Symbolism of Place
VI. The Place of Phenomena
The previous chapters offered an investigation into the relationship between place and the the dimensions of time and space. This chapter continues this investigation by examining the relationship between place and various atmospheric symbolism represented by climate, weather and catastrophic phenomena.
The Greeks would have called this the arena of the Gods and would have judged the state of the world by the activity of the Gods in the heavens. Now we simply call this climate and weather but it still maintains an important symbolic significance to story context. In fact, weather has been a major symbol of the inner psychic state of story characters and heros.
The close relationship between psychology and weather in stories is underlined by J.E. Cirlot. In A Dictionary of Symbols, he notes that the interplay between climate and character psychology is one of the most frequent in all of literature:
"The relationship between a state of mind and a given climate, as expressed by the interlay between space, situation, the elements and temperature, as well as level-symbolism, is one of the most frequent of all analogies in literature. The universal value of pairs of opposites, such as high/low, dry/wet, clear/dark, is demonstrated in their continued use not only in physical and material but also in psychological, intellectual and spiritual matters."
And Gaston Bachelard in L'Air et les Songes remarks that Nietzsche embarked upon a passionate quest for the true climate - for the exact geographic location - corresponding to the inner "climate" of the thinker.
The weather often serves as an adequate barometer of character moods and states. A dark, overcast day is seldom juxtaposed with a cheerful mood of character just like a bright, sunny day is seldom juxtaposed with a gloomy character mood.
As it is with the time and space symbols of place a particular weather condition is often related to a particular story genre. A stormy night full of lightning and thunder is often found in the horror genre. Fog is often found in the film "noir" genre and the detective genre, particularly in the novels of Dashell Hammet. Earthquakes, floods, fires, tornados and hurricanes are often found in the "disaster" film genre. Storms at sea are often part of the adventure genre and clear, cloudless weather which reveal wide, open skies are part of the western genre.
Within genres, certain authors utilize similar weather for their stories. Charles Dickens is a good example. His stories are placed against foggy, cloudy, cold weather of late autumn or winter. It is this gray weather which evokes many of the themes underlying much of his work. The opening passages from one of his most famous novels, Bleak House, serves as a good example of this use of weather:
"Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with, flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun...Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green...meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city."
Dickens immediately sets the background for his characters which are about to appear. Notice how much this opening passage suggests about the action and characters and the symbolism of place in the novel. A great claustrophobic feeling is created, a feeling of oppression. By talking about the weather, the feeling is much greater for the reader than by one of his characters talking about feeling claustrophobic.
The fog and mist in Charles Dickens novels may go beyond genre, though, and are really an attribute of a particular school of literature. In The Role of Place in Literature, Leonard Lutwack makes the following observation:
"Writers in the spell of the romantic aesthetic, which associates sublimity with obscurity, favor dim, misty settings, lighted, if at all, by the moon. Classical settings, on the other hand, are customarily bathed in bright sunlight. In the 1853 Preface to his poems, Matthew Arnold observed that the ancient Greek poet endeavored to place 'old mythic story...in broad sunlight, a model of immortal beauty.' Thereafter 'Greek light' became a critical commonplace in literary criticism, and it lingers on in the twentieth century among writers who seek to establish a relationship with classical antiquity."
Lutwack notes that William Faulkner, in explaining Light in August, claimed there was a "peculiar quality to light" in the South, in the month of August, "as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times...from Greece, from Olympus."
While certain phenomena dominate some famous works of art, other masterpieces of literature provide powerful interplay of climates and various weather phenomena. John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath puts various weather phenomena into juxtaposition and provides one of modern literature's most powerful examples of this interplay.
As it is with the major ecosystems found in the world, there are also major weather regions, or world climates. There is a strong connection between major ecosystems of place and major climates. For instance, the desert ecosystem is a dry one while the jungle ecosystem is a tropical and hot and wet one. And, just as there are localized phenomena such as rivers and lakes within major ecosystems, there is also localized weather phenomena within the major climates. Storms, thunder, tornados are some examples of phenomena within climates.
We will discuss the three major aspects of natural phenomena represented by climates, weather and natural catastrophies. Climate involves relatively fixed weather patterns over long periods of time while weather involves short term, often sudden and dramatic weather phenonema. Cataclytic phenomena is the most sudden and dramatic weather phenomena and has often symbolized the end of a particular epoch and the beginning of a new one.
World climates have been subject to a classification system. Probably the most popular classification was developed by W. Koppean and is known as the Koppean System. The major climates within the Koppean System are the following:
(a) Tropical (hot/wet)
(b) Polar/Artic (cold/dry)
(e) Humid Cold (Colder Temerpate)
One should notice the close relationship between the Koppean climatic system and the major natural places discussed in the first section of this book. The tropical climates are most often found in jungle ecosystems of the equator while the polar climates are most often found in the artic or polar regions of the world. The dry climates are found in the deserts of the world while temperate climates are part of the prairies.
Because of the relatively fixed and long term nature of climates they are more suited to symbolizing more fixed aspects of character psychology in stories rather than those of shorter duration. In other words, climate is best utilized to symbolize story characters personality rather than character moods and states. Weather offers a better symbolism of character moods than climates.
While climates are attached to natural regions and ecosystems of the world, weather phenomena are not so attached and may appear in various climates. In his book The Role Of Place In Literature, Leonard Lutwack notes the influence of weather phenomena on mood and atmosphere in literature:
"Atmospheric conditions of light and weather figure significantly in the tonality of out-of-door places. Night, rain, fog, sunlight change our perception of places ... Uncontrollable natural events, such as storms, earthquakes and floods transform civilized functioning environments into places full of chaos and horror. Snow leaves a city intact but strangely without motion, static..."
