerge, like magical objects from a Pandora’s Box, like a swirling mist from Aladdin’s Lamp.

East and West Symbols Through History

Freud’s brilliant renegade disciple Otto Rank suggested that human psychology is a paradox caught between the fear of life and the fear of death. As he notes in Will Therapy:

"The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole, therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole."

To Rank, the conflict was never resolved within the individual. As he observed, "Between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life."

These internal dualities have symbolic correspondence to other psychic dualities like masculine and feminine, consciousness and unconsciousness, fragmentation and wholeness, separation and unity, outward and inward, freedom and equality.

Dynamics of psychology find their broadest external expression in the global symbolism of West and East. This symbolism has gained such a wide acceptance that one can talk of a western and eastern zeitgeist or world view. Historically, the directions of east and west are closely tied to the daily cycle of sunrise in the east and sunset in the west. This daily cycle represents one of the earliest and most powerful symbols to mankind. Sunrise in the east has always been associated with the symbol of birth. Sunset in the west has always been associated with the symbol of death. The day is born in the east and the day dies in the west.

And too, from the perspective of linear time, civilization was born in the east which is one reason it has often been called the "cradle" of civilization. Ancient cultures and values are associated with the east and wisdom associated with the far east.

Associated with the east are additional symbolic correspondences such as spring, hope and childhood. It is the direction to which worship is oriented, especially for the solar gods of ancient times. The east possesses a general symbolism of the past and the ancient world.

The symbolism of home also has a correspondence to the symbol of the east because home is associated with birth, childhood and youth. One example of this home symbolism is used in Hermann Hesse’s The Journey to the East. On admission to a certain "League" the narrator observes that one of the secrets of the League is a pilgrimage to the home of the East:

"To my great pleasure, immediately on admission to the League, we novitiates were given insight to our prospects … I realized that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East … this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries it had been on the way, towards light and wonder, and each member … was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings, of the eternal strivings of the human spirit towards the East, towards Home."

For Hesse, the quest for spiritual values is symbolized by a pilgrimage "home" towards the birth of civilization in the east.

In opposition to the east’s general symbolism of the past and the ancient world, the west has symbolism of the future and the modern world of advanced cultures and scientific progress. The west represents the direction of a journey away from home. It has been the major direction of exploration by world explorers culminating with the discovery of America by Columbus.

Table 1
Traditional Opposite Symbols of East and West

Associated with the west is the season of autumn, old age and death. In China, west symbolizes dryness and sorrow and element of metal, the color white and the White Tiger. In Egyptian mythology, the "western lands" are the territory the souls of the dead make a hazardous pilgrimage to in their quest for immortality.

Within this western symbolism lurks an unusual paradox. From the standpoint of linear, changing time, the West is a younger culture than the East. It is the western child of the eastern mother. At the same time, western culture can also be viewed not as a child of the east but as the wanderings of the east. In this sense, there is no western child born from an eastern mother but only the wanderings through history of the original eastern mother who grows progressively older and older. Youth and birth spent in the east through history becomes old age through the journey west.

The symbols of east and west are elaborated on by Carl Jung in Psychology And Religion: West And East. "In the East," notes Jung, "the inner man has always had such a firm hold on the outer man that the world had no chance of tearing him away from his inner roots; in the West, the outer man gained the ascendancy to such an extent that he was alienated from his innermost being."

Elsewhere in Psychology and Religion Jung speaks of the "extraverted tendency of the West and introverted tendency of the East." Jung uses contextual space symbolism in comparing the east and the west observing the "West is always seeking uplift, but the East seek a sinking or deepening." Jung notes that outer reality, with its bodiliness and weight, appears to make a much stronger impression on the European than it does on the Indian. "The European seeks to raise himself above this world, while the Indian likes to turn back into the maternal depths of Nature."

In America, the symbolism of east and west has continually played out throughout our nation’s short history. The west represents the new and undiscovered and less civilized while the east represents the traditional and civilized. This dichotomy is seen perhaps most clearly in the genre of the American western film. A lawman from the east comes to tame a lawless town of the west. Soldiers from the east come to the west to tame the lawless native Indians of the west. Culture throughout American history is established in the east and then travels west.

Yet current global symbolism of East and West seems reversed from this symbolism of America’s own history. In the new "clash of symbols" the West represents the civilized territory and parts of the east the uncivilized. The freeworld has issued its own "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters for the terrorists of the east and symbolically "rides" east to restore law and order much like lawmen in John Ford westerns used to ride west to restore law and order.

^ To Top

Home | Writing | News | About | Contact | Links

Copyright © 2001 John Fraim