Symbolism of Place
I. The Hidden Context
In approaching the vast topic of symbolism one is reminded of the words Violet Staub de Laszlo used to approaching the work of Carl Jung whose life was deeply devoted to the study of symbolism. In the Introduction to Psyche & Symbol she observes that "The edifice of C.G. Jung's work is reminiscent of a cathedral that has been built in the course of many centuries. Those who are willing to undertake the effort of contemplating it in the spirit of genuine inquiry and with only the inevitable minimum of preconceived notions are bound to find themselves astonishingly well rewarded." Her words ring true regarding the Jungian edifice and also true to approaching the subject of symbolism which encompasses the work of Jung.
But as eloquent the reference to a cathedral might be for approaching our topic of symbolism I need to remind readers that my major interest in this book concerns what is outside this cathedral rather than what is inside it. In other words my main focus is on the context of the cathedral rather than on the content of it, however rich this content may be. The method of inquiry I use throughout this investigation is one of directing the reader's attention upward and outward rather than downward and inward. While there are many types of contexts the context I am interested in is the context of place. The context of place harbors the core of symbolism and throughout this book I attempt to show how this is the case.
Where does one begin? Probably long ago back in the dim edges of the beginnings of human history when there was no distinction between man and place. Man was place and place was man. The context of the world enveloped any content within it in the same manner that the unconsciousness enveloped consciousness.
One perspective for viewing the psychic history of man is the development of ego consciousness out of unconsciousness, of a distinguishing light arising from an all-encompassing and pervasive darkness. This evolutionary perspective of consciousness is presented by Erich Neumann, one of Carl Jung's most brilliant students, in The Origins and History of Consciousness. In the book Neumann writes:
"The mythological stages in the evolution of consciousness begin with the stage when the ego is contained in the unconsciousness, and lead up to a situation in which the ego not only becomes aware of its own position and defends it heroically, but also becomes capable of broadening and relativizing its experiences through the changes effected by its own activity."
Neumann's main thesis is that individual consciousness passes through the same archetypal stages of development that have marked the history of human consciousness as a whole. The beginning of consciousness is therefore found in two places: the earliest dawn of human history and the earliest dawn of childhood.
This dawn state of the beginning is represented in cosmic form as the mythology of creation. The most obvious characteristic of this state is the identification of the human psyche with the outside world. As Neumann remarks:
"Mythological accounts of the beginning must invariably begin with the outside world, for the world and psyche are still one. There is yet no reflecting, self-conscious ego that could refer anything to itself, that is, reflect. Not only is the psyche open to the world, it is still identical with and undifferentiated from the world; it knows itself as world and in the world and experiences its own becoming as a world-becoming, its own images as the starry heavens, and its own contents as the world-creating gods."
This was the beginning state of perfection and wholeness contained in unconsciousness before the ego and consciousness emerged.
The separation of the ego and consciousness from unconsciousness led to differentiation. With the dawn of light and consciousness the world was broken up from a monolithic whole into a number of pieces or places. All space was no longer the same. Mircea Eliade in The Sacred & The Profane argues that the discovery of the nonhomogeneity of space served as a central foundation for the creation of religions. There was "sacred" space and there was "profane" space. In this sense, some parts of space were considered "qualitatively different from others". Eliade notes that this discovery was a priordial one, similar to the founding of the world.
The true origin of the symbolism of place might be placed in this division of space from an all-encompassing space to plural spaces. This division can be related to the development of rituals and the techniques of rituals as methods to control and create life. Ernest Becker in Escape From Evil suggests that this is in fact the case. Becker argues persuasively that the central motivating force in human life has been the fear of death. A dual system and symbolism of life and death was necessary from the beginning so that man could control death. He offers the Australian aborigines as some of history's earliest practitioners of this dual system in rituals noting that they "have an expression about the sun's rays having intercourse with the earth." He notes that:
"Very early man seems to have isolated the principles of fecunity and fertilization and tried to promote them by impersonating them. And so men identified with the sky or the heavens, and the earth, and divided themselves into heavenly people and earthly ones."
Becker offers an interesting quote from the renowned anthropologist A.M. Hocart in his Kings and Councillors to add depth to his viewpoint:
"In cosmic rites the whole world is involved, but in two parts, sky and earth, because all prosperity is conceived to be due to the orderly interaction of the sky and earth. The sky alone cannot create, nor the earth alone bring forth. Therefore in the ritual that regulates the world there must be two principles and they must be male and female, for the interplay of the earth and sky is analogous to the intercourse of sexes."
Becker adds that this basic division "stood for opposing yet complimentary principles." The world was divided "not only into sky and earth but also into right and left, light and darkness, power and weakness - and even life and death." The point, notes Becker, was that reality "had to be represented in order for it to be controlled. The primitive knew that death was an important part of creation, and so he embodied death in order to control it."
One of the primary effects of the differentiation was the development of different emotional states in man and the accompanying realization that different spaces or places of the world were related to these different internal states. Certainly it is a major tenet of knowledge that man is influenced by environment. But this statement is far too broad to be of any practical use for our purposes. We must change this and make it plural to say that man is influenced by environments.
