DISCOURSE on SYMBOLISM
The following is an adaptation of a discourse on "Symbolism and the Mystical Artist" prepared and presented by Melchior at a metaphysical conference in June, 1989.
Man is distinguished from animals by his ability to symbolize. Memory, imagination, and psychic impressions all use the symbolizing function of the mind. Religion, science, mysticism, and mythology all make use of symbols, as well as dreams, allegory, fairy tales, and ritual.
A symbol is a story told by a familiar sign. We are familiar enough with the devices used to direct the traffic of our city streets and our railways, and we recognize at once the manufacturers. All these things are symbols. A symbol, therefore, can also be a mark of identification.
The symbol functions both psychologically and mystically. Psychological functions are mental functions such as perception and emotion. They pertain to the individual and his reactions and responses. Mystical functions arise from and express mystical experiences and reactions and responses to them.
Since they represent the nature of man, the cosmos, and God, symbols are a product of man's understanding and an aid to further knowledge.
Symbols are a means of representing basic mystical principles, such as the relation of opposites or the resulting third element.
The essence of symbolism lies in the recognition of one thing as standing for another and in the relation between them normally being that of concrete to abstract, particular to general. The relation is such that the symbol, by itself, appears capable of generating and receiving an effect otherwise reserved for the object to which it refers - and such effects are often of high emotional charge.
A complete symbol consists of form and meaning. In terms of the Law of the Triangle, the form is the first point, the meaning is the second point, and the symbol itself is the third point. The form of the meaning may be realized in the mind as when a dream is recalled but not told to someone else. We may think of the Sign of the Cross without expressing or using it.
The form or the meaning or both may be expressed in some other ways; by writing an account of the mountain and its meaning, or by drawing the form of the mountain or the triangle. In the latter case, the meaning may be explained or left to the viewer to realize.
Basic archetypal or transcendant spiritual patterns are expressed in many forms in mythology, religion, literature, and art. The archetypal plan or pattern is manifested in created or mundane types which are realized by man in his awareness of the universe, himself, and the symbols he creates. These symbols, however, are influenced by the society and culture in which the individual lives, as well as by his own nature and personality.
Because symbolizing is fundamental to many mental functions, it is used in formulating ideas, emotions, and so on. Without symbols, man would be unable to understand fundamental natural and Cosmic laws. His religious and philosophic beliefs depend on his symbolizing ability.
Each individual's own particular reality depends on the symbols he uses and the meanings he gives them.
The symbol is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Used as an end in itself, it may inhibit the individual's development by keeping him from the genuine understanding and experience which it only represents. Used as a means to that end, it can assist one in attaining mystical union.
Symbols serve various purposes: the need for order, communication with others, preservation of knowledge, self- expression, remembering and instructing, meditation and concentration, promoting psychological and mystical development.
Symbols may be considered as individual, collective, or transcendental. A symbol which is derived from a person's own experience and is peculiar to him is an individual symbol. Collective symbols are those used by groups such as religious groups, fraternal orders, social groups, educational or sports groups. Political symbols, such as flags, are also collective symbols. Transcendental or archetypal symbols are those which are common to many people in different times and places. These symbols all transcend either individual or collective uses of them, even though they appear in various forms.
For example, There are over four hundred forms of the cross. Of these, about fifty have been used in Christian symbolism. Many of them undoubtedly had their origin in heraldry, and are included in most of the standard books on the subject of Christian symbolism.
Symbols may be classified in other ways, such as being either natural or artificial. Or, alternatively, they have been classified as Objective, Subjective, or Subconscious/Archetypal.
The cross when used to symbolize the four directions is an objective symbol. When it stands for persecution, it is subjective. It is subconscious as used in the Rosy Cross. Categorization, therefore, is seen to depend not on the form, but on the meaning associated by the individual.
