Tag Archives: ice

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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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 4 – The Sacred Work

PrometheusUnbound

Although I feel as if I could write forever about this play, I will stop at four (a nice symbolic number). In Act IV, there are two passages sung by the Chorus of Spirits which resonated deepest for me on this reading. They are somewhat lengthy, but need to be included in their entirety.

We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk, and obscene, and blind,
Now ’tis an ocean
Of clear emotion,
A heaven of serene and mighty motion

From that deep abyss
Of wonder and bliss,
Whose caverns are crystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!

From the dim recesses
Of woven caresses,
Where lovers catch ye by your loose tresses
From the azure isles,
Where sweet Wisdom smiles,
Delaying your ships with her siren wiles.

From the temples high
Of Man’s ear and eye,
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy;
From the murmurings
Of the unsealed springs
Where Science bedews her Dædal wings.

Years after years,
Through blood, and tears,
And a thick hell of hatreds, and hopes, and fears;
We waded and flew,
And the islets were few
Where the bud-blighted flowers of happiness grew.

Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And, beyond our eyes,
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

The first thing that struck me about this section were the references to Coleridge’s masterpiece, Kubla Khan. The image of the caverns as “crystal palaces” conjures images of the “caves of ice” in Coleridge’s poem. And of course, the image of Paradise.

Like Coleridge, Shelley is expressing the creative power of the human consciousness, particularly those deeper realms of the subconscious represented by the caverns. All great art is an expression of this deep subconscious. But what Shelley implies, which I think is so poignant, is that it is the emotion of love which allows us to glimpse into the deeper areas of our souls, to “gaze on Paradise,” and thereby create art which captures the true divine essence of our beings.

In the next passage sung by the Chorus of Spirits, Shelley connects the creative power of the human mind with the myth of Prometheus.

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.

And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

The first thing that struck me about this section is the contrast between what I’ll call the trinity and anti-trinity. While there must always be a balance in nature, and therefore a balance within ourselves, we must turn to the positive trinity if we want to create art that is spiritual and conveys the beauty of the divine. Shelley expresses the trinity that fosters creative expression as “Love, Thought, and Breath,” and the anti-trinity, which clouds the creative ability of humanity, is “Death, Chaos, and Night.”

When Shelley states that “our singing shall build / In the void’s loose field / A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield,” he is asserting that it is through artistic expression, particularly poetry, that humanity will be able to elevate itself to the level of divinity.

Finally, “our work shall be called the Promethean.” Prometheus was the god who defied authority and gave light to humanity. This then becomes the task of the poet. The poet and the artist must challenge the established authority and bring the concepts of love, spirituality, and enlightenment to all humanity. The work of the artist is the work of Prometheus. It is the only through the Love, Thought, and Breath of the poet that our civilization can overcome the powers of Death, Chaos, and Night.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are now inspired to take on the Promethean work.


 

Other Posts on Prometheus Unbound:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 2 – Opening Soliloquy

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

The play begins with a soliloquy in which Prometheus, bound to the rock, speaks out against God as the oppressor of humanity.

Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair, — these are mine empire: —
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

(Act I: Lines 1 – 24)

Prometheus is immediately established as the archetype of rebellion, defiant and opposing the force of tyranny which is represented by God. What I find most interesting about this passage is how Prometheus compares and contrasts with Christ. Both figures are bound: Christ to the cross and Prometheus to the rock. The difference is in how each figure reacts. Christ, while questioning God’s motivation, is accepting of his fate. This is not the case with Prometheus. Prometheus, like Satan, refuses to accept God’s will. He is filled with self-righteous indignation and believes that he is justified in his actions.

The next part of this soliloquy which is worth pointing out is Prometheus’ description of his imprisonment and torture.

The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
Heaven’s wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips
His beak in poison not his own, tears up [1.35]
My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,
The ghastly people of the realm of dream,
Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind: [1.40]
While from their loud abysses howling throng
The genii of the storm, urging the rage
Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail.

(Act I: Lines 31 – 43)

Here we have images of captivity connected with ice. I see the ice as representing a several things. First, it symbolizes the cold, harsh judgment of God. Secondly, it symbolizes memory, clear, yet hard and painful. The coldness of the ice burns, implying that memory as well as God’s judgment both cause internal pain and turmoil. Finally, the imagery connects the text to Dante. In The Inferno, the 9th circle of Hell is the area in which sinners are imprisoned within an icy lake. It is worth noting that Judas is trapped in the 9th ring.

