In this sense, each of us can see ourself as the hero of the great stories in literature and film. We can be Ahab in Moby Dick or Michael Corleone or Kay Corleone in The Godfather or Rick or Ilsa in Casablanca or Jim in Lord Jim. McConnel writes that "out of all these make-believe selves, all of them versions of your own self-in-the-making, you learn, if you are lucky and canny enough, to invent a better you than you could have before the story was told."
But if each one of us is the "hero" of stories it is really our ego which is the real hero of the story. Erich Neumann makes this point in The Origins And History of Consciousness. Neumann suggests that the hero in stories is symbolically the ego moving away from the unconsciousness, of light moving out of darkness.
Place symbolism has always played a part in stories through such aspects of storytelling as setting, atmosphere and mood. However, it has only been considered one aspect of storytelling method among other aspects considered more important and given more attention such as plot and action. I suggest that the symbolism of place is the central aspect in all stories and that it is the major determinant of story types or genres.
This is so because at the core of a story is the character of the hero and the central task of storytelling involves transmitting information about heroic character to an audience. Character possesses both visible and invisible aspects. The visible aspects of character are communicated through outward actions in stories. The invisible aspects of character are communicated through the symbolic context which contains these actions.
Traditional narrative theories claim the dominance of story method based on outward action rather than internal states. This choice of action to communicate character is not necessarily an acknowledgement that the visible is more important than the invisible but rather an admission of great difficulty in communicating the invisibility of inner psychological states. While the inner aspects of heroic character is difficult to communicate there is little doubt that when it is communicated effectively it has provided some of our greatest stories.
It is these invisible aspects of character which are at the very core of stories. The main function of outward action is to provide signs which direct the audience to the invisible inner core of stories. This inner core is found in the psyche of the hero. It is composed of images, processes and states rather than concepts and things.
If we can maintain the proposition that the central purpose of stories is to convey inner states rather than outward actions we arrive at the doorstep of symbolism and back again to the theories of Carl Jung. It was the belief of Jung that the psyche expressed itself through symbols. The symbolic aspect of the psyche is discussed by the Jungian analyst Edward Whitmont in The Symbolic Quest, where he writes "We cannot speak of the psyche as a thing that is or does this or that. At best we can speak of it indirectly by describing human behavior - the behavior of others and also our own subjective experience - as if it expressed aspects of a hypothetical pattern of meaning, as if a potential, encompassing wholeness were ordering the action of the parts...The most basic hypothesis about the human psyche with which we deal here, then, is that a pattern of wholeness that can only be described symbolically."
Symbolism associated with place offers the best method for communicating this "pattern of wholeness" of the human psyche. In fact place symbolism offers the greatest of all symbols for communication. To understand this we need to make a brief exploration into the nature of symbols.
In its simplest terms, a symbol is anything that stands for or represents something else beyond it. Of course all communication is symbolic in the sense that it is created from sounds and images which represent things and ideas beyond the mere sounds and images. But here it is a matter of degree of representation which symbolism shares with the other closely related communication devices such as similes and metaphors.
A simile is an explicit pairing of two terms otherwise unrelated. This pairing is accomplished by the use of the words "like" or "as". The point of the simile is to establish an identity between dissimilar things to suggest something readily visible has a certain range of emotional and intellectual meanings.
For example, in the poem "The Snake," D.H. Lawrence describes the way the snake flickers its tongue "like a forked night on the air". In "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold describes the sea along the shores of the continents lying "like the folds of a bright girdle furled". The meaning of these similes are "controlled" meanings. Lawrence specifically pairs the snake's tongue with the "forked night on the air" and Arnold pairs the shore to the "folds of a bright girdle furled."
The meaning of the metaphor is also a controlled meaning but the pairing is not as explicit as it is with symbols. The artist does not use "like" or "as" but rather simply brings together the terms he wishes to couple. When Yeats wrote in "Sailing to Byzantium,"
"An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick ... "
he was using a metaphor to define the aged man. He pairs the term "man" with the words "thing" and "stick" to suggest a sense of valueness. In the sentence "She was a tower of strength," the metaphor here ties the concrete image of "tower" to the identifiable abstract quality of "strength".
The symbol is similar to simile, metaphor and allegory in that it serves to represent something beyond it. However, for the symbol the representation is much broader in scope than with similes and metaphors. Unlike the simile, with its close and explicit coupling of one word with another, or the metaphor, with its close identification of one term with another or several others, the symbol gains its significance by its tendency to pair or couple with many other words. As Chris Baldick notes "It differs from a metaphor in that its application is left open as an unstated suggestion." An example of the use of symbolism can be found in the following verse from the poetry of William Blake:
"O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy."
Here, the rose provides a broad symbol for any number of things. It is coupled or associated with the words "night," "bed," "joy," and "love". It might suggest physical love but it also might suggest any kind of ideal that meets the harshness of reality. In their book Structuring Your Novel Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald make an interesting observation about symbols when they say that the "symbol is like a metaphor that has lost its bond with something close and searches to bond itself to many other words."
