The problem is that over the years symbols have become more and more associated with the dream state and have not broken out of this night world. For many, symbols only come out at night when the world sleeps. And, even when they come out their meaning often needs expensive interpretation by specialists, many of them part of the New Age movement, psychoanalysts and particularly Jungians. Ironically, in freeing symbolism from particular fringe groups in society, Jung ended up placing it in another type of prison to which it has become more and more locked in as the post-modern world sails by outside.
An interesting paradox has resulted when symbolism has been associated with dreams. While basically collective and trans-personal in nature, the expression of symbolism is placed within the realm of the personal experience of the individual dream. They really become the province of individuals rather than the community as a whole.
The impact of Symbolism goes far beyond psychology and dreams, though, and has been at the core of a major art movement that prevailed started in the last years of the nineteenth century. The Symbolist Movement was largely a reaction to the Naturalism and Realism schools of art which predominated in the nineteenth century.
Originally an art movement, it spread to literature and drama as well. Some of the symbolist artists and writers included novelists J.K.Huysmans, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redillon, the painter Gauguin, the poets Rimbaud and Mallarme and the dramatist Maeterlinck.
One of the effects of the Symbolism Movement on art was to free it from the constraints of Realism and therefore prepare the way for later art movements of the twentieth century such as Abstractionism, Expressionism and Surrealism which all were largely based around symbolic images.
From Collective To Personal Symbols
While both Jung and Freud saw symbols as an expression of the unconscious, their final break-up was over different definitions of the unconscious. In 1900, Freud saw it in his Interpretation of Dreams as personal in nature resulting from repressed sexual desire of the individual. Jung on the other hand, saw symbols as trans-personal in nature and representative of collective archetypes. Jung's final divergence from Freud view of symbolism came a little over a decade later in 1912 with the publication of his Symbols of Transformation where he analyzed one woman's fantasies and related them to collective symbols.
The collective nature of symbolism has been a foundation stone for Jung's theory of the collective unconscious and for the entire Jungian system as well. However, recent work has called into question the collective nature of symbols with the argument that they are really personal in nature. This is one of the subtle conclusions of Richard Noll's book The Aryan Christ which argues that much of the material Jung gathered from patients for his theory of collective unconscious was not trans-personal but rather personal and a product of hidden memories or crytomnesia. Noll argues that Jung's patient's had been exposed to the materials they evoked in their discussions with Jung and that these materials were not from far away times and distant cultures.
Symbols And Subliminal Control
There is little question that symbolism has tremendous power to influence behavior and that this power has often been used for negative purposes. This is especially true with its relationship to totalitarian systems in the twentieth century. It has also played a major role in the development of a mass consumer culture in the 1920s. Its relationship to the areas of marketing, advertising, public relations and politics has always been a close one where its techniques have been used very effectively to influence large groups of people.
Most point to symbolism's relationship to advertising as being the most deceitful and subliminal. Yet far more influential, yet subtle, was the use of symbolism to even create a culture for advertising in the first place. Stuart Ewen has made this point in PR: A Social History of Spin, his brilliant analysis of the development of the master image manipulator Edward Bernays and his creation of the public relations industry.5 Long before advertising was able to sell products, Americans had to be sold that big business was a type of benevolent giant by a number of subtle public relations campaigns built around the molding of symbolic images.
But once symbolism worked its subliminal magic to sell a consumer ideology to the American public its relationship to advertising has been a strong but not necessary positive one. Probably the first study to reach wide popularity about symbolic tricks advertisers play on consumers was Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders of the late 1950s.6 In a decade filled with the search for hidden conspiracy theories in politics it was a natural to extend conspiracy into consumer advertising. Not to say that advertisers didn't deserve to be a target. Symbolism and advertising have only grown closer during the years since Packard's book so that today products have really become symbols in themselves.
The problem is that symbolism itself has a public image problem and could use some public relations itself to improve its acceptance with the modern world. For the most part, it is viewed as a powerful subliminal technique to control people. It needs to also be seen as a tool to help understand as well as control.
One of the main reasons that symbolism has become segmented is that it has become objectified in the popular mind and associated for the most part with objects. Symbols are seen as people, things, animals and products. Very seldom are they seen in a subjective way as a type of context such as space, time and place. Interestingly enough, even dream interpretation involves a focus on objects rather than the context these objects appear in.
