I want you to think of a symbol. It can be any symbol you like, but try to think of an important, powerful, universal symbol. Perhaps you will think of a cross. It is a very important symbol, and has meaning for everyone. But has it the same meaning for everyone? If we look at the last two thousand odd years, we will note the arguments and the shouting, the wars and the persecutions which have arisen out of that symbol. Not because people were for or against the cross, but because people differed on what the symbol meant. Albigensians, Quakers, Huguenots, Methodists, Papists were all labels hung on to people who had an unorthodox idea as to the meaning of the cross. And the labels were hung by people who had other ideas on this same cross. Yet we speak glibly of the cross as a Universal Symbol!
Having chosen a symbol, we must now look at some of the ideas associated with that symbol. The cross could be:
* a symbol of Christ's compassion for Man
* a symbol of the oppression by the clergy or even the inquisition
* a symbol of pain, the pain of crucifixion
* a symbol of courage, of those who die for their convictions
* the symbol for so many things, almost as many as there are people in this world.
In fact, if we look at any well-known internationally recognized 'symbol*, and study its meaning as set out by authors, priests, experts and just dumb ordinary people who die for their little symbol, we will come to the conclusion that any given symbol has an infinite variety of ideas associated with it. The symbol is universal, but the exact meaning of the symbol is individual.
I must now digress a little to talk about an aspect of psychology which studies the way we perceive things and recognize them for what they are.
Sometimes you will see, in a colour supplement or a puzzle book, or even the back of some soap powder packet, a little game in which you are shown some photographs of very common objects taken from an unusual angle. You are asked to guess what they are. It may take you a little while, and then suddenly, you see it. Oh yes, you say, that is a clothes-peg, or a pair of scissors. The interesting thing is that before you 'see' it, you cannot 'see' it even partially; after you've seen and recognized it, it isn't puzzling anymore. We recognize something either 'not at all', or 'completely' ; very rarely do we only partially recognize something.
But when we start looking closely at how we do recognize objects, we discover that we have, hidden in our brains, a sort of pattern book, in which are shown all the major varieties of objects. Such a pattern-book can't have too many pages, or else we would have too many things to remember; so we only have patterns of the most important things in our lives. These 'important things' provide the major categories, and we then remember the minor categories by the ways in which they differ from the major ones.
For instance, let us take the idea of *car'. We recognize a 'car' by the following facts:
* it has four wheels
* it is very shiny, with bright shiny paint and chrome
* the top half is mostly glass, the bottom mostly metal
* it is about shoulder high, and perhaps two-to-three times as long as a man
Now that doesn't mean that every time we see a strange object we start checking it against our check-list to see if it is a car. No, in fact the reverse happens; we recognize the object as a car unless one of the items listed isn't so.
If, for instance, most of the top as well as the bottom is metal, then it isn't a car, but a van. If it has six wheels and is much bigger, then it is a bus. If it has only two wheels, it is probably a caravan. The pattern-book lists 'car' but not 'caravan', 'lorry', 'van' etc.; these are obtained by checking the differences against the master pattern. Now notice that in this very brief description of how we recognize the object 'car', I haven't talked at all about what a car does, what it is used for, how you make one, and all the other practical items. I haven't given a meaning of the word 'car' (if you like, a definition), yet there is a description of how the brain is thought to recognize a 'car'.
At one time in my life I lived in a street with lots of houses which looked very similar, almost as similar as one car to another if they were the same make and colour. Just as cars, after a few years, begin to show bumps and dents in different places, have different stickers, so these houses had different trees, slightly different finishes; some had been repainted recently, while others were looking shabby. But all in all, most people needed to look at the number on the front gate to know which was their house.
Imagine my astonishment to watch my three-year-old daughter walking up the road with me, and suddenly running ahead to beat me to the front door. She couldn't read the number, and when questioned later she could not tell me how she knew which was her house. Yet she made no mistake, then or ever. She recognized the house by 'fixing' its image in her pattern-book; the other houses looked very much like it, but in each case there was something slightly wrong about it. She rejected the wrong ones till she found a match for her pattern-book; she was home. She had identified her symbol.
