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Research Report by Alessandra Horii

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Research Report by Alessandra Horii: [Hidden Meanings in the Text]


By [Alessandra Horii], [Poetry Interpretation] Team

 Fontana, David.  The Secret Language of Symbols.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2003. 

  1. Abstract:  This book is a reference book that discusses the meaning of symbols.  Along with providing several interpretations for each given symbol, the book provides historical and religious background as well.  Symbols get many of their meanings from different cultures’ myths, rituals, and beliefs.  The book emphasizes how symbols are not only a mode of communication, but also a means of self-evaluation.  Reoccurring symbols in dreams can reveal undiscovered components of the psyche.  A few other uses of symbolism in the present day include art, literature, advertising, film, political campaigns, and children’s stories. 
  2. Description:  The Secret Language of Symbols is organized into the different aspects of symbolism.  To ease the reader into the complicated material, an introduction is provided which discusses the origins of symbolism.  The beginning of the intro contains an observation by the psychotherapist Carl Jung.  He says, “Symbols generate themselves from the unconscious as a spontaneous expression of some deep inner power of which we are aware but which we cannot fully express in words” (p11).  The book goes on to discuss how symbolism is a universal language because amazingly, similar images and similar meanings have emerged in different cultures, and have continued on through time.  Carl Jung was the first to note the similarities between Eastern and Western cultural symbols.  Jung broke down the human psyche into three categories.  The first that he mentions is called the conscious, which is also known as personal will-power.  Next, he describes the “preconscious”, which is the information that can be summoned by will.  The “personal conscious” contains memories that can only be remembered by a trigger, such as a dream, or picture.  The inner-most part of the psyche is called the “collective unconscious”, which society recognizes as emotions and values.  The symbols that are found in the “collective unconscious” are called “archetypes” (p 14-15).  “Archetypes” are “a set of internal blueprints of what it means to be fully human” (p18-19).  Archetype symbols help express ideals, and facets of one’s personality.  In literary context, archetypes are usually depicted as stereotypical reflections of a common figure.  For example, the “mother archetype” is “the nurturing, caring side of human nature” (p 21). 

        A section about the power of symbols follows the introduction.  Most symbols take hundreds of years to develop a meaning and even then, meanings may change over time.  Symbols were used as early as the prehistoric days in cave drawings.  They also have origins through the stories of gods and myths in the way that people develop their own interpretations on how they think a god should look like.  Ultimately, symbolism is a way of depicting the unknown.  It is a way of expressing what does not have a bodily form, such as emotions. 

        The majority of the book is dedicated to the thorough explanations of common symbols.  Shapes, colors, numbers, and an array of different animals and plants are among the topics that the book covers.  Objects are largely focused upon in this section as well.  “The deepest symbolic meanings are held by objects that resonate with the preoccupations of people everywhere at all times- food, sex, conflict, and the gods” (p111).  It is explained that the creator of an object passes on their skills and their energy onto the item that they make. 

        The book ends with a section on symbol systems.  A symbol system “represents the topography of the mental and emotional realm that reveals itself to the inner eye” (p236).  In simpler terms, it is a system that contains symbols, which represent occurrences in everyday life. 

  3. Commentary:  The Secret Language of Symbols can be used in the interpretation of poetry.  “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert contains colorful metaphors and imagery that can be interpreted to add meaning to the poem.  The symbols in the poem contribute to the emotion that Gibert expresses for a lost love.  The poem ends with an allusion to the greek mythological charactr, Icarus and his flight toward the sun.  His flight can be interpreted as a rush towards freedom and away from a bitter past.  “Flight represents freedom from the physical restrictions of earth-bound life, and the ascent of the soul to the gods…” (p 143)  The sun, which melted Icarus’s wings, was “regarded as all-seeing, and was worshipped as a (mostly masculine) god in a number of civilizations” (p201).  The symbols of flight and the sun show how Gilbert looks upon himself as “all-seeing,” like the sun.  He is “all-seeing” because he is able to see the good that comes from something as sad as a divorce.  Icarus was able to fly and because flight symbolizes a break from restrictions, this shows that Gilbert encourages people who have experienced a loss to break free from sadness.

        This reference book could cause limitations in that it does not provide every possible interpretation of a symbol.  However, it does provide an alternative perspective on common symbols that by no means restricts interpretation of the poem.  The book merely gives some historical background and some common associations with the given concept or word.  Another limitation that the book has is that it does not give explanations for every symbol in existence.  Despite this constraint, the broader symbols that the book does provide are found throughout the whole poem.  The most important symbols that are needed to understand the emotion of the poem are described in the book.

        By interpreting words and ideas in the poem on a literary and historical basis through the interpretation of symbols, more information about the poem and the poet are revealed.  The book can help create a collage of what the poem is about through the symbols and meanings that they provide. 

    4.  Resources for Further Study

    Emick, Jennifer. "A Guide to the Structure of Spiritual Emblems." The Secret Language of Symbols (2008) 21 February 2008 <http://altreligion.about.com/library/weekly/aa062003a.htm>.

    symbols.com. 1997. HME Publishing. 21 Feb 2008 <http://www.symbols.com>.

    Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003. 21 February 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?id=kLRpaAwA7tsC&dq=secret+language+of+symbols&pg=PP1&ots=WlZHyxjQ8K&sig=7ZAw_ojRJH-sJ7LGaPOObasoQ-Q&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.com/search?q=secret+language+of+symbols&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&sa=X&oi=print&ct=title&cad=one-book-with-thumbnail#PPP1,M1>

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