For the most part, symbolism is presented to the public this way through books which simply classify and re-categorize objective symbols. Most of these books are in the form of either dictionaries or encyclopedias of symbolism. Books such as Mircea Eliade's The Myth of the Eternal Return become known only to that small handful of scholars who already understand the message. The "preaching" is to the "choir" so to speak.
The true power of symbols comes from realizing they are much more than objects, that they are part of a powerful, dynamic medium relating time, space and place. The focus has been on content but it needs to be on context.
Symbolism is the epitome of the interdisciplinary subject constantly wandering through all the great disciplines yet at home in none of them. One can see (and feel) its presence in all of the great academic disciplines but it does not seem to dominate any of them.
It is out of place in the modern world because things have broken up so much from those distant years when it ruled over all of the disciplines, when they were all simply small parts of it. Now those who truly know its secrets are few and disappearing quickly in a world that needs quick labels and phrases for everything. They are part of a secret church, wandering, homeless disciples of some distant prophet and ancient empire.
Unlike mythology and its eloquent spokesman Joseph Campbell, it has never had a spokesperson. So it has not been able to make the rounds of talk radio or morning happy talk television or book signings at Borders.
Perhaps the best symbol for symbolism itself is that of a homeless person. But then a homeless person is really one of the best symbols for modern mankind.
Symbolism held great promise for an ancient philosophy to become a modern science. But its fate through the twentieth century has been to frequent the twilight world of psychoanalysis or the subliminal world of modern advertising or shady political movements aimed at domination rather than freedom. For many, it is little more than vague memories of a dream or something you're supposed to find lurking somewhere behind the scenes in great works of literature or art.
Many see symbolism as an ancient metaphysics of the night. To them, it is the dim, vaguely remembered pieces of last night's dreams dimly remembered in the morning shower against the background of the rush hour traffic report on the radio. Others see symbolism as a form of insight gained only after months or years of analysis.
We need to see symbolism as a major part of our day world of consciousness as well as our night world of unconsciousness and dreams. In fact it increasingly surrounds our modern culture like no other time in history. Back in those distant years when religion was strong symbolism was alive in religious artifacts. Today's religion is consumption and the new artifacts of consumption are products.
Today, the need is greater than ever to utilize symbolism to understand the increasingly segmented world we live in. The need is greater than ever to see symbolism as a great force that may serve to unite knowledge rather than further fragment it. The need is greater than ever to use symbolism to understand rather than control.
The promise is within our grasp and so close. The first step is in taking symbolism out of the night world and placing it squarely in the center of the day world. This involves the realization that symbols are expressed not only in individual nightly dreams but in a collective daily popular culture. The day world of culture is the greatest dream of all.
Symbols are not that vague person who appeared during last nights dream but rather the top products we all use on a daily basis, the leading films, television programs, toys, music, movie stars, books. Patterns and relationships need to be searched for between these. Do particular genres of films dominate in a particular time? Could the elusive "zeitgeist" or "spirit of the times" be expressing itself by these modern symbols all around us in culture? Could emerging technologies like the internet provide a modern archetype of the collective unconscious? Might symbols appear in the culture of particular periods rather than only dreams.
Seeing symbols outside, within culture rather than inside of dreams has the potential for revitalizing an ancient science and making the study of symbolism a "science of the day" rather than a "metaphysics of the night" controlled by those holding the "keys" to dream interpretation.
It is time for an investigation of these ideas and questions. It is time examine the archetypal cycles and patterns which form the "context" of the "zeitgeist" and simultaneously appear in the products, or "content", of modern culture. Jung's late theory of synchronicity may have a profound application far beyond the isolated personal instances of ESP and may suggest broad correspondences between consumer culture and the collective "spirit of the times." If there is a connection between the inner world of one person and an outward event, might there be a connection between a collective inner world and collective outside events and leading products?
The current attack on analytical psychology (and indirectly symbolism) is centered around the first half of Jung's life. But Jung always felt that individuation and growth is a lifelong process. The incredible growth evidenced in his later years and writings is solid evidence to support his belief. In the "background" of any investigation, there is the "zeitgeist" of Jung's work during his final years contained in Aion, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Flying Saucers and Synchronicity. These are the true keys to symbolism and hold the promise Jung was moving towards. But they are also the least known works in the Jungian system.
It is not necessary to argue for the existence of the collective unconscious as much as for the pursuance of a new scientific method to test its existence. It is time to call all of those homeless, wandering disciples together for the task at hand.
A new Renaissance is so close at hand: for a new understanding of Jung's late works, symbolism, consumer culture and the perplexing times we live in.