In addition to simply describing the atmospheric conditions, they are often personified in literature and take on the elements of various human characteristics and emotions. In this sense, a raging storm might be described as an "angry" storm, a big snowstorm described as an "ugly" snowstorm or a soft rain described as a "gentle" rain.
The Russian writer Anton Chekov spoke about the comparison of weather phenomena with human characteristics. "Nature becomes animated," he said, " if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities."
In his short story "Heartache" Chekov provides a classic example of how weather phenomena can develop mood and atmosphere:
"Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, people's shoulders, caps. Ione Patapov, the cabby, is all white as a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps he would not find it necessary to shake it off. His nag, too is white and motionless. Her immobility, the angularity of her shape, and the sticklike straightness of her legs make her look like a penny gingerbread horse."
Notice how Chekov creates a feeling of deadness in this scene and uses the weather to emphasize this feeling. There is no life, the heavy "wet snow" blanketing life. The cabby is white as a "ghost" and as "hunched as a living body can be." The cabby is emotionless and doesn't care if he is buried in the snow.
In discussing clouds it is useful to make distinctions between major types of cloud formations. There are patchy clouds which let sunlight through in places and pass slowly overhead like chunks of cotton or sheep. To the Greeks, these clouds symbolized the flocks of sheep of Apollo. There are thick clouds which let little sunlight through. There are tall clouds which rise high into the stratosphere like great celestial castles punctuated only by rivers of wind from the jetstream or airplanes. There are low-lying clouds (almost fog) which pull the "ceiling" of the sky down close to earth. The effect of the non-patchy type of clouds is blockage of sunlight and lowering of the sky. Tall clouds, though, suggest the height of the sky and a corresponding majesty. Clouds also have movement. They can be still or they can be rushing about overhead like laundry thrashing about in a washing machine. Both the silence or the movement can symbolize movement within the Gods or the heavens.
Eliphas Levi in Les Mysteres de la Kabbale notes that there are two principal aspects of cloud-symbolism. On the one hand clouds are related to the symbolism of the mist, signifying the intermediate world between the formal and the non-formal. On the other hand, clouds are associated with the "Upper Waters" - the realm of the antique Neptune.
The former aspect of the cloud is symbolic of forms as phenomena and appearance, always in a state of metamorphosis, which obscure the immutable quality of higher truth. J.C. Cooper points out this aspect is found in Christian symbolism. Here clouds represent the unseen God, veiling the sky and also veiling God, as with the cloud on Mt. Sinai and the pillar of cloud.
The second aspect of clouds symbolism reveals their family connection with fertility-symbolism and their analogous relationship with all that is destined to bring fecundity. Ramiro de Pinedo in El Simbolisimo en la escultura medieval espanola notes that ancient Christian symbolism interprets the cloud as synonomous with the prophet, since prophecies are an occult source of fertilization, celestial in origin. Hence the conclusion of Gaston Bachelard in L'Air et les Songes that clouds represent symbolic messengers. The fertility aspect of the cloud is most apparent in Chinese symbolism with the figure of the Dragon of Clouds. Clouds in Chinese symbolism can mean the blessing of rain; good works; visible breath or the life-force.
Rain has a primary symbolism as a fertilizing agent. It represents a descent of the heavenly influences and symbolizes penetration, both as fertility and spiritual revelation. In this sense, notes J.C. Cooper, rain joins in the symbolism of the sun's rays and light. All the sky gods fertilize the earth by rain. In Aeschylus, it is written that "The rain, falling from the sky, impregnates the earth, so that she gives birth to plants and grain for man and beast."
Rene Guenon in Man And His Becoming According To The Vedanta notes that rain is related to the general symbolism of life and water. Within this general symbolism, it signifies purification because it is made from the universal substance of water, the mediating force between the non-formal gaseous and the formal solid. It also signifies purification because it falls from heaven and hence is cognate with light. Guenon, in Le Roi du monde, says that this explains why that in many mythologies, rain is regarded as a symbol of the "spiritual influences" of heaven descending upon earth.
In alchemy, notes Cirlot, rain symbolizes condensation or albification. This is further proof that for alchemists water and light were from the same symbolic family.
Snow has a great equalizing effect on landscape. It creates a cold, white sea and smoothes out the roughness of geography and hides sharp edges. It forces life inside and under and serves as a warming blanket for hibernation.
It symbolizes coldness and frigidity but the melting of snow represents the softening of the hardness of heart. In European symbolism, snowdrops represent purity, humility and hope. In Christianity, snowdrops are emblems of the Virgin Mary and the Candlemas. Snow is similar to deserts and the ocean. Both cover the earth without any other visible signs of life. In effect, the polar regions are great white frozen seas.The cataclysmic symbolism of fire is utilized in a number of literary works. A great city fire serves as a major contextual symbol in the novel To The White Sea by James Dickey. A great forest fire serves as this symbol in the novel Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean. In To The White Sea an American tail gunner parachutes from his burning B-29 into Tokyo a day before the great fire-bombing of the city. The story involves the young man's escape from the burning hell of Tokyo and his trek north toward the island of Hokkaido, a frozen, desolate sanctuary where he feels his freedom will be assured. The symbolic place context of the story moves from fire to ice. In MacLean's novel Young Men and Fire, the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 kills twelve young firefighters who attempt to battle it. Both novels offer vivid illustrations of how cataclysmic fire can be used as symbolic context to create powerful stories.