The physical state of man is influenced by these different environments but also the internal psychic states. While the effects of environment on man's physical outward states has been been more or less obvious, the effects of environments on his inner states has been much less obvious but much more important. A recent popular investigation into the relation between place and inner states is The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher. It is an investigation of how our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions and actions. This belief has been held by many famous people throughout history. One of these she notes is Hippocrates.
The father of medicine believed that well-being is affected by setting. He observed that of all the environmental influences on a person's state "it is chiefly the changes of seasons which produce disease, and in the seasons the great changes from cold or heat." He added that "Such diseases as increase in the winter ought to cease in the summer, and such as increase in the summer ought to cease in the winter." As early as the second century A.D. Aretaeus said that "Lethargics are to be laid out in the light and exposed to the rays of the sun, for the disease is gloom." And in the fourth century A.D. Posidonius observed that "Melancholy occurs in autumn, whereas mania in summer."
The medical analogies between external and internal states continued through classical medicine. Gallagher notes that during this period "Physicians believed that the action of the four humors, or body fluids, determined everything from a person's constitution to his character. Because the balances of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, which corresponded to the four elements of fire, earth, water, and air, were also related to summer, fall, winter, and spring, an individual's physiological and behavioral changes were inevitably viewed in the context of the sun's."
Within the general association between behavior and environment there developed beliefs that particular environments influenced particular behaviors. In other words, particular inner states came to be associated with particular outward conditions or places. This relationship was already prescribed by Hippocrates and classical medicine in its findings of relationships between seasons and diseases or body humors. Throughout the centuries it was extended outside the area of medicine to other sciences and cultures and particular places became associated not only with certain medical conditions but also with particular moods, feelings, states and thoughts.
The importance of place also has cultural dimensions. One example of this dimension is the belief of the Chinese in Feng Shui or the art of placement. In the book Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Placement, Sarah Rossbach writes that:
"The Chinese often trace success or failure not so much to human nature, but to the workings of mysterious earth forces. Known as feng shui - literally, 'wind' and 'water' - these forces are believed to be responsible for determining health, prosperity, and good luck."
Although there is much mystery surrounding this ancient Chinese science Rossbach notes that it really evolved from "the simple observation that people are affected for good or ill, by surroundings: the layout and orientation of workplaces and homes." It developed from observations of the ancient Chinese which found that a house situated halfway up a hill on the north side of the river facing south received optimal sun, was protected from harsh winds, avoided floods, and still had access to water for crops. She notes that:
"In such surroundings, it was easiest to survive: rice, vegetables, and fruitbearing trees grew under an unhindered sun, cattle grazed on lush grass, and a house stayed relatively warm in the winter. The environment proved comfortable and harmonious, and helped inhabitants to survive and to grow successful and even wealthy."
However, this ideal space was unattainable for everyone and the search for antidotes led to the study of feng shui. "Soon thereafter," Rossbach notes, "the pursuit and fabrication of a viable physical setting became a basic environmental science, with its goal the control of man's immediate surroundings." The Chinese concluded that "if you change surroundings, you can change your life." The aim of feng shui is therefore to change and harmonize the environment and cosmic currents in the environment known as ch'i so that one's fortunes will improve.
The fact that place has had a strong effect on man's inner states makes it the best vehicle for communicating these inner states. Symbolism associated with these places is utilized in one of our oldest and most important forms of communication - the story. Place symbolism plays a critical role in stories. In fact we argue that place symbolism is at the very core of stories. It provides in effect a type of symbolic "short-hand" language for communicating the core of stories to the audience.
Throughout history many observers have commented on the relationship of storytelling to place. One was the author Eudora Welty who said in her book Place in Fiction that "fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in places ... Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of 'What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?'"
Throughout history, man has identified certain geographic settings with particular psychic states. The result is that places in literature have strong symbolic significance. In The Role of Place in Literature Leonard Lutwack emphasizes this point noting that:
"...it is difficult to avoid the proposition that in the final analysis all places in literature are used for symbolical purposes even though in their descriptiveness they may be rooted in fact. Repeated association of some generic places with certain experiences and values has resulted in what amounts almost to a system of archetypal place symbolism. Thus, mountains have come to represent aspiration and trial;forests and swamps, peril and entrapment;valleys and gardens, pleasure and well-being;deserts, deprivation; houses, stability and community; roads or paths, adventure and change."
It is from these associations, continues Lutwack, that more "specialized meanings are generated to form materials for literary genres like the pastoral, medieval romance, and the Gothic novel."
Stories have a much greater importance in our lives than most of us might suspect. They are not something simply told to us through books and Hollywood movies but rather are things that we constantly tell ourselves throughout our lives. In his book Storytelling & Mythmaking, Frank McConnell points out this all pervasive nature of stories:
"You are the hero of your own life-story. The kind of story you want to tell yourself about yourself has a lot to do with the kind of person you are, and can become. You can listen to (or read in books or watch films) stories about other people. But that is only because you know, at some basic level, that you are - or could be - the hero of those stories too."