The world was once thought to be composed of the four basic elements of water, fire, earth and air. This conception is of little use to modern science which has defined many more elements than this original basic four. However, the four elements still maintain a powerful symbolism within the overall realm of imaginative experience possessing a strong correspondence to internal states and emotions. In this sense, although the world may be created from many different elements their effect on the individual is subject to a type of classification based around the four elements.
One of the greatest studies of the correspondence between the basic elements and internal states was undertaken by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in the books Water and Dreams, Air and Revery, The Earth and the Reveries of the Will, The Earth and the Reveries of Rest and The Psychoanalysis of Fire. In the Introduction to The Psychoanalysis of Fire literary critic Northrup Frye underlines Bachelard's arguments on the relationship of the elements to experience:
"The four elements are not a conception of much use to modern chemistry - that is, they are not elements of nature. But as Bachelard's book and its companion works show, and as an abundance of literature down to Eliot's Quartets also shows, earth, air, water and fire are still the four elements of imaginative experience, and always will be."
Frye remarks that the importance of the elements to perceptions is based around early beliefs that the elements were related to the four humors of the organic world through the "principles" of moist, hot, cold and dry:
"Centuries ago it was believed that the four possible combinations of the four 'principles,' hot, cold, moist and dry, produced, in the organic world, the four humors, and, in the inorganic world, the four elements. The hot and dry combination produced choler and fire, the hot and moist blood and air, the cold and moist phlegm and water, the cold and dry melancholy and earth."
The four humors, like the four elements, are not much use to modern science. But like the elements, the humors have an importance to the symbolism of internal states. Frye remarks that "they may be the elements of imaginative perception."
There is a number of interesting relationships between the elements and place aspects we have been discussing throughout this book. One of the relationships is between the elements and colors. The colors associated with water is blue and green or retreating colors while colors assocated with fire are red and orange or advancing colors. Colors associated with the earth are brown, black and yellow and those associated with air are the colors blue and gold. Another relationship is between the basic elements and the basic visual geometric symbols. Water is associated with a downward pointing triangle while fire is associated with an upward pointing triangle. The earth is associated with a square or a cube and air is associated with a circle or an arc.
Perhaps the most obvious general symbolism of the elements is the division between masculine and feminine. Fire and air represent the Yang within Chinese thought and symbolize the masculine archetype, the active state and the thinking function. Water and earth represent the Yin within Chinese philosophy and symbolize the feminine archetype, the passive state and the intuitive function. Fire and air have found a historical association with the sky and a relationship with the well-known symbolism of the Sky Father. The earth and water have been associated with the symbolism of Mother Earth. As Jung notes in his article "Psychology of the Transference" in The Practice of Psychotherapy, "Of the elements, two are active - fire and air, and two are passive - earth and water."
For example, fire is associated with the sun and the light of day which relates to consciousness. It is an an above space phenomena in that the quality of fire moves upward rather than downward. Our sensory perceptions relates fire to both the heat of the day and the heat of the summer season when light rules over darkness. Water is the element whose symbolism stands in direct opposition to that of fire. It is associated with unconsciousness, the darkness of night and the moon's monthly cycles which control ocean tides. While fire moves upward water moves downward and is associated with below space rather than above space. The element of air has a masculine archetype and the element of earth a feminine archetype. Again, there is a similar symbolism with these two elements and those of fire and water. Air is an above space because it is most present above the earth rather than in the earth or below the earth. Like water, the earth is a below space rather than an above space.
The basic masculine and feminine symbolism of the elements finds a correspondence in place symbolism. The most distinctive characteristics of world ecosystems relate to climatic conditions and physical landscape. Climate directly relates to the amount of water contained in ecosystems and the major aspect of physical landscapes is verticality. In this sense, the major natural areas of the world can be divided between those that are dry, wet, low or high. The quality of dryness and height is related to the elements of air and fire and that of wetness and lowness to water and earth.
Using this criteria we arrive at the division of the natural world into masculine and feminine places. The major feminine places of the world have traditionally been the oceans and the forests. The major masculine places have traditionally been mountains and deserts. The element of the earth relates to valleys and caves which are within the earth and surrounded by it. The jungles and temperate tropic zones of the world are combinations of the elements of fire and water and the qualities of moistness and heat. As the various ecosystems of the world possess particular climates the relation of the elements with the physcial regions can be extended to apply to climates and weather phenomena we have discussed. All of the various weather phenomena involves a predominance of one of the four elements: the phenomena of rain and snow relating to water; hurricanes and tornados relating to air; lightning relalting to fire and earthquakes relating to the element of earth.
As it is with the other symbolic aspects of places, there is also a relationship between the elements and story genres. Vegetation is associated with the feminine archetype and lack of vegetation with the masculine archetype. Therefore we can observe that the western story genre set in a barren landscape without vegetation is a masculine genre. On the other hand, the romance genre is often set in a forest where vegetation is plentiful. In fact the entire romance genre evolved from the romance legends and fables set in the forests of England during the period of King Arthur.
The western and the romance genres are associated more with the qualities of the elements than with the space. Important to the above genres of romance and western is the presence or lack of vegetation which directly relates to fire and water. All genres, though, are not defined by their relationship to elements. For example, in the horror genre and the science fiction genre space plays a much more important symbolic contextual role than the qualities of fire and water. The horror genre is associated with the feminine archetype and involves an inside and down space while science fiction is concerned with above and outside space.