Mystical symbols are primarily archetypal and, therefore, are psychic. Psychic symbols, impressions, and experiences are a product of the individual's own understanding, even when they have an outside source. Their main value is in self- understanding and in the expansion of consciousness. They represent part of the individual's experience; they symbolize and arise from:
| l.) Meditation, attunement, and intuition.|
| 2.) The individual's own psychological and psychic or mystical development.|
| 3.) Psychological, intellectual, and spiritual desires.|
| 4.) Telepathically received impressions from others.|
| 5.) Instruction or suggestion from others.|
| 6.) Self-suggestion from what one sees, hears or reads.|
| 7.) Imagination and Fantasy.|
| 8.) Wishful thinking.|
9.) Previous incarnations.|
The range of objects and actions used as symbols suggest that the things in themselves are not of primary significance and that the key to an understanding of their symbolic quality lies in circumstances to which they refer or of which they are a part. It is not their particular nature but their relationships which account for their selection as symbols. At the same time, one cannot completely ignore the character of an object used as a symbol because certain classes of objects tend to stand in certain types of relationship to given situations.
At this point it is important to distinguish between a symbol and a sign. As we have discussed, a symbol represents something else. A sign, on the other hand, identifies or indicates something rather than represents. An example is a sign on a store. A sign may be defined as a symbol which indicates or identifies something perceived or conceived either in the objective world or in the mind.
There are two kinds of signs. The first is derived from the material or objective world, while the second is a degenerated symbol. By this it is meant that it was originally a true symbol which represented something different than itself and which was not a simple label.
The differences between signs and symbols may be outlined as:
|1.)||Single meaning||Multiple meaning|
||Identifies or indicates
|3.)||Tends to be conscious||Tends to be unconscious|
||Based on perceptual level
||Based on reactional level
In order to be considered a true symbol, several criteria should be met. If any of the following criteria is either lacking or deficient, the symbol tends to degenerate into a sign or a mere signal.
| 1.) A symbol should have an individual meaning.|
| 2.) It should originate in the subconscious.|
| 3.) Both polarities, form and meaning, should function harmoniously.|
| 4.) The form and meaning should be reversible to some extent.|
| 5.) A symbol should have more than one level of meaning, if not actually, then at least potentially.|
| 6.) The meaning is projected to the form and again assumed by the perceiver of the symbol, to be reprojected, etc.|
| 7.) The symbol transmits meaning to its users, and it transmutes the consciousness or experience of the users.|
Symbols can be classified as communicative, artistic, and ritualistic. Communicative symbols are what the name implies, those which are used specifically to communicate knowledge and information. Although all symbols are designed to communicate, this category refers to those symbols which are intended primarily to convey concepts, ideas and emotions, similarly to the exercise we did earlier. Mystical symbols are sometimes used to instruct the student in certain principles. The symbol then is both mystical and communicative.
Artistic symbols are those which are used in art forms for esthetic purposes. The quality of the art is not a criterion for deciding whether a symbol is artistic. If the symbol is used in painting, sculpture, architecture, or literature, it is an artistic symbol. A symbol may be communicative in one usage and artistic in another, or it may be a combination of both.
Ritualistic symbols are those which are used either in a ritual itself or to evoke a ritual in the mind of the initiate. Rituals of fraternal orders use symbols as do religious, political and social rituals.
The processes of looking for symbols and discussing them have been important in the study of painting and other graphic arts. The interpretation of the symbolic qualities of Christian religious art of the early medieval period in Western Europe can be used as an illustration. In fact, the structure of church buildings themselves were held to represent the human body, with the chancel being the head and the transepts the arms. Additionally, it was also held to represent the Cross of Christ.
Developments of symbolic form in the religion and art of Western Europe for several centuries, and its effects have not completely disappeared. Furthermore, a study of this symbolism reveals some points of additional interest.
The quest for symbols operated in the Middle Ages as it does today. That is, it was a search for some concrete representation of what is not evident to the senses but is felt to be of prime meaning. Additionally, there was a recognition of the difficulty of symbolic transfer or ensuring that the object created or selected by one person as a symbol is identified by other persons as having the same meaning.
This difficulty is increased when, even though the creator of the symbol deliberately set it up as such, he is long since dead and no check can be made of the inferences as to his intentions. This difficulty exists in another form when dealing with unconscious or archetypal symbolism, which needs most careful collateral evidence to substantiate and verify. This is necessitated because the reference of a religious symbol is beyond human moral and value experience and its authentication can take place only within that experience.
