Man has held ambivalent attitudes towards the earth. Leonard Lutwack in The Role Of Place In Literature writes about man's disposition to "waver" between acceptance and transcendence of earth.
"Contemporary ecology continues the romantic idea of man's harmony with nature, but its scientific underpinning does not make it any more palatable. Critics of the artificial environment of our times forget that man's alienation from earth is probably more natural than his close association with it and cannot be attributed solely to the Judeo-Christian tradition or modern finance capitalism. Humanity seems permanently disposed to waver between acceptance and transcendence of earth, between kinship with earth and revulsion against the environmental dependence that must be suffered equally with animals and vegetable forms of life."
Lutwack notes that the cause of this ambivalence is the knowledge that earth is both the "source of life and the condition of death, a place where life begins and ends. Though born of earth, man is reluctant to return to earth, to surrender possibility and accept known limitation."
From this perspective, Lutwack observes that the ambition of literature, religion and science is to discover "a stay against death and dissolution on earth." The poet's imagination is a way of celebrating earth and, at the same time, escaping the earth. In literature, notes Lutwack, both the "ecstatic identification with earth and the horror of earth compete for expression."
The drag of earth towards death is the subject of many well-known pieces of literature. One example is in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" where Poe writes:
"The consciousness of being had grown hourly more indistinct, and that of mere locality had, in great measure, usurped its position. The idea of entity was becoming merged in that of place. The narrow space immediately surrounding what had been the body, was now growing to be the body itself."
In dying, for Poe, place and body are joined and consciousness is usurped.
The fear of earth is a common theme in the work of William Faulkner. On the occasion of Mink Snopes's death in The Mansion, Faulkner traces the use of technology to move man away from the earth and towards the heavens:
"Because a man had to spend not just all his life but all the time of Man too guarding against it; even back when they said man lived in caves, he would raise up a bank of dirt to at least keep him that far off the ground while he slept, until he invented wood floors to protect him and at last beds too, raising the floors storey by storey until they would be laying a hundred and even a thousand feet up in the air to be safe from the earth."
But even though man struggles to move away from earth, it is a losing battle because of the pull of gravity which works against him all his life. John Gardner discusses this pull in his novel October Light:
"All life - man, animal, bird, or flower - is a brief and hopeless struggle against the pull of earth. The creature gets sick, his weight grows heavier, he has moments when he finds himself too weary to go on; yet he goes, as long as he lives, on until the end - and it is a bitter one, for no matter how gallantly the poor beast struggles, it's a tragic and hopeless task. The body bends lower, wilting like a daisy, and finally the pullof the earth is the beast's sunken grave."
For all of the beauty of earth there is still the never-ending force of gravity, pulling man back towards it.
In addition to individual artists, the attitudes of man towards earth has been a function of historical periods. Leonard Lutwack sees no continual upward or downward movement but rather a continuing wave indicating the ambivalence he talks about. "Plotting the history of attitudes," he says, "would result perhaps in a bell curve: alienation and fear in man's earliest history yield in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to intense celebration of earth, but this feeling soon wanes and fear, now touched with despair, again asserts itself."
Norman Mailer sums up this ambivalence well and puts it into a contemporary perspective in his book Cannibals and Christians. "Perhaps we live on the edge of a great divide in history," he says, "and so are divided ourselves between the desire for a gracious, intimate, detailed and highly particular landscape and an urge less articulate to voyage out on explorations not yet made."
2. Continents And Nations
One of the symbolism's greatest proponents, Carl Jung, felt that place was one of the central elements in the history of cultures and nations. In his book Jung And The Story Of Our Time, Laurens van der Post describes the importance of national place to Jung:
"He told me repeatedly ... that the nature of the earth itself had a profound influence on the character of the people born and raised of it ... The German national character could not have developed (Jung believed) as it did had it not been an expression also of the nature of the dark soil of Germany. Any other race who migrated to Germany (Jung believed) even without any definite cultural process to encourage them, would have acquired in time some of the fundamental aspects of the German character because of their nourishment and participation in the nature of the earth of Germany."
Van der Post describes how Jung related the countries in which he travelled to his spiritual search through life. In this search, Africa became a key place because it was in Africa that he had his "final confirmation of the universality of his theory of the collective unconscious in man." To Jung, Africa and the Dark Continent "attracted Europeans because it provoked through its own physical character and example what was forgotten and first and primitive in themselves."
Expanding on what Jung felt about Germany and Africa we observe that certain distinct symbolic elements are associated with the world's continents and the nations within these continents. In effect, when a story is set within a particular nation and continent certain assumptions are made by the audience before any action takes place. The various continents and nations, closely associated with mythologies and archetypes, are kept alive by the need to believe in these mythologies.
As an example, certainly much of Africa today has been modernized and is different than it was at the time that Jung visited it in the 1920s. However, even though Africa haschanged, modern man still has a need to have a place in the world which symbolizes his primitive nature, where there exists a possibility to connect once again with this primitive self, to go back to a distant time. Africa remains this symbol because of the need for this symbol. It serves as a symbolic context for these "return" type of stories.
Other continents and nations of the world have different symbolic associations. India, like Africa, is an old country but India serves more as a symbol for man's spiritual nature than for his primitive nature. On the other hand, the European continent serves as a symbol for man's intellectual nature rather than his spiritual nature. The Far East is a symbol for wisdom gained from ancient knowledge and the tranquility which comes with this knowledge. The South American continent symbolizes the exotic and the romantic while the North American continent represents the pragmatic and the materialistic.
The directions of east, west, north and south are related to nations, cultures and continents and have great symbolic significance. Northern direction symbolizes modern, advanced, industrialized and materialistic nations based on intellectualism. It symbolizes the masculine power. In relationship to symbolism of the human body, it represents the head of man and the function of thinking. Southern direction symbolizes less advanced agrarian cultures based on farming and agrarian values. It represents the older, primitive values and cultures of the world and the functions of feeling in man.
M. Mertens Stienon in L'Occultisme du zodiaque observes that the Northern hemisphere is regarded as that which represents light and corresponds to the positive principle Yang. The Southern hemisphere is linked with that of darkness and corresponds to Yin. Mertens Stienon notes that this is a major reason that cultural movements pass from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere.
The directions of east and west symbolism is closely tied to the daily cycle of sunrise in the east and sunset in the west. Relating to the daily cycles of birth and death of the day, the east represents the birth of the day while the west represents the death of the day. J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols remarks that East represents the rising sun of dawn, spring, hope, childhood, the dawning of life and youth. It is the direction towards which worship is oriented, especially for all solar gods. In China, it is symbolized by the green dragon, in Egypt by a man, in Mexico by a crocodile and in Tibet by a man-dragon. Ceremonies concerned with death and resurrection stress the East as sunrise and life and the West as sunset and death.
The symbolism of birth and youth associated with the East has also given it an association with the place of home because home is the place of birth and youth. One example of the use of this symbolism is in the novel The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse. On admission to a certain "League" the narrator observes that one of the secrets of the "League" is a pilgrimage to the East:
"To my great pleasure, immediately on admission to the League, we noviates 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."
In this passage Hesse views the human quest for spiritual values as a symbolic pilgrimage "home" to the oldest world.