Besides the relationship of elements to specific genres there may be relationships also between elements and the temperaments of particular artists. At least this is something that Bachelard suggests. In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he observes that poets may be "humors" not in their bodies or characters but in their poetry, a particular poetic temperament being reflected in a preference for a corresponding element. The element of air is related to the temperament of the sanguinary. The element of fire with the nervous temperament. The element of water with the lymphatic temperament and the element of earth with the bilious temperament. Bachelard provides examples of specific matches between particular poetic temperaments and elements: the use of fire by Hoffmann is one; the use of water by Edgar Allan Poe is another and the use of air by Nietzsche is another.
Of course the symbolism of the elements has been an important symbolism within the context of individual works of literature. This topic in itself is far too broad to examine here but we might mention a familiar example of element symbolism. In The Great Gatsby the elements serve to represent the parts of the world over which Gatsby attempts to control. Ernest Lockridge makes this point in the Introduction to the book Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Great Gatsby where he writes:
"...money gives Gatsby control over three of the four medieval elements: his gorgeous car masters earth and, symbolically, air (with fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half Astoria.), his hydroplane masters air and water. What he finally cannot master is the fourth element, fire, Heraclitean symbol of change, which metaphorically destroys him. It is after almost the last, certainly the warmest day of the summer, in an atmosphere of broiling heat, that Gatsby dies. Summer moves brutaly into fall, life into death."
Fitzgerald's Gatsby employs the basic elements to provide this type of place symbolism in the story.
The movement or conflict of elements can give great dramatic power to narrative. The unity of mood and atmosphere gained from focusing on one element throughout a narrative is lost in the drama which comes from contrast. John Steinbeck's famous The Grapes of Wrath offers a good example of the dramatic interplay of elements and phenomena. The reader becomes aware of this interplay which is Biblical in dimension right at the beginning of the novel where Steinbeck utilizes the power of place symbolism in colors, time and especially the basic elements and weather phenomena. In setting the scene for the depression dust bowl years of America and his tone is apocalytic.
"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth...In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country."
The time is the end of May and the beginning of summer. An almost supernatural heat grips the earth. The elements of earth, air, fire and water are in battle with each other. The heat of the sun has a bleaching effect on the earth turning the "red country" to "pale pink" and the "gray country" to "white."
The drama of interplay is between the elements of fire, earth, air and water - the fire of the sun, the earth becoming dust, the moving air of winds and the water of rains which come and go. The sun is "flaring" like the head of a magnesium match, the earth is turning into dust. "Every moving thing," writes Steinbeck, "lifted the dust into the air."
Hope is centered towards the heavens and in the big clouds which move up from Texas and the Gulf, the "high heavy clouds" but the clouds only drop a splattering of water and then "hurried on to some other country." A wind follows the rain clouds, "driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the dying corn." Then, the wind increased "steady, unbroken by gusts" until the sky "was darkened by the mixing dust" and the day was dark. "Dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk." And when the night came, "it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights cold not even spread beyond their own yards."
After the above brief introduction to the general symbolism surrounding the elements, we turn to a discussion of symbolism based around the specific elements. As we have already noted and as the reader will see, this symbolism serves more to describe internal reactions to the world than the external substances (elements) of the world.
The unique property of water is to take the shape of that which surrounds it but to never possess a specific shape by itself. As Mircea Eliade notes in The Sacred & The Profane, this is so because water is incapable of "transcending" its own mode of being and of manifesting itself in forms. Eliade observes that everything that has form "manifests itself above the waters, by detaching itself from the waters."
These qualities of humidity and fluidity has given water a symbolism of potentialities which are unmanifested and undifferentiated rather than realized and actualized. Whereas earth symbolizes the embodiment of form, water symbolizes the dissolution of form into a mass of possibilities. Eliade comments about this symbolism of potentials in The Sacred & The Profane noting:
"The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are ...'spring and origin,' the reservoir of all possibilites of existence; they precede every form and support every creation."
This symbolism of dissolution is found to be present in all religions. As Eliade observes, "In whatever religious complex we find them, the waters invariably retain their function; they disintegrate, abolish forms, 'wash away sins'; they are at once purifying and regenerating. Their destiny is to precede the Creation and to reabsorb it." And in fact the waters are very old with the Bible placing their existence before the earth. In Genesis 1,2 it is written that "Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
This ability to abolish forms relates to birth, death and regeneration. Water is associated with the principle of "moisture" and the circulatory movement of blood and sap as life within vegetation and animals. It is also associated with the water of the womb where individual life comes from and from the water of the oceans where human life evolved from. Water has the power to abolish, dissolve, purify, wash away and regenerate. In opposition to this is the principle of "dryness" and the static condition of life.
These aspects of water relating to birth, death and regression have given it an important part in baptism, one of the major rituals of religion. Eliade observes in The Sacred & The Profane that "immersion in water signifies regression to the preformed, reincorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence; immersion is equivalent to a dissolution of forms. This is why a symbolism of water implies both death and rebirth." He notes that contact with water always brings about a regeneration "because dissolution is followed by a new birth (and)...because immersion fertilizes and multiplies the potential of life." This aquatic cosmology, he notes, has its counterpart on the human level in the belief that mankind was born of the waters.
The ability of water to abolish forms and take possession of different forms provides various types of water symbolism within the larger context of water symbolism we have discussed. For instance, Gaston Bachelard identifies a number of states of water such as clear, running, stagnant, dead, fresh, salt, reflecting, purifying, deep and stormy. One can see that while the basic state of water is passive this passive state can be influenced by a number of factors such as weather phenomena and the position of water as either above or below sea level. Within ancient cultures this above and below symbolism of water was very important. Rene Guenon notes in Man And His Becoming According to the Vedanta, the upper waters related to potentials while the lower waters related to actualities. The higher waters also had a symbolism associated with unification while the lower waters had a symbolism of chaos or the ever-changing world of manifestation.