Tag Archives: fragments

Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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“A Descent into the Maelström” by Edgar Allan Poe

DescentIntoMaelstromThis is one of my favorite short stories by Poe. I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I read it. The imagery is so vivid and the symbolism so powerful that it made a lasting impression on me. It was over 20 years ago that I read this story last, so I decided to read it again today. I have to say; it was even more intense this time than when I read it all those years ago.

The tale is actually a story within a story, where an old man tells a younger man about an event that occurred while he was fishing. A hurricane came upon his boat while at sea and the ship was pushed into a vortex. They were drawn down into the swirling whirlpool and he was the only survivor.

In this story, the maelström is the central symbol, although there are many other symbols that Poe incorporates; such as storm, the moon, mountains, just to point out a few. For me, there are several things that the maelström represents. On one level, it is a symbol for the subconscious mind. It also represents the passage between dimensions, such as the tunnel connecting this life with the afterlife, or the passage between Heaven and Hell. Finally, on a grander scale, the maelström is God: powerful, terrifying, and beautiful all at the same time.

Water and the ocean are common symbols for consciousness: fluid, undulating, shifting. In this story, Poe uses the whirlpool as a metaphor for spiraling downward into the unseen depths of one’s consciousness. It is a terrifying experience when one loses the connection with normal reality and descends into the uncharted regions of the mind.

It could not have been more than two minutes afterward until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in a new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek—such a sound as you might imagine given out by the water-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss, down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the amazing velocity with which we were borne along.

Once inside the maelström, the protagonist describes the images he sees while suspended. Above, the full moon emanates rays of light; below, darkness and mystery. The words conjure images of an Heironymus Bosch painting. He is suspended between two worlds, or two realms of existence. Floating between the two worlds, he has a unique vantage of each realm.

Never shall I forget the sensation of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.

Gustave Dore

Gustave Dore

When faced with the manifestation of God, the protagonist becomes aware of his insignificance in the cosmic scale of existence. He is awed by God’s power and experiences what could almost be described as rapture, as his fear is replaced by the wonder of gazing into the unfathomable depths of the Divine.

It may look like boasting—but what I tell you is truth—I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the great sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see.

While in college, I was introduced to Plotinus while taking a course on Yeats. One of Plotinus’ concepts which continues to fascinate me is that of emanation. He asserts that the Divine source is the center of all existence. Emanating from the source are concentric circles, each populated with forms emanated from the source. As forms are emanated farther and farther away from the Divine center, they become more and more fragmented. Poe includes this imagery in his depiction of the maelström, where fragments are caught in the concentric circles of the vortex.

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building-timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company.

Poe was undoubtedly a master in the art of the short story. Sadly, though, I feel that this story is eclipsed by his more popular works. I hope that you take the time to read this story, if you have not done so already, because it truly is a masterpiece of short fiction.

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“Dr. Sax” by Jack Kerouac

DrSaxI suspect that this post will probably piss off some hipsters out there, but I have to be honest—I thought this book sucked. In fact, in my mind I jokingly renamed it Dr. Sucks. And the truth is, I like Kerouac, but this book is a flop. I couldn’t finish it, and believe me; I hate not finishing a book. But this book was so dreadful and life is too short that I could not justify wasting any more time reading it.

I found it in a local used book store that was going out of business. All books were severely marked down, so I grabbed a stack. This was one of the ones I bought. I’d never heard of this book before, but hey, it’s Kerouac and for $2, how could I go wrong?

The book is basically Kerouac’s attempt at stream-of-consciousness writing. He weaves together memory and dream fragments in rambling sentences to try to capture how his mind works. I envisioned Jack sitting at a typewriter, wired on amphetamines, and frantically typing out every jagged thought that sped through his brain.

Here is a random paragraph from the book:

I could hear it rise from the rocks in a groaning wush ululating with the water, sprawlsh, sprawlsh, oom, oom, zoooo, all night long the river says zooo, zooo, the stars are fixed on rooftops like ink. Merrimac, dark name, sported dark valleys: my Lowell had the great trees of antiquity in the rocky north waving over lost arrowheads and Indian scalps, the pebbles on the slatecliff beach are full of hidden beads and were stepped on barefoot by Indians. Merrimac comes swooping from a north of eternities, falls pissing over locks, cracks and froths on rocks, bloth, and rolls frawing to the kale, calmed in dewpile stone holes slaty sharp (we dove off, cut our feet, summer afternoon stinky hookies), rocks full of ugly old suckers not fit to eat, and crap from sewage, and dyes, and you swallowed mouthfuls of the chokeful water— By moonlight night I see the Mighty Merrimac foaming in a thousand white horses upon the tragic plains below. Dream: —wooden sidewalk planks of Moody Street Bridge fall out, I hover on beams over rages of white horses in the roaring low, —moaning onward, armies and cavalries of charging Euplantus Eudronicus King Grays loop’d & curly like artists’ work, and with clay souls’ snow curlicue rooster togas in the fore front.

Now, I confess, I understand what Kerouac was trying to do here, and I can appreciate it. Expressing the workings of the subconscious mind is not an easy thing to do. And the truth is, I enjoy stream-of-consciousness writing, if it’s done well, and therein is the issue; it really wasn’t done well. This book in no way compares with the works of James Joyce or Thomas Wolfe. In addition, it seems that the entire book is nothing but the rambling stream-of-consciousness. That’s right—no plot, no narrative, basically, no story. After reading almost 100 pages of streaming memory fragments, I just couldn’t take any more.

As much as I hate to part with books, I will probably put this out the next time I have a yard sale. I’m sure there are hipster-wannabes out there willing to pay $2 for this book and who will pretend to find it deep and inspiring.

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