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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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“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 7: The Stream of the Subconscious

Image Source - USF

Image Source – USF

In my previous post on Don Quixote, I explored the cave as a symbol for the subconscious mind. In this post, we will look at the river as a symbol for the stream of the subconscious.

After recovering from the experience of the cave, Sancho and Don Quixote arrive at the bank of the river Ebro. As they gaze into the water, there is an immediate but gentle shift in consciousness.

By stages as already described or left undescribed, two days after quitting the grove Don Quixote and Sancho reached the river Ebro, and the sight of it was a great delight to Don Quixote as he contemplated and gazed upon the charms of it banks, the clearness of its stream, the gentleness of its current and the abundance of its crystal waters; and the pleasant view revived a thousand tender thoughts in his mind.

(p. 769)

They discover a bark, which is a type of boat, and use it to set forth upon the river. As they embark, they feel a sense of trepidation, which signals that they are about to enter into an uncharted region of the psyche.

“Now they are tied,” said Sancho; “what are we to do next?”

“What?” said Don Quixote, “cross ourselves and weigh anchor; I mean, embark and cut the moorings by which the bark is held;” and the bark began to drift away slowly from the bank. But when Sancho saw himself somewhere about two yards out in the river, he began to tremble and give himself up for lost;

(p. 770)

The stream represents individual consciousness, which flows into the ocean, which is a symbol for the divine consciousness.

Art thou, perchance, tramping barefoot over the Riphaean mountains, instead of being seated on a bench like an archduke on the tranquil stream of this pleasant river, from which in a short space we shall come out upon the broad sea?

(p. 771)

The next passage I want to share is my favorite from this section. It is often believed that one must use mysticism or the occult in order to connect with the subconscious and ultimately the divine consciousness, but that is not the case. This is something that occurs naturally and effortlessly, once you calm the mind and open yourself to the flow of consciousness.

… and shaking his fingers he washed his whole hand in the river along which the boat was quietly gliding in midstream, not moved by any occult intelligence or invisible enchantment, but simply by the current, just there smooth and gentle.

(p. 773)

The genius of this book so far for me is how Cervantes is able to weave in rich mystical and spiritual ideas in a tale that is farcical and at times downright funny. Stay tuned for my next installment.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VI – The Princess at the River

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

In this book, Odysseus awakens and encounters the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens at the river. Nausicaa begins to fall in love with Odysseus and agrees to help him enter the city and gain an audience with her parents, the king and queen.

There are a few passages in this section that I found interesting and wanted to discuss. The first deals with beauty.

While Nausicaa is with her handmaidens, Athena bestows divine beauty upon her, “So one could tell the princess from the maids.” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 102) The passage likens the differentiation between Nausicaa and the maids to the difference between Artemis and the nymphs. This made me think about the association between physical beauty and the divine. In fact, as Odysseus comes upon the young women, he asks Nausicaa: “Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?” (ibid: p. 103) It made me think that in this tale, beauty is in essence the divine made corporeal. And as I thought about this more, I began to wonder whether wisdom and courage are also divine qualities that manifest within certain individuals. Anyway, it’s certainly something I will keep in mind as I continue reading.

As Odysseus is coming upon the women, he makes a strange choice to rely upon words instead of actions to win their support.

In his swift reckoning, he thought it best
to trust in words to please her—and keep away;
he might anger the girl, touching her knees.
So he began, and let the soft words fall:

(ibid: p 103)

What struck me about this passage is the reliance on words. On one hand, words are tools of the Trickster, and Odysseus certainly embodies characteristics of this archetype. But words are also the tools of the poet, who uses words to express divine truth. It feels like there is a double entendre here, where words could be used both for expressing truth and deceit.

Odysseus concludes his supplication to Nausicaa by invoking the importance of family and home.

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends! But all this they know best.

(ibid: p. 104)

This is worth considering because of Odysseus’ plight. He has been kept from his harmonious relationship with Penelope, and his strong house is being attacked by the suitors, who will no doubt become his enemies. One can sense the longing he must feel, to be reunited with the person who he loves, and to be back at home. It’s a very poignant image.

The last passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus bathes himself, away from the view of the women.

They left him, then, and went to tell the princess.
And now Odysseus, dousing in the river,
scrubbed the coat of brine from back and shoulders
and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair;
got himself all rubbed down, from head to foot,
then he put on the clothes the princess gave him.
Athena lent a hand, making him seem
taller, and massive too, with crisping hair
in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,
but all red-golden. Think of gold infused
on silver by a craftsman, whose fine art
Hephaistos taught him, or Athena: one
whose work moves to delight: just so she lavished
beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.
Then he went down to sit on the sea the beach
in his new splendor.

(ibid: pp 105 – 106)

I found this to be very symbolic. The bathing and anointing is a form of spiritual purification, where his soul is cleansed and he is again made holy. It seems very ritualistic in the description and the fact that he now appears in “new splendor” reinforces the image of Odysseus as a divine being. When we consider this in connection with the symbolic rebirth that Odysseus experiences in Book V, the symbolism becomes even more powerful, as the remnants of the past life are washed away and the newly resurrected hero appears in god-like glory.

So that’s all I have to say regarding Book VI. As always, please share any thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book VII.

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“Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot – Part 3 of 4: The Dry Salvages

FourQuartets

The third of the Four Quartets, “The Dry Salvages,” uses water and the ocean as metaphors throughout the poem. The ocean symbolizes the collective unconscious, where our individual consciousnesses can either drift aimlessly, or merge and become part of the Universal Mind.

Eliot begins the poem by establishing a connection between water and the divine consciousness, or god. God is represented by a river, implying that a connection with god provides a pathway for our consciousnesses to flow into and merge with the collective unconscious. Unfortunately, we have allowed our obsession with science and technology to interfere with our ability to connect with the “river god.”

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

Eliot then makes the connection between our consciousness and the collective. In keeping with Eastern mystical traditions, it is described as being with us and at the same time around us. It is what connects us to the world around us, as well as to all creation.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:

(Lines 15 – 18)

In the second section of the poem, humans are depicted as lost and adrift in the sea of consciousness. Our psyches have become fragmented and we are like the wreckage of ships tossed aimlessly, instead of voyagers navigating the realm of the divine consciousness.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,

(Lines 79 – 82)

JMW Turner

JMW Turner

Later in the poem, Eliot attempts to describe the connection between the individual and the collective consciousnesses, but admits that it is something beyond verbal expression.

I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:

(Lines 96 – 100)

For me, the final stanza, which comprises the entire fifth section, is the most fascinating. Here, Eliot describes our interest in the mystical arts as an attempt to guide us through the turbulent sea of consciousness.

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams;

(Lines 184 – 194)

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

While I personally do not think this poem is as great as the first two in the book, it is still a very good poem and worth taking the time to read. There is quite a bit more in there that I didn’t cover but could certainly be explored, such as the metaphor of the train symbolizing our movement from past to future, as well as some interesting allusions to Christian and Eastern mysticism. Again, it’s definitely worth reading.

Look for Part 4—“Little Gidding”—soon.

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