Using symbolism

A snake, a crow.

Let me set the scene: I was walking to work on a gushingly rainy day and noticed a piece of litter under some bushes running along the sidewalk. I crossed the sidewalk to pick it up for a more proper disposal and heard a loud thud behind me. Turning I saw a very large snake right in the middle of the section I had just passed. I am no expert in snakes and have no idea what kind it was but the effect was of course startling; there, suddenly, was a good over one-meter long and possibly venomous slitherer with its tongue out and one beady eye set on me. Where had it come from? I glanced up into the branches of a moss-covered tree on the opposite side of the sidewalk and saw a large black crow sitting there majestically, calm and in perfect control of his world. Had the crow evicted the snake from an upper branch? Had there been an altercation? I paused, fascinated. I watched the snake as she moved towards the bushes, then seemed to change her mind and head back towards the tree, then the bushes again, then the tree. I looked up and the crow had silently disappeared. The snake made her way to the bare earth beneath the tree. I carried on to work.

There are many ways such an event could be interpreted. It might be nothing at all, a chance encounter with the natural world we often ignore (to our detriment, I’d say). It might be something though, perhaps even something very significant. It might be a sign of spiritual or psychological import, a gift from the unseen, a message from the only-felt the way that dreams sometimes strike us as being. On that note, it might be an inner voice manifesting itself externally. Me getting my attention. If you are still with me on this then I applaud you for your patience, for surely those last few sentences will ring the warning bells of dirty hippiedom quite loudly.

Yet why should that be? Here is the point, and the reason I wanted to bring such up. Whatever the snake and the crow meant or might mean (and I wish to make no hermeneutic claims here, whether of an augury sort or otherwise), the occurrence presented me with a rich experience rife with possible responses. What I make of it or don’t make of it will depend entirely on me, on my perceptual and conceptual approach, on the underlying framework through which I mentally engage the world. In other words, it is far less a matter of an empirically measurable event and far more a matter of my personal character.

There are richly powerful symbols in our cultural heritages, and while some vary greatly depending on place and time, some appear to be almost universal in the human consideration of them. Chords struck in psyches, leftovers of our common evolutionary legacy and the ingrained reactions and judgments (which have become automatic and intuitive) that our ancestors made to them. A direct connection between our environments and our preconsciousnesses (or subconsciousnesses, if you prefer, though to me the nuance between “pre” and “sub” is important). Whenever we encounter the symbolic or the potentially symbolic an emotion is stirred in us which we do not often notice rationally, consciously, and if we do take stock of it such will not happen until after the emotion’s expression. Here the reasoning mind may step in and offer an explanation (“The front door’s midnight banging scared me so badly that I wet the bed”), but the simple cause and effect relations that we draw are at best mere sketches of more deeply complex biological and psychological processes. This is an important hint to the fundamental way in which we are far more than the goings-on of our thinking brains, and it is that “far more” that symbols have direct access to and hence what makes them the promising storytelling tools that they are. Although care, I think, is called for, as our above thoughts on interpretation indicate. In our use of symbolism, or in the symbolic use or meaning that we impart to the events we depict, we need to recall both the cultural backgrounds of our likely readers and the mental baggage that our characters carry from their own pasts and inheritances. Every reader will have many filters through which they process our words, and every character will have similar ones that they apply to the worlds we set them in. All this creates a somewhat heavy burden on the writer, but just an awareness of the issues involved itself is a large step-up on the way to better planning and execution. Fiction writing has never been simple, but then neither has the world outside our doorsteps. Best to keep one’s eyes – and mind – open.

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