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Saturday, December 17, 2011

See, here's the thing about symbols:

Christopher Hitchens is dead.  Facebook was alive with the news for, uhm, about a day: "The world is a lesser place without him," some said (though apparently not so lessened that the effects of his demise reverberate beyond several hours).  I'm not too chuffed, but mostly just because I know so little about him, not because I have any particular ax to grind.  However, his death, together with the typical convergence of events or things read that generally lead me to a post like this, have made me think about a few things.

Hitchens wrote a book:  God Is Not Great, in which he asserts his atheism and appears to attempt an undermining of religion.  Apart from the utter futility of such an endeavor (I'm not sure that even God could dissuade just the moderate zealotry (you know, without pressing his "Smite" button, and all); and besides, I mean, c'mon! -- did such an intelligent person as Hitchens really think he could successfully attack and undermine something so essentially illogical with carefully meted and tempered argument, or was he, so much more likely, just trying to sell copy?), he makes some interesting arguments, the vast majority of which I'm not interested in here.  One of his weaker assertions, however, is an attack on the anachronisms--the "ill-carpentered fictions"--of the Bible, which affords a starting point for my discussion.

Let me be the first to say, and despite my love for the Bible, that the tome is chock full of some of the strangest tails and details I've ever come across.  Hitchens thinks so, too (one of the very few upon which we agree).  The Pentateuch, for instance, holds Moses doing and saying some weird stuff--freaky weird, even.  What Hitchens doesn't seem to acknowledge (or, well, he does, but sites it as a further weakness (and I'm not fighting that claim right now)) is the effects of the passage time, one linguistic/cultural and the other human error/interference.  Anyone who studies the Bible will cheerfully acknowledge the dire effect of imperfect people working on or on behalf of the scriptures--the otherwise perfect Word (of course, for most of us, one of the great benefits of the Bible comes directly from the very effort involved in parsing Truth from among all the problems) --not all of whom had good intentions.  But even under the best circumstances, people, despite God's perfection, make mistakes (and those who believe and really think about it will allow that God even permits these mistakes), so many of whom appear in their efforts to forward God's word.  Bigger still, however, than the weakness of even the best-intentioned of men (and there were plenty of malingerers), is the effect of cultural development.  Anachronisms aside, to us today, there's an awful lot, especially from the earliest books of the great Library, that doesn't make much sense and/or contradicts itself.  This brings me to the next of the convergences and closer to my ultimate point.

Languages and cultures shift and change.  Don't believe me (and, crap if you don't, you're freaking obtuse!)?  Just read a week's worth of posts from The Language Log.  Without putting too fine a point on it (and we've talked about it before vis a vis translation) it is essentially impossible--or, at best, impractical--to manage perfect cross-cultural  or cross-language shifts: a translation.  The best we can manage, and we can manage pretty well, is interpretation (hence the art and skill of interpreters against the woeful ineptitude of things like Google Translate and Word's grammar check) --interpretation which requires a ladder into the ether of metalanguage, which we are definitely not going to broach today.  The point is we cannot--EVER--perfectly understand a person of a different language and culture.  Period.  Move this to an extremity of language and culture like that of freaking Moses, and ... well ....  Get the point?

As it's Christmastime, cards and letters are starting to come in from family and friends.  In our house, we post these decoratively upon the cupboards of our kitchen.  Generally, the missives convey family news -- count on my dad to take a different tack (and I don't remember him ever being the one to scribe the annual letter for my folks; how things change!).  He talked about a conversation he and my mom had had regarding the interpretation of a word at the end of "Away in a Manger": "and fit us for heaven," the word fit, particularly, as it ... er ... fits in the line and within the song.  Unfortunately (for the issue at hand here, not the elegant point made by my father in his letter), fit is a pretty boring word, meaning essentially the same thing now as when the song was first published and even three hundred years before that.  The only difference in our uses of fit now as from before is a drop, inasmuch as Lewis Carroll did not mean, or at least did not only mean (most likely he meant both together) fit as a strong, sudden, uncontrollable physical reaction, but a canto: "The Hunting of the Snark, an Agony in Eight Fits."  This difference or change or shift or lack, or whatever you want to call it, in fit's etymology can still be sort of retrofit into the interpretation of the song, at least as a symbol.  And this is the point.

