The Art of the Symbol

by Frederick Turner

Representational art is never a simple record of what is out there. Certainly, the patient and intense contemplation, with which a skilled painter addresses the figure or a landscape, is aiming at the most perfect representation. Humility and self-abnegation are, in great figurative artists, always mixed in with their necessary drive, ego and mastery. But the painter would not be painting the subject at all if the subject did not mean something to him or her. The greater the contemplative effort of the sculptor to perfectly render the turn of the throat or wrist, the greater the meaning that the artist is trying to draw out of the stone. A shape or form that means something is a symbol. What is this “meaning” process, then? What does “meaning” mean? When we ask the question in this form, its oddity becomes obvious, and so does its extreme difficulty.

Among the Ndembu people of north-west Zambiain central Africa, the word for a profound metaphor or ritual symbol (roughly equivalent to the Christian term “sacrament”—the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace) is chinjíkijílu. A chinjikijilu is literally a blaze—the mark that a hunter or explorer cuts on a tree in order not to get lost in the forest and to enable him to find his way back. When a girl becomes a woman, a great coming-out ritual is celebrated for her, centered upon the Mudyi Tree, which like a Christmas tree or a Mexican paradise tree is set up in the center of the ritual space. Its white sap symbolizes mother’s milk, male semen, matrilineal inheritance of property, female nurture, the moral qualities of innocence, honesty, goodness and the divine creative principle. The Mudyi Tree is a chinjikijilu. Ndembu people would call the bread of the Christian sacrament a chinjikijilu. A master-metaphor or chinjikijilu blazes a trail from the world that we know to a realm that we do not know and enables us to find our way back. The Greek root for the word metaphormeta (beyond), pherein (to carry), to carry beyond—has the same implication. (Note that the word itself is a metaphor, carrying us beyond the known physical action of carrying to the abstract idea it indicates.)

In order to understand the point of this trailblazing or carrying-beyond, we need to understand the philosophical and semantic problem it addresses. Let us look at the problem in its most radical form, that is, in words, the raw material of the art of poetry. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was designed to demonstrate the rules by which words could become true pictures of things. The attempt failed, and Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life exploring that failure, and trying to find ways in which language could still be shown to be useful. For instance, it is not enough to point at something and say its name, because pointing itself is a symbol of a meaning. How could one point at that meaning without assuming a pointing-meaning already?

Two of the aphorisms in the Tractatus are of special interest here:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

At first glance, what these statements mean is that we are forever trapped within our verbal means of understanding and expression. We cannot say what we do not have words to say. There are no true discoveries. The world of nature is, for us, constructed by our language, and our language is a dictionary, each of whose entries is glossed by other entries. We are imprisoned within this hermeneutic circle. Since our words only refer to other words, they are meaningless in any deep sense—and this is the fundamental idea of deconstruction. We live in a play of signifiers, always deferring any final reference to a signified.

The problem goes beyond words. Every composer knows that there is a musical language and wonders whether it limits what can be said in it. Every visual artist knows that there is a visual language in which a viewer can “read” what is actually a piece of stone or a piece of cloth with dried paste on it. But the problem presents itself most clearly and radically in the realm of words, because words—transient arbitrary vibrations in the air or arbitrary marks on a page or pure concepts in the mind—have the least amount of physicality of all artistic mediums to distract us. Paint can neaten a wall, music can physically soothe a farm animal, stone can hold up a roof. The dancer’s moves can otherwise get her from place to place or fight off an attacker. All words do is mean. Perhaps if we can become clearer about how words mean, we may be able to approach the question of how organized and harmonic sound can mean, how paint or stone can mean.

So let us return to Wittgenstein’s hermeneutic circle, the apparent verbal trap we are all in, where we can only say what we have words to say, and we are apparently cut off thereby from the “real world,” if it even exists. Inside the hermeneutic circle of the known world are all the categories of the reasonable and the familiar—the sayable, the knowable, the logically provable, the sensible, our cosmos, the connected, the ordered, the remembered or recorded past, conscious life, the defined (in terms of all the other definitions in the dictionary).

Many modern artists, poets and critics, despairing of the possibility of meaning, gave up the quest and made a virtue of constructing mere objects. Clement Greenberg praised flatness in paintings and dismissed the figurative as kitsch. “No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams. “A poem should not mean but be,” declared Archibald MacLeish. It is as if they had taken the aphorism “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” to mean that the only honest art was meaningless, because if it did mean anything it could only mean more language.

