Feb 012013

Maggie Kast

Here’s an essay by Maggie Kast that has the immense virtue of leaning, in part, upon a book I love, E. K. Brown’s Rhythm in the Novel. Consider, especially, the section on the narrator as a symbol which, by implication, draws into focus the artful and artificial aspect of all narrative. And the section on words as arbitrary symbols (with the lovely George Szirtes quotations). And then begin to ask yourselves what is left that is not symbol.




Symbol as Action

The word, “symbol” traces its origin to Greek syn, as in “synthesis,” meaning together, and ballein the verb, “to throw.” The object that gave rise to the word was a coin consisting of two halves joined or thrown together, promising fulfillment of an agreement between two parties. The noun, symbalon, came to mean a badge of identity, much as the donkey and elephant symbolize U.S. political parties today. The verb, symballein, calls our attention to the action aspect of “symbol,” the way symbols induce movement from outward sign to inner reality, from manifest to hidden.

According to French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur, “…symbol is the very movement of the primary meaning that makes us share in the latent meaning and thereby assimilates us to the symbolized, without our being able intellectually to dominate the similarity.”[1] Symbols invite us to look behind, beyond or within them for that hidden meaning, and they do more than invite. Charles Baudelaire sensed a special power in nature’s “forest of symbols,” such as the wood that “with knowing eyes keeps watch on every move,” as he says in his poem, “Correspondences.” [2] Baudelaire’s sense of being seen reflects the symbol’s power to interact, to move the viewer or reader from outward manifestation to unseen sense.

Fixed and Poetic Symbols

Semiologist Pierre Guiraud differentiates between the signs he calls technical, which signify by a fixed code and have a single meaning, and poetic or aesthetic signs, which signify by a much looser sort of interpretation. For example, at the beginning of Madame Bovary, Flaubert describes Charles’s cap: “It was…one of those poor concoctions whose mute ugliness contains depths of expression like the face of an imbecile. Egg shaped and stiffened with whalebone, it began with three circular, sausage-like twists, then alternate diamonds of velvet and rabbit fur…” and the description continues with exquisite and devastating detail.[3] Guiraud points out how these words create a picture in our minds. Both words and picture signify the cap, the words arbitrarily and the picture congruently. But the cap also signifies in a different way: it’s the sign of Charles’s clumsiness, which is a sign of his relations with Emma, which is a sign of a certain form of marriage. Thus the words and picture designate the cap by a fixed code, but the cap signifies clumsiness, Emma, marriage and more, as part of a vast network of signs both technical and aesthetic.[4] “Everything is a sign,” says Guiraud, “a luxuriant sprouting of signs; trees, clouds, faces, coffee-mills…are enameled with layers of interpretation which twist and knead the semantic dough.”[5] Theologian Paul Tillich is comparing technical and  aesthetic symbols when he says, “Wrong symbolism makes us look away from one thing to another for which it is a symbol, while genuine symbolic power in a work of art opens up its own depths and the depths of reality as such.”[6]

E. K. Brown, in Rhythm in the Novel, distinguishes between “banner” symbols, which remain fixed throughout the work, and “expanding symbols,” whose “repetition is balanced by variation . . .in progressively deepening disclosure.” As an example of the latter, he talks about the role of hay in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End. Initially hay distinguishes two groups of characters in a fairly superficial way: one allergic to the plant and the other not. Later a wisp of hay joins with “the bunch of weeds, the trickling grass, the grass on the Six Hills and the bumper crop of hay,” to point to the primacy of nature, intellect and art over “telegrams and anger,” which typify the businessman’s relationship to “organizations and committees, things.” Finally, with the triumphant harvest of hay at the end and the revelation that Howards’s End and its gardens will be passed on as the original owner had intended, even though this means the property will go to the son of a clerk, hay (and other plants) expand to signify justice, respect for the past and connections among people.[7]  Ricoeur identifies three sources for this kind of expanding symbol. “First of all,” he says, “it is the sun, the moon, the waters—that is to say cosmic realities—that are symbols.” Grass, hay and other aspects of nature could surely be included in this category. Secondly, symbols come from dreams that “plunge beneath the private archeology of a subject into the common representations of a culture.” Third, symbols arise from the poetic imagination.[8]

Thus symbols can move us from an outside, accessible to the senses, to a hidden inside, either by congruence between the two or by an arbitrary connection. They can arise from nature, the cosmos, dreams or the imagination, and their codes can be fixed or multiple, expanding and fluid.

