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The Language of Symbolism

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible.
We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary,
we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.

Jean Baudrillard

The Jungian word for an arch-symbol, an image whose meanings lie deeply rooted in our racial history, presumably all the way back to the time when our ancestors were immortal amoebas swimming about in the primordial soup. Archetypes are what we all remember, our faces from before we were born. Upon this Jung and his followers base the universal character of symbols, an assertion which falls under all but the most tortured cross-cultural analysis. Some critics dilute the term so that it only stands for an image or type repeated in a body of literature or art over time, such as the Sun in Western European literature.
Attributes are objects associated with a character or office which serve to identify that person or object. The crown of thorns, to cite one example, is an attribute of Jesus.
A decoration or pattern. Also a heraldic symbol. The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States is a device.
A distinctive badge which serves to represent an office, a nation, or a person. A pair of calipers serves as the emblem of the Masons.
As distinguished from a gargoyle (which serves to carry water off roof tops), a grotesque is any other fantastic representation of human or animal form taken to extremes of ugliness, caricature, or comedy. Most of the little knobby things you see on tombs -- ranging from little cherub heads to lions and mythical beasts are grotesques.
Though secularized to mean only an image, in cemetery art icons are paintings or sculptures of a religious nature, particularly those associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Nothing more than a representation of a person or object; a picture of something.
Good luck coming up with a definition for this one. "Meaning" is a word which demonstrates that we are quite capable of having sensible conversations using fuzzy terminology. Few of us would balk at the question "What do you mean?" (though some sadists use it as a conversation stopper rather than as a clarifier -- try asking such people what do they mean by "meaning" if you're feeling vengeful) and yet, we go on using it knowing we cannot precisely express what meaning is. We do not need to define every term we use. Understanding between individuals can still exist. Nevertheless, in the case of symbols, we are struck with a problem: does the object express the same thing to the viewer as to the creator?
A repetitive figure or design. From one simple element, a complex design can be spawned.
As distinct from a symbol, a sign stands for something concrete. For example, the "+" sign serves to identify the process of arithmetic. The letters used to compose this definition are also signs.
Bluntly, something that stands for something else, often invisible or intangible. The dove is a symbol of peace, the lion of strength, and the rabbit of fecundity, to cite three examples.
What academics call a pun or word play. The term evades the vulgar implications of "pun" and raises certain great poets and writers to lofty heights. I would hold, however, that great poets and writers have a finely honed sense of vulgarity and do not mind being called punsters. (Coleridge, to mention one, had a drinking can which he called "Kubla".)

Some books to get your thinking started


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Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot
Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle
Pocket Dictionary of Saints by John J. Delaney
Rethinking Symbolism by Daniel Sperber
The Blue and Brown Notebooks by Ludwig Wittgenstein

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