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What Is a Symbol?

December 5, 2019

Let’s start with an example:  Maybe you’ve seen it in a movie.  Let’s say “Gettysburg.”  The Confederate infantry is making that decisive charge across a mile of exposed low ground.  Soldiers are holding high, and triumphantly waving, the Confederate battle flag.  In addition, individual units have their individual flags, around which they cohere, and rally, so that maneuvers can be accomplished.  Union cannon fire and then rifle fire are taking a dreadful toll of killed and wounded.  Flag bearers are especially targeted, so as both to interrupt cohesive maneuvers and to inflict emotional demoralization.  As a flag bearer falls, another soldier rushes to grab and raise that flag, for cohesion and for emotional, even spiritual triumph. Another.  And another.

That flag is both a “sign” and a “symbol.” As a sign it is an object that stands for something, in individual and group consciousness.  The sign says, here we are.  As a symbol, charged by the energies of cause and war, it says, this is us, this is what we are, we are not that without it. What we are is known feelingly, physically, in the unconsciousness of each and every one of “me” and “us,” and in the sight of our flag.  It speaks full psychological identity, the core of which is the cause, in the full mystery of its transcendence.  I.e. it transcends individual consciousness and individual life. I.e. it doesn’t just “stand for” a meaning, it “participates in” the life of that meaningfulness.  It is a symbol.  Back home, after the war, if a soldier sees that flag, or a picture of that flag drawn by a younger sib, for that soldier that flag remains symbolic, with the meaning(fulness) of everything in his experience of it, including suffering and victory or defeat.

For instance, if a Northerner spits on the Confederate flag, he insults the core of the Confederate identity, and vice-versa. People respond accordingly. If a Northerner or a Southerner spits on the flag of the Red Cross, neither feels personal or group insult, although maybe both feel that, really, that was uncalled for.  If either spits on the flag of the Gettysburg Garden Society, neither even notices.

As long as the Union flag floats above the Union battle line, the Union soldiers know, rationally, where to be, and they know who they are, spiritually-emotionally alive, meaningful, and triumphant. If the Confederate flag were to rise above that former Union position, the Confederate soldiers would know and feel the same.  The fall of either flag is a defeat of the unconscious core of its identifier’s identity. [*]

Another major example is religious symbols. One person’s symbol is another’s sign, or even just an object.  E.g. in a mixed group of devotees—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—someone desecrates a Star of David, then a Crucifix (a Star and Crescent might be present; although it isn’t an officially sanctioned “symbol” of the faith, it might function symbolically for some).   Again, the different meanings and meaningfulnesses for different folk.

A symbol is an object that has become a psychological image that has been supercharged with heightened consciousness and intensified unconscious energy.  Its meaning and impact are as multidimensional as is the human imagination, including conscious and unconscious activity; its full meaning is partially (maybe in large part) mysterious and transcendent; in the perceiver it participates in its lived meaning; it is a thing that, in thus symbolizing, valorizes (in some cases crucially) the life of one for whom it is symbolic.  Most symbols are shared by a community of adherents, but some are individual.

It is very difficult for an adherent to stop adhering.  An example is the difficulty for Trompf supporters to stop adhering to him.  He symbolizes their meaningfulness, and supremely valorizes their identities and lives.  To them he successfully presented himself as The One, and they have Chosen him to be their symbol.  He stands for much of what they what they stand for (e.g. white christian supremacy), but much more than that, as they go about their daily lives he participates in who and what they are.

Well the answer to this Q can include whole booksworth of thought.  I’ve offered what serves the needs of this novel, but we could consider, for instance, French symbolist poetry, e.g. Mallarmé’s “Le Cynge” (“The Swan”), in which the symbolism is very intellectual, more subtle, not visceral, and the symbolic bird is rendered artistically in organically appropriate beauty.  But a symbol doesn’t have to be intellectual or intellectually understood, or beautiful or artistic.  Some are quite crude.

[*] As in “Oh say, can you see…that our flag was still standing?” (At Fort Sumter?) As a kid, I learned, from “living memory,” these song lyrics: “Oh we’ll rally ’round the flag, boys, we’ll rally one time more, shouting the battle cry of freedom.”

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