Tension within Symbols

According to liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell, the human need to be seen is fundamental to the nature of symbols. Basing his understanding on the psychology of Erik Erikson, he speaks of the primal urge to gaze and be gazed upon by the parent. Humans develop “rituals of recognition” to insure the presence of the gazing other, but this presence always implies a threatened separation, as the child grows and separates from the parent. Thus ritual symbols may signify a presence, but their shadows simultaneously signify an absence, and the symbol’s double effect can put together realities that appear to be contradictory. “A symbol,” Mitchell says, “is thus a kind of pivot, a point of exchange that permits people to confront an enormous range of ambiguous experiences: presence and absence, belonging and separation, acceptance and abandonment, and ultimately life and death.”[9] When the two things “thrown together” by a symbol are opposites, the tension between the parts can propel a reader or viewer to a new level of perception or understanding. A narrator with contradictory identity provides a literary example of such a symbol.

Narrator as Symbol that Holds Together Opposites

The first-person narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories is in one sense the author, for he did ride with the Red Cavalry and wrote journalistic pieces for the Krasny Kavalierist, The Red Cavalryman, the newspaper distributed to the fighters of the Cavalry during the Russian-Polish campaign of 1920.[10]  However, Babel, a Jew, wrote these pieces under the Russian, gentile nom-de-plume of Kiril V. Lyutov, a persona Babel adopted in his daily life at this time as a way of deflecting the ruthless anti-Semitism of his Cossack colleagues. According to translator Peter Constantine, “There is the ‘I’ of Isaac Babel and the ‘I’ of Kiril Lyutov, the very Russian war correspondent (who might go so far as admitting that his mother is Jewish).”[11] This contradictory “I” is a symbol that draws the reader into contact with a hidden reality, the “twoness” of Babel’s life with the Red Cavalry.

A second conflict divides Kiril Lyutov.  He is a young intellectual of the new Soviet Union, whose role as a journalist is to incite his fellow fighters to action by means of propaganda and Bolshevik slogans. In one of these reportages he writes, “Beat them, Red Fighters, clobber them to death, if it is the last thing you do!” He supports and admires the Fighters, but he also makes fun of their crude speech, stupidity and brutality.  In Babel’s short story “My First Goose” the unnamed, first person narrator feels this same ambivalence. He views the Division commander, Savitsky as “gigantic,” his “long legs look[ing] like two girls sheathed to the neck in riding boots.” The narrator envies his “steely strength and youthful complexion,” while Savitsky greets him with the Cossack’s contempt for Jews: “You’re one of those Mama’s boys…with glasses on his nose, too, uh. A lousy little squirt!” The Cossacks continue to make fun of the journalist, informing him of their standards for conduct: “But if you mess up a lady—a real clean little lady—then you’ll see how popular you are with the boys.” The narrator lies down to read from Pravda the text of Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern.

In order to gain acceptance from the Cossacks, the narrator then kills a goose, seeing “its head burst under my boot and its brains spilled out.” At the Cossacks’s request, he reads Lenin’s speech aloud, savoring “the concealed curve in Lenin’s straight approach.” The narrator sleeps entangled with the Cossacks for warmth, apparently reconciled, but ends the story in pain: “Only my heart, bloodstained from the killing, whined and dripped misery.”