But hasn’t Wittgenstein already referred to that whereof one cannot speak? He himself is doing what his statement declares impossible, precisely by declaring it so. “Whereof one cannot speak” is a noun phrase denoting something, giving a name to the unsayable—but if so, then it’s not unsayable. If our language truly had limits, and if limits divide off one area from another, then surely the idea of our language having limits would be unthinkable and unsayable in our language, since we could not even conceptualize what might lie on the far side of the “limits of my language,” even in a negative way (because a negative way is still a way). There is an obvious connection with Gödel’s paradox, “this statement cannot be proved.” The only way it can be true is if it is true but not provable. This means that there is a truth outside the limits of proof and logic; a logical argument cannot prove its own axioms, and thus all logic must begin with an act of faith beyond logic. That truth outside the bounds of sense makes what is inside them meaningful. Maybe we could not conceive of death—the boundary of our lives—without conceiving of “something after death,” as Hamlet says, something on the other side of “that bourn [“limit” but also “river”] from which no traveler returns.”

And if what is inside the circle is not what is outside it, we can understand what is outside it in at least a negative way. Recalling our little list of the characteristics of home territory, we can describe what is on the other side as: the unsayable (“whereof one cannot speak”), the unknowable, the unprovable, the irrational, nonsense, chaos, the disconnected, the future, sleep/dream/death, the undefined. It is into this region that the Ndembu hunter or explorer, the hero, the artist, the shaman or the poet makes his or her perilous adventure.

So somehow the boundary of our language must be able to be overcome; but this cannot be so, because then the boundary would now include what was previously unsayable. So the boundary of what is knowable must somehow expand. And is this not what happens when an explorer cuts a blaze?

Shakespeare may help us to see the deep wisdom of the Ndembu sages. Theseus, at the beginning of Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has just listened to the strange but strangely consistent account of what happened to the lovers in the forest. Was it merely a dream? And are dreams “mere”?

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact….


They all “carry things beyond” the bounds of good sense.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy Nothing

A local habitation and a name….

That “turning to shapes” is what the artist does.

Let us pull all these ideas together into a single question: where does it make sense to cut a blaze? Not within the circle of the known world, the expected and comprehensible range of ordinary statements or visual or musical commonplaces. The explorer still knows where he is at that point—a blaze would be useless. Niels Bohr, the great quantum physicist, once said: The opposite of a true statement is a false statement; but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. The shaping fantasy apprehends more than cool logic comprehends: what it sees is true but not provable. The explorer is not trying to get from one familiar place to another, but is headed into unexplored territory. He is trying to make the leap from honesty to magnanimity, to see the game he has always lived in as just a game. Art that cuts blazes inside the circle can only be pretty or charming or craftsmanlike, but never great or transforming or redeeming—at worst, it is trite.

If it is useless to cut the blaze inside the circle, should the artist not cut it outside the circle? After all, that is the only alternative, no? But if he cuts it outside the circle, he is already lost. The purpose of a chinjikijilu, like the clue (the ball of string) that Theseus unwound as he penetrated the Minotaur’s labyrinth, is to show him his way back home. Cutting the blaze outside the circle only helps him find his way from one place where he is lost to another where he is equally lost. One who cuts a blaze outside the circle of the known has already kicked himself loose from the earth, and, as Marlowe says of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, “confound the man, he had kicked the earth to pieces.” A blaze cut outside the circle is not a blaze, a landmark, at all.

This blazeless “kicking loose” has been the nemesis of much avant-garde art in the last hundred years or so. The arrogance, the hubris of the modernists and postmodernists, like that of the Belgian exploiters in Conrad’s great novel, was to think that they were taking charge when actually they were lost. The will-o’-the-wisp that is the quest for “originality,” actually a hostile or even terroristic attack upon our fragile human comity, can be destructive. A good artist is most truly original when he or she is not trying to be, when the goal is simply the honest attempt to convey the beauty that one has seen, with anxious care that one’s human brothers and sisters might share it (and the masterly craftsmanship that has resulted from that care).

There is only one place to cut the blaze—where it is a true blaze—and that is at the exact edge of the circle, just when the explorer crosses into terra incognita. And now something marvelous happens. A new space opens up—whatever is within eyeshot of the blaze. It is neither one side of the line nor the other. And this space is a temporal space. We must now redescribe what is outside the circle by means of the odd little word yet. It is unsayable yet, unknowable yet, irrational yet, chaotic until now, etc. The present moment, in other words, ceases to be just a demarcation between past and future (the knowable and the unknowable), but takes on a territory of its own. Within that specious present, one can go back and forth at will in one’s mental and imaginative time machine. That space is the space of art, of new scientific hypothesis, of grace, of moral discovery. It is within the region of the previously unsayable, the unknown, the future, but is within eyeshot of the blaze. It is still in itself unknown and unexplored, but its contents can be located, referenced and identified by metaphor, which acts as a sort of verbal triangulation or trigonometry, providing their direction and distance, so to speak, in terms of a new relation between fixed points within the known world. This space is Shakespeare’s fairyland, his midsummer night’s dream, of which Bottom says:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had, but man is but a patch’d fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke.