Symbols change just like words and language and culture.  (And I could write a book about this, but we're gonna keep it limited -- hopefully.  Besides, there are others far better qualified than me.)

There are all kinds of symbols, and you should get what I'm talking about by my saying that there are both universal symbols and one-use-only symbols.  The best source I can think of for any symbol--a specific symbol or type of symbol--is literature (go figure).  Authors and poets certainly use both, but the difference should be clear in, say, Catcher in the Rye, where Salinger applies a potentially universal symbol of a cliff and a very specific, one-use-only, symbol of a song lyric.  

(Want more symbols?  Dig out your freshman lit book from high school or even college.  I'd examine my own, but it's buried in the garage.  One in particular that I re-encountered recently is that of bells.  Consider their effect on faeries (or pixies -- you pick), but also in Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," Poe's "The Bells," and Tennyson's "Ring Out Wild Bells.")

Symbols like these, universal or not (another universal symbol, perhaps easier to see, is the black bird, used in both Through the Looking Glass and Tortilla Flat, among so many others), remain fixed, at least inasmuch as their value is fully encapsulated by the text of the book.  Regardless of cultural elements connected to the symbols or their cultural sources, the application of the symbols are self-contained.  Well, often.  Not always.  Consider Jane Eyre.  Early in the book, in the red room, there's the nastiness about the chimney.  With the exception of Santa Claus, we've largely lost our superstitions, and therefore associated symbolisms, of chimneys.

This brings me to my gripe.

It really bugs me when hyper-Christians get all bent out of shape about the "real meaning" of Christmas symbols (as distinguished from "the real meaning of Christmas," which is certainly not in dispute here; and the same goes for Easter): the Christmas tree, the yule log, Santa coming down the chimney, wreaths, poinsettias, and so on.  Easter eggs.  Generally, the hyper-Christians' gripes boil down to pagan rituals and druids and fertility rites and, somehow, the consumerism of the Holidays.  (If you're really ambitious, check out the symmetry between the development of our cultural symbols against the history of our English language.  Cool.)

(Are you offended by my coinage of "hyper-Christians"?  I apologize.  Anyway:)

Here's the thing: Sure, go through the histories--which interest me just as much as the next nerd--and, yeah, that's where a lot of this stuff got started.  But that's not what they mean anymore!  Things change!

Are you still scared of witches coming down your chimney?  I've never roasted a chestnut, but chestnuts are much closer to my cultural nostalgia associated with chimneys than hobgoblins.  (Actually, the majority of my  personal associations with chimneys involve me as a kid getting into a heckuva lot of trouble.)

Just because the symbol itself--the physical thing--persists, and entirely by tradition only (a thing much more rigid than whatever that tradition might have stemmed from (consider how many people go to church on Christmas and Easter not because they believe anything in particular--or particularly strongly--but just because that's what you do on Christmas and Easter)) doesn't mean that it's wrong to hold onto that thing!  It doesn't always matter what something means, but that it means something at all.  Think about it: what do the Christmas tree and the presents and the cookies and the fireplace and the wreath, and whatever else, mean--symbolize--for you?

See?  Right there--that internal meaning.  That is what Christmas is all about.  And if you happen to be Christian, it might mean that much more.  And not by compromise between the traditional symbols and the Bible stories, but because symbols change--we change--people change, and what we become--what and who we are--is what is most important.  You might be surprised, but examine yourself against the symbols in your life.  Those symbols probably define you (not you by them, but they as representations of who you are), not because the symbols might have meant something different to someone else sometime across the ages, but because of what it means to you and you alone.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. And the idea that we can ever separate Christianity totally from the outside world is not the way it's ever worked. The Christians and the Israelites before them didn't live in a vacuum. They observed and adopted many of the traditions from around them. Sorry, God works through humans. Get used to it. If you don't like that, I don't know, go to some isolated monastery? I'll stay right here, thank you.


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