Language Outperforms Symbols

We tend to see symbols as dripping with meaning. A symbol, we believe, is so much more compact, vivid, and dynamic than mere language. Yet, if you stop to think about it, even some of the world’s most well-known and potent symbols have no meaning without a language “prop” or explanation to get them established. What does a Christian cross mean to someone who has never heard of the religion, a situation that would have existed at the beginning of the Christian era? An explanation would have been necessary. The same situation must have prevailed when the Muslims began to adopt the crescent.

Fremont Rock Art in Thompson Canyon, Utah

Symbolic representation suffers from an excess of ambiguity. (Image: Greg Gnesios)

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We Live in Baroque Times

Every age acquires a label of some kind, a word or phrase designed to capture the essence of the times. We have seen “the post-industrial society” and the “information age,” the one indicating what we have left behind, the other where we have arrived. Yet neither of these business descriptors truly captures the irrational emotional state that now permeates, and so powerfully disturbs, the troubled Western World.

Illustration from Danse Macabre

The modern taste for shock, irrationality, the supernatural, and everything to excess remarkably resembles the earlier Baroque period. (Image: Wikimedia)

We in the West should seriously consider labelling our present era the “neo-Baroque.” In their landmark work, Theory of Literature, Weller and Warren claim that the Baroque period was in love with paradox, the oxymoron (e.g. deafening silence), and catachresis (deliberate wrong use of words), and not just in the sphere of literature, which is, after all, philosophy for its time, but at large in society as well. Today, we see the same tastes running amok in all Western societies.

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The Constant Self Is Real

When feelings such as loneliness, loss, and placelessness assail them, people often get into serious emotional trouble. It is interesting to note that, when some people experience such feelings, they do not turn inward for an explanation of their own emotions. They do not even turn to psychology or philosophy, external knowledge bases which would give them some inkling of what is happening to them and are therefore relevant to their condition. Instead, they turn to spiritual belief systems. With Christianity, the West’s traditional religion, now fallen from favour, troubled individuals feel they must look elsewhere for spiritual comfort and understanding. With increasing regularity, they turn to godless belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. The absence of any moralizing god and the possibility of solitary spiritual practice are powerful attractions. That is, people prefer a godless belief system with no churches or temples and no organized religious service. We might call this, “do it yourself” spirituality.

Tarot card showing the emperor on his throne

The authentic self is real, constant, and stable. Once found and accepted, it can provide a centre, still point, and anchor in life. (Image: public domain.)

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