Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lost symbols

I wrote a previous post on where ideas come from. Saw a book in a box and the title gave me an idea that turned into a short story.

I think ideas are interesting. I think process is interesting. But I have never been one to buy into the idea that every single piece of literature has some deeper meaning. I am not much for symbolism. I don't doubt that there are some writers out there who think long and hard about what name to give their main character so they can make sure the proper "bigger message" is conveyed.

I started thinking this way in college after I took an English Lit class. The professor, a woman who had focused her studies on feminist literature, was having us read Frankenstein. We spent the time before reading the book hearing the story of what caused the book to be written. Essentially, Mary Shelley was having a contest with her husband and a friend to write the scariest book possible. I found that interesting. Kind of a neat way for a classic to come about.

Then the professor told us that Shelley made all of these choices about setting and character names and situations to make bigger points on women's place is society.

I didn't buy it. If Shelley was trying to win a contest about who can write the scariest story I don't think she was also trying to figure out a way to make bigger points.

The thing that put me over the top, though, was the day that the professor pulled out a newspaper page. You pull out a newspaper page then you are talking my language.

On the page was an illustration of a sperm wearing a top hat and swimming through a sea of red. The professor then asked why we thought the illustrator and page designer chose the colors they chose for the page. Her argument, the red represented a woman's menstrual cycle and the top hat on the sperm was there to signify the dominance of man. Others in the class nodded their heads. Some asked questions.

I raised my hand and asked what the story the illustration was paired with was about. I don't remember exactly, but I think it about sperm banks that catered only to exclusive clients. I made the point that red popped on the page and captured the readers' attention. Sperm are white and top hats said high-toned. There wasn't a deeper meaning other than "high-class sperm bank."

She laughed me off and said something about needing to think bigger.

And that's the story of how I lost my belief in symbolism.


  1. I can't stand people stuck so far up their own ass they can't see anything except corn. That last line from the prof killed me. Even Freud knew that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And that's why certain people live and die in academia.

    Great story. Painfully funny. I'm amazed you made it through that class.

  2. Their symbols aren't necessarily your symbols. For your teacher, because of her perception she is correct, for her. Knowing graphic design I tend more towards your interpretation. The difficulty comes in when one side claims the "Truth", and that goes even for the creator of the work. They may have the original, however the work is interpreted through the lens of the viewer and is altered by their life's trajectory. Both view points are correct for the individual viewer.

    Then comes negotiation toward consensus.

    And that's the problem with symbolistic systems. In modern days they are meant to bypass the higher functions of the brain and speak to the visual centers which have fewer filters than the centers that process written language or speech (where as when most systems were constructed they were projections of the mind which took the place in societies that are now occupied by written languages, the two, however, are processed differently).

    And while context is important to understanding the intent of the creator, it is possible to have alternative meanings. However the instructor claiming to know "the Truth" is plain bad instruction.