Symbolism and the subconscious

I read this article at Paris Review about a high school student in 1963 who surveyed famous writers about their use of symbolism. The impetus seems to have been an argument with his English teacher about whether writers put symbols into their work intentionally. The answers the writers give are varied and fascinating, and I think I want this quote from Ray Bradbury tattooed on my bicep:

I trust my subconscious implicitly. It is my good pet. I try to keep it well fed with information through all my senses, but never look directly at it. If I did, it would refuse to do its creative tricks for me. So I pretend to look off at the horizon and the next thing I know my subconscious is giving me stories, actions, and.. God, now. .symbols!

(Those are Bradbury’s eccentric ellipses! I’m just copying stuff down, here.)

That article led me to “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” by Mary McCarthy, which was also fascinating. It’s under copyright, and I don’t feel comfortable linking to pirated versions here, but here’s a discussion of it I found at Of Books and Bicycles.

That post doesn’t talk about the most fascinating part of the essay (to my mind) which was the way we make symbols of ourselves in real-life interactions.

The chief moral or meaning (what I learned, in other words from this experience) was that you cannot be a universal unless you accept the fact that you are a singular, that is, a Jew or an artist or whathave-you. What the colonel and I were discussing, and at the same time illustrating and enacting, was the definition of a human being; I was trying to be something better than a human being; I was trying to be the voice of pure reason; and pride went before a fall. The colonel, without trying, was being something worse than a human being, and somehow we found ourselves on the same plane -facing each other, like mutually repellent twins. Or, put in another way: it is dangerous to be drawn into discussions of the Jews with anti-Semites: you delude yourself that you are spreading light, but you are really sinking into muck; if you endeavor to be dispassionate, you are really claiming for yourself a privileged position, a little mountain top, from which you look down, impartially, on both the Jews and the colonel.

She goes on to talk about how she understood none of this in the moment, how it is only afterwards that we are able to really understand the full extent of what was going on with ourselves during an experience — and it’s the same with a story. You don’t sit down to write something you understand already; there’s no point. The process of writing is one of discovery, much like the process of living.

And now I must deal with the dishwasher repairman, who is at this moment emblematic of all the household tasks I let slide while I was working on the sequel…

3 thoughts on “Symbolism and the subconscious

  1. We just had a rather heated debate about whether or not symbolism was intentional in Lit. class, so this seems very relevant right now. Bringing those quotes in tomorrow.

  2. Thank you for this: the article was brilliant! All high school students and teachers should read it. I love the Ray Bradbury quote.

    And congratulations–and thanks–for finishing the sequel to Seraphina. I’m very excited! Do you have a title for us yet??

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