Signs and Symbols

In this age rationality is king. Rationality is the master we all serve – the more efficient and skilful we are as a servant the further along we will get as a result, the more we will be acclaimed. Even saying something like this doesn’t make sense to us however because we don’t see how it could be otherwise (or if it does make sense then it makes sense for the wrong reasons, because we think rationality ought to be king, because we think this is a good thing).

A good example of the way rationality takes over everything can be found in the way in which the discipline of psychology has now become an entirely ‘intellectual’ sort of an affair, never extending itself beyond what can be clinically proven and logically stated. Psychology is in the present day wholly composed of the output of the rational faculty, such that when other faculties are looked at (such as emotion or intuition) we are only concerned with what the rational mind has to say on the subject. It’s always to do with what the analysing rational mind has to say on the matter, and we don’t see anything wrong with this.

The word psychology takes its name from the Greek Goddess Psyche, who was actually a mortal who ended up becoming divine after various adventures. This mythologem (the ‘motif of ascent’) is an extraordinarily powerful metaphor of our situation as human beings – we start off limited, boxed in by the prosaic necessities of life, subject to all sorts of laws that we have no choice over, but we can pass through this larval stage and become dramatically free, like a butterfly unexpectedly emerging from its rigid, restrictive chrysalis. In this connection, Dr C. George Boeree quotes from Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable –

The Greek name for a butterfly is Psyche, and the same word means the soul. There is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain, after a dull, grovelling, caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring. Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and misfortunes, and is thus prepared for the enjoyment of true and pure happiness.

The potent mythologem which lies behind the word ‘psychology’ reminds us therefore that being human is not all about ‘staying the same forever’, that it is not all about ‘getting better and better at doing the same old thing’ (which is the dire mechanical goal of optimization). On the contrary, our nature requires us to make the jump to the next level, leaving everything that we know behind. Truly being human is to radically transform – holding onto nothing, leaving nothing of our old selves behind.

This kind of talk however, simply isn’t rational. Radical transformation and rationality ‘don’t mix’; they don’t mix because whilst rationality is just another way of talking about ‘the continuum of logic’ (i.e. continuity), radical transformation is all about discontinuity. A discontinuity is a break in the thread of logic – it is a rude and quite unprecedented interruption to the logical continuity, to the ‘self-consistent story’ which is the rational mind. This mind likes the sort of change that it itself controls, the sort of change that moves towards its own predetermined goals, but will have nothing at all to do with the sort of change that goes beyond its ability to keep track of what is going on. That is the sort of change it really doesn’t like at all…

The goddess Psyche is a symbol – and as such it is charged with meaning, but this meaning is entirely irrational. This kind of meaning disturbs the everyday conservative mind and it doesn’t like to be disturbed. This is the reason why living symbols, as Joseph Campbell says, no longer have any place within our cut-and-dried rational culture. Instead of mythological symbols we are enamoured of the literal variety. A literal symbol (generally known as a sign) is everything that a mythological or metaphorical symbol is not – its meaning is fixed, not subject to revision or reinterpretation. Examples of signs are all around us – the entries in an accounts ledger are signs, the information in the personnel file of an employee of some corporation comes in the forms of signs, the writing in a newspaper is made up of signs, the ‘signs’ telling you which way to go on the motorway are signs…

Signs behave themselves – they don’t play about, they don’t catch us by surprise by ‘doing the unexpected’. They don’t jump out of their allocated compartments. They don’t have a will of their own. Signs are at all times perfectly subservient to our wishes, which means therefore that they are no more than extensions of the patterns of logic that inform our goal-orientated behaviour, our purposeful activities. Thus, signs (or ciphers) always serve the purposes we have for them.

Symbols however do not serve our purposes. It is as if they have a mind of their own, a will of their own, and this mind or will is inscrutable to us. Symbols are unruly, untamed – they are impossible to regulate. It’s not really true that a symbol has a ‘mind of its own’ in the sense that we understand the term – it doesn’t have a logical mind, it doesn’t have ideas and purposes that it is intent on acting out. If that were the case then the symbol would be being controlled by a hidden literal (or concrete) level of meaning, and if this were so then it wouldn’t be a symbol at all but only sign pretending to be a symbol! It would be just another prosaic, grovelling, dust-eating literal signifier pretending to be a sublime, uncontainable, free-flying metaphor.

This leads us to ask, what master does a symbol serve, if it doesn’t serve a logical (or rational) one?

Whose team is it playing on?

This is a good question to ask because it points us in the direction of a kind of an answer – although maybe not the kind we were looking for. Signs, we might say, always come out of a very specific viewpoint on things. Within this particular viewpoint they make sense, but take them even a fraction of a degree out of this context and the meaning they had is straightaway lost. What we’re talking about here is ‘context-dependent meaning’ therefore; there are an infinity of ‘different viewpoints’ that we might take, and each one of them will give rise to a whole set of signs that make sense within it. More than this, however, we can say that the sign is a kind of beacon or navigation aid that always steers us back into the framework of meaning to which it belongs.

The symbol, on the other hand, owes no allegiance to any particular angle or viewpoint. It is ‘non-sectarian’ – it has no axe to grind, no agenda to push, no empire it needs to build. Rather than being an expression of ‘defined relationships between known parts’, the symbol has a relationship with the Unknowable Whole, is expressive of this Unknowable Whole. This is not a straightforward kind of a thing however. The Whole of Everything is – needless to say – not a ratio of one thing to another thing; it does not relate to anything outside of itself because there isn’t outside of itself. The Whole is beyond ratios – it is quintessentially irrational. It can’t be known, it can’t be described, it can’t be made ‘reasonable’.

This however doesn’t mean that it is any less real than the abstracted parts of the Whole which we can – in a strictly qualified fashion – know or describe. On the contrary, only the irrational can truly be said to be real, as Nietzsche intimates. The rational is the result of a game we play with ourselves – it seems real to us because we have agreed to look at things (or rather the signs which represent things to us) only in the way in which allows them to make sense. The irrational whole and the symbols which is its expression are not a game however for the simply reason that they don’t depend upon an assumed context of interpretation in order to make them make sense. Symbols aren’t created by our mind, by our thinking. They aren’t constructs any more than the ‘irrational Whole’ is a construct.

Whilst the symbol’s function is to reconnect to the Unitary State, the sign’s function is to keep us disconnected. It is curious therefore to see that modern psychology (despite the potent symbology inherent in its name) – because of the way it has turned its back on symbols and has elected instead to express itself entirely in literal ciphers, has now become a way of keeping us disconnected from the truth of what ‘the psyche’ really is…

By Nick Williams | Staff Writer

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