This is where we go back to our symbols. We recognize our symbols as being important, as being master patterns. Their meanings cannot be recognized, because meanings are just lists of words strung together like beads on a wire. The most obvious example of these necklaces of words are the catechisms which we are forced to learn by rote long before we know the meanings of the words. And not just the catechism of a church; in fact I'm thinking of things like 'a circle is the locus of a point at a fixed distance from another point moving on a single plane'. Yet we all have an idea of what a circle is, and would instantly recognize one if we came across one.
Up to now we have talked of symbols like the cross and the circle - concrete physical items whose appearances can be described mathematically. Their meanings are much more diffuse and much less easily pinned down. Whole books and libraries have been devoted to setting out what people feel that these symbols mean; as we mentioned earlier, wars have been fought and are still being fought. Why is it that a symbol is so potent?
You might like to think of a symbol as a physical, concrete expression of something inside you that is vague, ill-defined and nebulous. You can't say exactly what you feel, perhaps you cannot find the words for it, or perhaps there are no words. But if you can point to a thing and say that it is like that thing, you are on the way to creating a symbol.
Symbols usually start their life by being used to define a feeling. A small child feels the need to cuddle something, and picks up a doll. The cuddling of the doll gives the child an opportunity to be protective to something smaller and, in so doing, affirms the child's ability to protect something even more helpless than itself. The child feels stronger, and more secure now that it has expressed its feeling of being able to protect. At first, the act of picking up the doll is an expression of an internal need. Later, the sight of a doll will give her this security. And later still, mention of the word 'doll' will symbolize this feeling of security. The doll has become a symbol.
Now the doll is an individual symbol. It applies only to the person who owned the original doll and grew up thinking of that doll as meaning security. Another person might attach a totally different meaning to the word doll. It might be a person who was never allowed to have dolls as a child, and who now sees dolls as symbolizing unattainable ideals. You yourself can think of many others.
Symbols like the cross or the circle are symbols that were important to our forebears. They were so important that they "were handed down from generation to generation. The symbol stayed the same, but its meaning changed. The symbol is universal, but its meaning is individual.
If we look at the individual cards of the Major Arcana, we will see a succession of images. There will be old men, young men, a devil, beautiful women, a tower, and so on. Each of these is a symbol that stands for a range of ideas. It is as if the little doll we were talking about was drawn on a card, so that every time the owner of that doll saw the card, she would think of the security and ability to protect that it meant. That is, if the person seeing the doll were to be the same person who used to hug her doll. If the person who was never allowed to have a doll were to see a card with a drawing of a doll on it, that person would 'think of the yearning desire for something beyond reach. We can see that each person attaches a different meaning to the card.
Just now, I was talking about the symbol on the Tarot card as being something that is intimately connected to the individual. There are many people for whom the image of a doll has no very potent meaning - they can take it or leave it. To them the sight of a racing car might be a very potent symbol, something which would leave the doll-fancier totally cold.
For a time I attended classes on meditation. We were given very careful instruction as to technique, rhythm, methods and aims. The classes were held in a beautiful large room overlooking a busy road. Every now and then a bus thundered along; there were many cars, but not enough to give a steady background noise. Learning to meditate under these conditions is difficult, although I'm sure the advanced practitioner takes it all in his stride. I've seen determined Californians select a raving party just to test themselves. Anyway, I tried to cope with all the noises, but was beaten by the noises coming from a garage across the road, where they sold and repaired sports cars. I complained one day, and my instructor smiled at me, and asked, 'You've always wanted a sports car?' It was true, it was the symbol of a stage of my adolescence which I hadn't passed through.
Obviously, we could design a set of symbols for each individual which would categorize all their major centres of attention. But such a set of symbols would require first of all that the person knows and is aware of all major centres of attention; such knowledge is the result of using the Tarot (or psychoanalysis) and not the basis. Secondly, these symbols would have to include all major areas of human concern; decisions would have to be made as to where everything fitted. Philosophers of the last three thousand years of recorded history have been trying to do this, and still there is no agreement.
Instead, we do it the other way round. We take a standard set of symbols, and we test our feelings towards these standard symbols. Now it is possible to see why a standard definition of a standard symbol is not possible; why we cannot say exactly what the cards mean. It is necessary for each and every user to find out his or her personal feelings towards those cards. Only when the meanings assigned each card are personal, do the cards become a method of exploring the subconscious.
In the previous chapter I talked about vocabulary, and the way we find out what a given word means, to us and to other people. Now we have to take this a stage further, and start finding out what a given symbol means to us, and to other people.