Both the killing of the goose and the reading of Lenin’s speech bring the narrator closer to the Cossacks, whose friendship he both wants and despises. The conflicted narrator of this story draws us into Babel’s world and permits us to experience his need to be both Jewish and Russian, both an enthusiastic Communist and a disparaging critic of the military leadership, both an admirer and a despiser of Cossacks. Tensions within the narrator permit us to confront the ambiguity of his world and character, each half of the symbol pointing to its opposite.

Words: Arbitrary Symbols

Hungarian poet, George Szirtes, observes, “I cannot help feeling that what language theorists tell us must be true, that language is a very thin integument or skin stretched over a mass of inchoate impressions, desires and anxieties. I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.”[12]  He is referring to the early-20th-century work of Ferdinand Saussure, who differentiated between signs like gestures and drawings that resemble the thing signified, and words, whose relationship to things is entirely arbitrary. Saussure pointed out that a word is linked to a concept without any natural connection between them. Unlike gestures or visual images, words have no similarity to the concepts they signify.[13]

I suspect that Szirtes’ switch from Hungarian to English at age eight shocked him into this awareness of the arbitrary relationship between words and things. For native speakers of a language it takes a moment of reflection to recognize that a table could just as well be called “cup” or a horse, “cow;” yet these capricious connections are at the root of the working of verbal signs and symbols.

Contradictory Nature of Metaphor

In a lecture she gave in 1934, Gertrude Stein lamented the problems of writing poetry in a “late age,” when the words “moon” and “mountain” no longer give one the moon or mountain.[14] Late or early, writers have always used all kinds of tropes in an effort to bring the reader “in touch” with things. Inevitably, they fail, for metaphor is inherently contradictory, in the sense that my love is and is not a red, red rose, and Juliet is and is not the sun.

Scholars of metaphor question the traditional belief that language is literal first and figurative second. In the proceedings of a multidisciplinary symposium on the subject, philosopher W.V. Quine says, “It is a mistake to think of linguistic usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming.” He says that we acquire language by applying words to events or objects first loosely and often inappropriately, then with better and better fit. I can attest to this from the experience of reading to my three-year-old. In a picture book, three people stand on a curb in the rain, and one of them says, “Here comes a taxi.” It took me weeks to figure out that she was referring to that picture whenever she saw three people in a row and said, “Look, a taxi.”

According to Quine, cognitive discourse comes last. He says, “The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.”[15]  Mitchell puts it more fancifully:  “…we need to think of language not as a stern disciplinarian who orders ideas into neat logical rows, but as a rebellious animal that struggles to free itself.”[16] Philosopher Karsten Harries, in the same symposium on metaphor, says, “Metaphor speaks of what remains absent…the dream of an unmediated vision,” in which we could get objects into our heads directly, without the arbitrary go-between of words. Thus, “metaphor implies lack,” and the absence that is implied by an effective symbol can be traced to the metaphorical nature of language.[17] “What makes a symbol possible,” says Mitchell, “is the hole, the cipher at the heart of language, to which metaphor inevitably leads us.”[18] The hole, the cipher and the lack are precisely what Gertrude Stein lamented, that words fail to connect in any but arbitrary fashion to concepts, much less to things, the unreachable realities of existence.

The passion to eliminate absence, to close the gap between language and reality, to “let things speak to us,” is expressed with agonizing necessity by Hugo von Hoffmansthal in his “Letter” (known in English as “The Lord Chandos Letter”)[19]. After some years writing poetry, von Hoffmannsthal lost the sense of connection first with abstract words like “soul” and “body;” later all words “disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms.” Finally, “isolated words swam about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around and led into the void.” At the same time, he had moments of direct perception: “A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse—any of these can become the vessel of my revelation.”


The arbitrary nature of language dooms the search for unmediated access to things and can lead to regret, as with Stein, or to breakdown, as with von Hoffmannsthal. Symbols, however, abound in the treasure houses of the imagination, dreams, nature and the cosmos; requiring only that one accept multivalence and contradiction as essential aspects of the world. Symbols invite and draw us from their outward manifestations to their hidden depths. Holding together contraries, they can reveal both presence and absence.