Religious symbolism, much more than scientific symbolism, is, in its essence, metaphysical in character, and formed from the language of myth. It is always distorting the intuition in order to suggest and represent the infinite and transcendental, and is an intensely personal process.
To the mystic, art is ideally the expression of man's union with God or the Cosmic. It is a product of and symbolizes that relationship. In more practical terms, art is the symbolic record of man's growth, the evolution of his inner being toward that mystical union. As the artist develops, so does his art. Art uses form to symbolize meaning, just as any symbolism does. The form represents what the artist is trying to convey to the viewer.
Artistic creation is a symbolic transformation of experience or of inner reality by the objective, psychological, and psychic functions of man. It is an imaginative re-creation, whether it is representative or abstract, of some elements of experience, and the re-creation may change these elements so much that they are not readily recognized as such.
A work of art is a symbol in itself. It may, therefore, be individual, cultural, or archetypal; objective, or subconscious; natural or artificial. It may originate in cultural tradition, personal experience, borrowing, intuition, telepathy, or memory from past incarnations.
In visual art, symbolism can be employed through abstractions without parallel in visual experience and can operate by direct effect on the unconscious or intuition. One of the most notable techniques of this type, surrealism, utilizes a process of artistic activity opposing conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, deed and dream.
Surrealism deliberately undertakes manufacture of 'the object functioning symbolically' as part of an attempt to multiply the ways of reaching the most profound levels.
The symbolism in this art form is implicit, not explicit. The process of exploration, identification and labeling of symbolic patterns is done by observers and interpreters, unacknowledged by and often unknown to the artist concerned. Symbolic meaning is viewed as preferable to realistic portrayal because it is viewed as capable of conveying more general and more profound meanings.
Problems of the relation of private symbols to public symbols are raised especially in such art. That is, the process by which the individual vision of the artist becomes translated into set of symbols which are accepted by the public.
Some modern artists are attempting to eliminate, as far as possible, the element of personality from the interpretation of their creations. The individual, personal component is always there in the selective integrative act of creation, but it is only the individual as creator-artist that is intended to be recognized; not the individual as a particular person with sex, temperament, or social background.
The artist is the conceiving mind behind the creation, not necessarily even the executer, since such work may have been done by assistants following out minutely laid down instructions. The artist virtually forces the observer to interpret the painting in their own way, and in terms of their own experience. The artist, however, is not totally eliminated as the interpreter. The personal aesthetic of the artist is always recognized. Furthermore, even in the most advanced fields of modern art there is still curiosity on the part of art critics and publics as to what the artist 'intended' by the work. The work of art is a complex product in a system of relationships in which artist and viewer are integrally involved.
Art is the expression of man's union with God or the Cosmic. Because self-integration is part of that union, artistic creation is an aid to psychological development. Artistic creation should be a continual process of self-discovery and God-discovery. The creative process, itself, requires a unity and balance of the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual elements of the artist.
The interpretation of a work of art by the viewer is not necessarily that of the artist. Whether it is mystical or not depends not so much on the form as on the nature of the artist and his audience.
Artistic creation can be an important aid in mystical development. It objectifies what the individual thinks and feels. It clarifies these thoughts and feelings. He may alter the form and give it new meaning. The mystic does this by attunement and integration within himself, and attunement with nature, other people, and the Cosmic. The actual creation of the work is necessary for self-development.
As an instrument of expression, symbols are the supreme tools of the artist. They serve as stores of meaning to help overcome the problems of communication over time by aiding recall and diminishing the need for a reformulation of ideas, and give a common reference point for a variety of originally disparate ideas.
The process of symbolic representation abstracts some quality common to both referent and symbol and allows one to perceive more clearly, more imaginatively, a particular type of relationship. The symbol reveals certain aspects of reality, the deepest aspects, which defy any other means of knowledge.
Art in its highest aspect and function is the symbolical expression of otherwise unexpressible ideas. No other faculty or power of man can do this thing. Since the ability to apprehend reality is, perhaps, the most discriminating mark of mankind, art is his most priceless attribute and possession.