Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).


                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.




Nonrequired Reading for Late Night Thinking

imageNobel laureate Wisława Szymborska is more known for her poetry, but she also worked as a book reviewer in Poland for a few years.  The reviews she writes in Nonrequired Reading are short and informal, probably due to column restrictions.  The reviews, on a wide range of subjects from DYI to the search for aliens, from corruption in the world of paleontology to bird guides, from Greek philosophy to statistics, all are a pleasure to read and full of a poet’s insight.  I am always interested in nonfiction writings of novelists and poets, and if Robert Hass says Szymborska is worth reading, I’m on board. Other great reads that come to mind: Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez and Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria. I am nearly always taken in when good writers take the time to write in their own prose about the truths in the worlds they live in.

A quote from her review of Karel Capek’s The War with the Newts:

But…in the beginning, how can you tell a demented naysayer from a prophet with the right on his side?  The world is full of all sorts of sleeping powers–but how can you know in advance with may be safely released and which should be kept under lock at all times? Between the moment when it’s already too late, a single, suitable, perfectly timed moment must occur when the misfortune can still be averted. In all the commotion in most often passes unnoticed. But which moment is it? How do we recognize it? This is  probably the most painful question posed to human beings by our own history.”


Nonrequired Reading

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002