Place is one of the greatest symbols because it bonds with a number of words representing key abstract qualities and phenomena which have the greatest emotional and psychic influence on individuals. In this sense, each place represents much more than simply a visible physical location. It also represents time, space, color, the basic elements of the earth and phenomena associated with various weather conditions. Throughout history these symbolic qualities of place have had a profound influence on internal psychic states. It should not be a surprise that they offer the best method for expressing psychic states in our stories.
Another way to view place symbolism and help us understand its profound importance is as a category of symbolism involved with context rather than with objects within a context. For our purposes here we might define these two categories of symbolism as "contextual symbolism" and "object symbolism". In this scenario we can note that object symbolism involves a number of obvious types of symbols which relate to various objects. Examples are embodied in well-known things like flags and crosses. Religion has given us many of these symbolic objects such as bread, wine and the crown of thorns. Egyptians employed a number of symbolic objects such as the ankh which was a ringed cross symbolizing divine life and also the trials of earthly life. The animal kingdom provides a number of objective symbols such as the fox symbolizing cunning and the jackal symbolizing trickery. Objective symbols are also found in statuary works such as the blindfolded lady of justice holding a sword in one hand and a scale in the other hand, the figure of the Winged Victory and the statues of the Dance of Death motif in the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, contextual symbolism is less obvious than objective symbolism and is often hidden from direct investigation. It is concerned with the contexts which contain objects. In stories it contains the actions of the heros of stories. It is a rather broad and vague term because it is represents processes, phenomena and abstract qualities rather than visible objects.
Place can be viewed as a form of communications media. Marshall McLuhan investigated the context of media in his book Understanding Media. His book was really about the contextual symbolism of media rather than the objective content of media. McLuhan directed the focus of inquiry at context with his statement that the "media is the message" rather than the content of the media. In a similar way we can observe that place is a type of media of communication and say "place is the message."
The abstract qualities associated with place I have mentioned - that is time, space, color, the basic elements of the earth and phenomena associated with various weather conditions - are in fact all contexts themselves. For example, the abstract quality of space contains the context for the concepts of above, below, inside and outside. The phenomena of time contains the context for the concepts of present, past, future, backward, forward, beginning, end, birth and death.
Contextual symbolism is a very broad term containing the above qualities. I suggest in this book that its various contexts for communication purposes are most effectively classified together under the overall context of place. The contextual symbolism of place therefore serves as a unifying concept for pulling together these other contexts.
3. The Theory Of Correspondences
The various contexts which symbolize place are powerful within themselves but what makes them into the most potent methods of communication is related to one of the major tenets of symbolic thought - the Theory of Correspondences. The develoment of the theory is associated with the French poet Charles Baudelaire who was one of the founders of the Symbolist School in art and literature. It sought to examine the connection and similarities between the physical and spiritual realms.
The doctrine is associated with a famous poem by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal:
"Nature is a temple where living pillars
Sometimes let out confused words.
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which observe him with a familiar gaze.
Like long echoes confounded from a distance
In an obscure and deep unity,
Vast as the night or as clarity itself,
Scents, colors, and sounds respond to one another.
There are perfumes fresh as the flesh of children,
Sweet like oboes, green as prairies,
- And others corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, bergamot, and incense,
Which sing the transport of the mind and senses."
Notice how the poem demonstrates many of the characteristics of literary symbolism we discussed in the previous section. Nature is not like a temple. A temple is not a simile for nature. Rather nature is a temple. The temple of nature is made not from one symbol but a "forest of symbols". Baudelaire talks about how scents, colors and sounds respond to each other. The unity between them is "vast" but it is also hidden or "obscure." Perfumes are drawn together with the physical "flesh of children", the color green and the taste of sweet. In fact sound is related to taste in the words "Sweet like oboes".
An interesting analysis of Baudelaire's poem and the Theory of Correspondence is contained in Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. "Nature is a temple," writes Harrison, "because it preserves within its forestial enclosure the original familiarity that makes analogies between different things possible. When two or more things correspond with one another through symbolic analogy, they are already prerelated by kinship." Within the temple of nature there is a type of return to the original state of unconsciousness which Erich Neumann observed in the Origns of Consciousness. Here there is no separation between man and place and subject and object. Objectivity is lost as one enters the "expansion of infinite things." Walter Benjamin underlines Neumann's observations about this original state and relates this state to correspondences. In his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" he remarks that "the correspondences are the data of remembrance - not historical fact, but the data of prehistory." This data has no separation or differentiation but only a correspondence, a predifferentiated unity.
It is this undifferentiated "data of prehistory" which leads to the confusion suggested by the poem. This is a confusion of the sense because colors, scents and sounds all "respond" to each other or have a correspondence to each other. Baudelaire suggests that symbols are the guardians of these ancient correspondences. Walter Pogue Harrison writes in Forests:
"For Baudelaire it is a question of correspondence between perceptions more than between things, but the two ultimately coincide. For a symbol is not a thing but rather a conspiracy between things, reunifying what habitual modes of perception differentiate - the five senses, for instance, or body and mind."