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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

working with symbols

I'm back.

Lately, as I rehabilitate myself after my long hiatus, I have been confining my blog posts to weekdays. Yesterday I missed again due to a time squeeze in the afternoon: Kimmie and I were to head out to my mother's place to join two of her sisters, here on their first visit from Ontario, for dinner. Mindful as ever of getting my reading-time in, I went to my reading-chair early and never got to the blog.

I haven't been doing much on my book for the past week or so, focusing mainly on this copywriting gig. In a burst just before lunch yesterday I did manage some more notes in my steadily growing Notes document for chapter 25 (49 pages and counting, I'm almost embarrassed to admit--though quite a few of those are extracts from research books). I just repeated and consolidated to myself some of my thoughts about the imagery and symbolism of this chapter and therefore of the work as a whole.

And what exactly is a symbol, anyway? I must have some definitions of it around...

I turned to the bookcase and pulled out my old hardback copy of Jung's The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. I checked the index for "symbol", and, among many other entries, there was this in the chapter called "Spirit and Life" (slightly compressed):

By symbol I do not mean an allegory or a sign, but an image that describes in the best possible way the dimly discerned nature of the spirit. A symbol does not define or explain; it points beyond itself to a meaning that is darkly divined yet still beyond our grasp, and cannot be adequately expressed in language. Spirit that can be translated into a definite concept is a psychic complex lying within the orbit of our ego-consciousness. It will not bring forth anything, nor will it achieve anything more than we have put into it. But spirit that demands a symbol for its expression is a psychic complex that contains the seeds of incalculable possibilities. The Christian symbols’ power changed the face of history.

In this context he is talking only about symbols of the spirit, but what he says goes for other symbols too--they express the inexpressible. They are the best way of saying something that cannot be said. Their very lack of explicit meaning makes them more meaningful than conventional signs--"symbols" in the everyday sense.

Since, in storytelling as in all true art, nothing is as it appears, this means that everything is a symbol. And therefore symbolism is another rack of tools in the writer's workshop. These are the tools I've been working with lately.

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