                                       (IV, I, 204–19)

But note that Bottom doesn’t stay out there in the forest. He comes back toAthensand tries to make a ballad of it, to put it into words, to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Bottom has cut his blaze in the right place, for all his bumbling.

It is well known to etymologists and linguists that languages grow—that is, develop vocabularies for talking about new things and ideas—by means of metaphor. A visual metaphor is the compelling significant image; a musical metaphor is a connection between different musical elements that melodically expresses an emotion. Metaphors, especially grand metaphors—chinjikijilus—create new language for us to think in. The old Scottish Ballad of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhyme, almost a mini-epic in itself, gives a very clear picture of how this works. He is sitting under a tree at a crossroads—perhaps a crossroads in his life, like Dante’s dark wood at the beginning of the Divine Comedy—and the queen of fairyland rides by. Mistaking her for the Queen of Heaven (Mary), he kneels to her, but she corrects him and offers a kiss, with the proviso that the kiss will make him her slave. Of course, he kisses her, and is taken up behind her on her magic white horse. They come to another crossroads, a place where three roads branch off: one is the steep rocky path to heaven, one is the broad, pleasant, well-trodden path to Hell, but the third is something else:

“And see ye not yon bonny road

That winds about the fernie brae?

That is the road to fair Elfland,

Where thou and I this night maun gae.”

The road to elfland is explicitly not a legalistic road of moral salvation or damnation, but one that is aesthetic or artistic (“bonny”)—one that is essentially free, though it requires specific disciplines. Thomas, like Tamino and Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute, is enjoined to silence in the magic realm. They ride across a river full of the blood of the dead, and through a dawnless darkness, like the darkness Gilgamesh endures in his search for his dead friend Enkidu. Finally, they come to a delightful garden, where Thomas serves his mistress. At the end of his indentured servitude, she gives him an apple from the tree in the center of the garden, as his reward, implying that he cannot leave unless he eats it, and telling him that, if he does so, he must tell the truth always thenceforth. Thomas cavils at this:

 “I dought neither speak to prince or peer,       

Nor ask of grace from fair ladye!”—   

“Now haud thy peace, Thomas,” she said,       

“For as I say, so must it be.”    

“My tongue is my ain,” true Thomas he said;

“A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!

I neither dought to buy or sell

At fair or tryst where I might be.”

When Thomas is in fairyland, he is not permitted to speak. But when he returns, he is given the great, and embarrassing, power to tell the truth always. And he does it in rhyme, and so True Thomas gets his other name as well, Thomas the Rhymer. When he returns, even if it seems to him that he has spent but a single night or a single week in fairyland (depending on which version of the ballad one reads), seven or seventy long years have passed. We can now see that this time-dilation is nicely predicted by the operation of the blaze, which expands the present moment. Outside the circle is that whereof one cannot speak—but if one has cut one’s blaze, entered that eternal present and returned, one is able to make a ballad of one’s vision. Thomas’s tongue is no longer his own, but belongs to the human race.

There is a structural parallel in this story with the ancient Greek story of Orpheus, another poet who goes to the underworld and is able to return. The mysterious prohibition this time is that he must not look back to check to see if his dead wife, Eurydice, is following him—he must not seek perfect certain knowledge here, for this is outside the realm of the provable. When he does look back, he loses his wife forever. And this myth may derive in part from the oldest extant poem in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh goes to the underworld to bring back his dead friend Enkidu and find the secret of immortality. He also breaks one of those arbitrary rules (thou shalt not sleep) and comes back empty-handed—but with the gift of new knowledge and enduring words.

In music, I hear that blaze-cutting in Beethoven’s amazing Opus 111, the piano sonata No. 32, where a pair of repeated notes arches across from deepest despair into renewed hope—which Thomas Mann, in Doctor Faustus, characterized as “all that one may well call vast, strange, extravagantly magnificent, without thereby giving it a name because it is truly nameless.” In painting, I see the blaze in the way that Zephyr, on the extreme right of Botticelli’s Primavera, and Mercury, on the extreme left, connect the spring dance with the absolute otherness that the painting cannot directly depict. In sculpture, we see it perhaps in the way Michelangelo’s slaves emerge from the stone, Frederick Hart’s Adam and Eve from the chaos of creation.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2011, Volume 28, Number 2