Toward the end of his soliloquy, Prometheus, ever defiant, emphasizes that his wisdom stems from his rejection of God and the suffering which he endured as a result.

How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,
Gape like a hell within! I speak in grief,
Not exultation, for I hate no more,
As then ere misery made me wise.

(Act I: Lines 55 – 58)

This for me embodies the romantic ideal. Emotion is what makes us human and divine. And pain and suffering are powerful emotions which are often fuel for creative and artistic expression. Hence, Prometheus serves as a symbol for humanity’s creative and artistic spirit, which is often contradictory to the tyrannical forces of social mores which seek to instill conformity and compliance.

Thanks for stopping by, and I will post more on this great dramatic work soon.

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“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

RobertFrost

My daughter told me that she had to memorize this poem for school and that she really liked it, so I figured I would read it also. I too really liked this poem. It is very short, so I will include it here.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

On the surface, he appears to be describing global cataclysm, but I think this is a metaphor for something more personal. In the poem, Frost associates the destructive power of fire with desire, while he associates ice with hate. While these could certainly apply to global destruction, where desire and greed fuel a burning lust that drives people to rape the environment and where hatred of others creates the icy feeling of indifference, I also feel that they apply to personal relationships. The two things that can destroy a relationship faster than anything is the flame of lust for someone else, and the cold disregard for someone that you no longer feel passionate about. The world which one creates with another person can be quickly destroyed by both desire and hate.

For me, the opposite of desire is acceptance, and the opposite of hate is love. In my personal world, as well as in my interaction with the larger world around me, I strive to focus on love and acceptance instead of hate and desire. Doing so has made the world around me a better place.

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Ice Symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Image from Princeton.edu

Image from Princeton.edu

This is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to do something worthy of the milestone. I decided to re-read and write about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poems. The poem is long and rich in symbolism, and I could easily write a dissertation on this one poem. But for brevity’s sake, I will focus on one aspect: the metaphor of ice.

I feel that ice is a key metaphor in this poem, especially since it figures prominently in the title. Rime is defined as “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.” So what make rime so unique is that it is the metamorphosis of gas to solid, bypassing the liquid state. Essentially, this would be symbolic of the transformation of spirit to flesh or matter.

Ice makes it first appearance in the poem at line 51:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

The ice here seems both beautiful and frightening. The crystal structures create a stunning landscape, but also represent a dangerous place. Below the surface, hidden ice waits to tear into the hulls of ships. I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey into unknown regions. The land of ice represents the realm of imagination. I therefore interpret this passage as the mariner’s voyage into the mystic, a wondrous place where the images of the world are reflected and fractured. But a mariner must remain safe within his vessel, otherwise he becomes lost in the labyrinth of ice and cannot return to the realm of reality.

It is while in the land of ice and snow that the albatross appears, guiding the ship through the mists and clouds. I see the albatross as a spirit guide whose purpose is to lead souls safely through the mystical realms of imagination, ensuring they do not get lost. But the mariner, for no apparent reason, kills the albatross. He shows no emotion and has no remorse. Essentially, his soul has been iced over and his heart is frozen. It is a cold and senseless act that displays a complete disregard for all things divine and holy. This begins the ship’s descent into horror and the darker realms of the imagination.

It is only after the mariner begins to feel a sense of remorse that the ship begins to move again and the divine beings return to guide the ship safely to port. The rime that coated the mariner’s heart is melted away when he realizes that his actions have consequence and that all living things, instilled with the divine spirit, are deserving of love and reverence. He reiterates this belief toward the end of the poem.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’

I’ve often wondered why the mariner chose to recount his tale to the wedding guest. After this reading, I’ve come to believe that it is because the wedding guest is displaying the same coldness of heart that was in the mariner. The mariner sees this and chooses the guest. Likewise, the guest recognizes the mariner’s past iciness resides within himself, which adds to the fear that he feels as the mariner unfolds his tale.

Lastly, the mariner knows that unless he relives his experience through the retelling of his tale, he is at risk of returning to his cold, unfeeling state. The rime over one’s heart and soul forms quickly and silently. It is only by exposing the darker regions of one’s memory to the light that one can prevent the icing over of emotion.

I have only scratched the surface of this poem. There are so many images and metaphors which one could explore, it would be easy to write an entire book about this one poem. I encourage you read it, and if you have read it before, read it again. I have no doubt that you will discover things that you missed in your previous readings.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, go to a local bookstore and buy a copy of Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the money and you’ll be supporting your local bookseller.

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