The reader or writer who wanders in this forest of ambiguity can hope to hear “mute things speak” or be grabbed by von Hoffmannsthal’s transcendent “half-filled pitcher, darkened by the shadow of a nut tree.” Though words may seem a whirlpool leading to a void, they permit the construction of playful castles suggestive of the things inside.

—Maggie Kast


Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack Between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir. She received an M.F.A.—Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her  stories have appeared in The Sun, Nimrod, Rosebud, and others. Her  essays have appeared in America, Writers Chronicle, and Image. She’s currently at work on a novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, an excerpt of which is just out in Red Claw Press’s anthology Seek It: Writers and Artists Do Sleep.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutics of Symbols and Philosophical Reflection,” International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 2 (1962), 194.
  2. Baudelaire, “Correspondences,” tr. Walter Martin in Complete Poems (New York: Routledge, 1997), 19.
  3. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, tr. Mildred Marmur (New York: Doubleday, 1997).
  4. Pierre Guiraud, Semiology, tr. George Gross. (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975), 43.
  5. Guiraud, op. cit.
  6. “Art and Ultimate Reality” in Diane Apostolos-Cappadonna, ed., Art, Creativity and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 224.
  7. (Toronto, Canada: U Toronto Press), 46-52.
  8. Symbolism of Evil, tr. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 11.
  9. Nathan Mitchell, O.S.B. Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982), 377-382.
  10. Isaac Babel, Lyubka the Cossack and Other Stories, tr. Andrew MacAndrew (New York: New American Library, 1963).
  11. Peter Constantine, Forward, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, ed. Nathalie Babel, tr. Peter Constantine (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 32.
  12. George Szirtes, “Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern.” Poetry CLXXXVII: 5 (February 2006), 417.
  13. Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, Introducing Semiotics (Cambridge: Icon Books, 1997.)
  14. Gertrude Stein. America, ed. Gilbert A. Harrison (Washington, D.C.: Robert B. Luce, Inc., 1965), 90-91.
  15. W. V. Quine, “A Postscript on Metaphor” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 160.
  16. Mitchell, op. cit., 393.
  17. Karsten Harries, “Metaphor and Transcendence” on On Metaphor, 88.
  18. Mitchell, op. cit., 395
  19. The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, tr. Joel Rotenberg (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005) 117-128

  8 Responses to “Symbols: Forest of Ambiguity — Maggie Kast”

  1. Wonderful weaving of words & ideas! Reinforces language’s limitations, which we amazingly often transcend (as evidenced by Maggie’s essay)!

  2. Three quotes stand out for me: “Everything is a sign…with layers of interpretation which twist and knead the semantic dough.” (Guirand), “…language is the very thin integument or skin stretched over a mass of inchoate impressions, desirers and anxieties.” (Szertes), and “…we need to think of language…as a rebellious animal that struggles to free itself.” (Mitchell).

    I imagine you experienced a most exciting and challenging time putting this exciting and challenging piece together. I think that is life at its best!


  3. I had meant to read the first paragraph and continue reading after doing more writing, but the question of word, metaphor, and symbol drove me to finish the essay. After reading about the different realities of a narrator, I am promising myself again to read the Babel’s short stories. [Francine Prose has a poignant reference to him near the end of her Reading Like a Writer.] The changing relationships von Hoffmansthal and Stein had to words and images is an intriguing one to keep in mind when in the world of fiction.

    • Thanks for thoughtful reading! Sorry it took me a while to get back here. I’ll have to check out Prose’s reference to Babel. I liked her book but haven’t gone back to it recently.

  4. The Tension within symbols was really interesting. The power of being seen! Thanks Maggie for your inspiring look at symbols. I also loved the taxi story.

  5. Thanks, Jane. Think about tension within liturgical symbols as well: water, oil, bread, wine.

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