Most of us start, from very early childhood onwards, finding out the meanings that other people assign to symbols. It is at the stage where the child learns its first words, learns them by watching other people use them and seeing what reaction results, that the 'meaning' of symbols become fixed. The cross becomes that thing on the wall which everyone mentions softly and reverently in one family; in another family every time the word is used, father talks in a very loud and angry voice. The child cannot understand concepts like 'holiness' or 'anti-clericalism' but it learns early on to associate the symbol with approval or disapproval.
At a later date, the adolescent may learn what these words 'really' mean, but the emotional content of the symbol is already fixed; every time the conscious brain hears the word 'cross1 it remembers the adult dictionary meaning, but the subconscious hears again father condemning the clergy and their religion. It is the subconscious which gives the symbol its emotional content; this content is based on every event that ever happened in the life of the individual. Some of the events that happened were stories about other individuals and their dealings with the symbol. Then again, these stories were told or written by individuals who coloured the story with their own feelings. I can still remember how, at the age of seven, our nursery-class teacher read us the story of the Crucifixion (it was Easter-time), and broke down in class and sobbed her heart out. We couldn't quite understand about Jesus and his agony, but we could understand the feelings of the teacher about the symbol.
When we grow older, we often rebel against the meanings of symbols. Sons of anti-clericals become priests, children of middle-class professionals become drop-out hippies smoking pot, and sons of the wealthy become Marxists (literally, if you look up the history of the Communist party). They react against the meanings assigned to symbols, and perhaps quite rightly. Some ideas do need some alternative reinterpretation, although of course you must realize this does not apply to any of my ideas - these are all very rational and sane. Nonetheless, ideas and symbols do need critical examination from time to time. But it must be realized that if one meaning of a symbol is rejected, another will be substituted in its stead. And the new meaning is only another opinion or feeling. It doesn't represent 'Truth'.
There is a temptation for young people to reject the traditional meanings of a symbol and to examine them anew using a logical or scientific basis. It is almost as if they recapitulated European history. During a very long period, now called the Dark Ages, European man lived by and thought in symbols. The overwhelming majority were unable to write or read; communication was by way of symbols, a custom still remembered vaguely by inn-signs such as the Rose and Crown, and by the association of green with jealousy. During the Middle Ages, everything had a symbol, and we can still look at paintings from that period to see how far the idea was carried through. The way people were dressed, the materials and colour of their clothes; the way they stand or hold their hands or head; the objects they hold, and how they hold them; all these were signs used to tell important stories about the meaning of the painting.
What was more important, ideas were also bound up with symbols. Very often the idea became the symbol, as for instance the idea that all things revolve round the Earth. There was no way of talking about a new idea, because while you can change ideas, you cannot change symbols.
Then around the end of the fifteenth century, new ideas began to crop up - we call it the Renaissance. It marked the end of the Age of Symbols. People began to read more; gradually printing presses came into being. Ideas began to change, and people become aware that the symbol is not the same as the meaning of the symbol. Slowly the idea that the Earth is not the centre of all things took hold, and people became open to thinking about new meanings to the symbols.
As the years passed by, the wave of new thinking moved to France, England and Holland. More and more people started rejecting symbols altogether - they wanted totally new symbols which would replace all the old ones. The Revolution in France went the whole hog; after it was all over, people felt it had gone too far, and so they picked up some of the fallen symbols, dusted them off, and hung them up again. But that was only a temporary setback. As we moved on with the times, more and more ancient symbols were rejected. Yet each time we see that the old ones are rejected only to be replaced by new ones. But the new ones lack the slow build-up of association and integration of the old ones; the new use of the symbols last perhaps ten years (think of the swastika, and Hitler's would-be thousand years) and then are lost again.
The height of the anti-symbol rationalist period was the middle and late nineteenth century; the period of Marx and materialism. It was during this period that new ideas began to emerge, with Freud and Jung beginning to demonstrate the one-sidedness of materialist thinking. We are quite accustomed in the twentieth century to accept that basically we are non-rational beings; I think the next step is to accept that we operate in symbols, and have always done so.
If we think of our symbols as being eternal, but our feelings towards or about them, as being personal and liable to change, then I think we have grown through an adolescent stage in our history.