Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Some thoughts tonight about symbolism.
Symbolism in one's reading.
I am making my way through this wonderful book about the life of author Flannery O'Connor. [Click on it].
I have read all of her published short stories, but this book makes me want to revisit them.
At one point, biographer Brad Gooch recounts an incident where Flannery and a few of her more literary-based college-age friends attended a poetry reading by Robert Tristam Coffin. The year was 1945. The event took place in O'Connor's home.
One of the girls asked the poet to unlock the mysteries surrounding his use of a fox in one of his poems.
What was the symbolism here?
He replied, "My God, just a fox, just an ordinary, everyday fox!"

Reading this today, gave me paws. I mean -- pause.
[That recycled joke is getting old, Cipriano…]
[Relax! So am I!]

It made me reconsider my own approach to symbolism.
I realized anew, that I basically do not look for it, ever.
Symbolism, I mean.
I read my fiction [even my poetry] with nary a though given as to any sort of symbolism employed, or not. Granted, with poetry, I am little more expectant of symbolism. I myself consciously employ it, when writing a poem.
But in the fiction I read -- I am pretty much taking everything I see [unless explicitly forewarned] at face value.
I find that I prefer Tolstoyan realism to Marquezian magical whateverism.
This is not to say that I am not willing to suspend my imagination.
I am. VERY much, willing to enter in to whatever a book is offering me.
I recently read Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, a profoundly unreal book. Yet, very real. During my reading, however, I never once stopped to ask myself why she was using bears for her imagery, rather than some other animal. Only afterward, did I do so.
After Tender Morsels, I read Jose Saramago's swan song, The Elephant's Journey, and [not to ruin anything for anyone here] but, at the end of the book I could not help but wonder if this was [in a symbolic way] the very method that Saramago chose to say good-bye to us.
It is just that I guess I only realize symbolism [if it is there at all] in retrospect.
And I feel that it ruins things to anticipate it.
When I open the first page of a novel -- when I read the first line of a poem -- I don't warily walk in. I sort of fall in.
It's only after, when I climb out -- drive my car, go to work, fill Jack's food-dish and water-bowl, pay my bills online, flip the eggs in a skillet -- only then do I realize what an author has done with me.
The day-to-day world is scientific enough.
Reading can be such a wonderful departure.



Stefanie said...

I think to anticipate symbolism or assume there is symbolism gets us to asking quetions like the one about the fox. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar as the saying goes. I don't think authors purposely try to hide symbols in their books. When symbols are employed I think the good authors always find a way to subtley or sometimes not so subtlely let the reader know what's going on. That's my take it at any rate! :-)

Isabella said...

I had a high school teacher who made a BIG deal of a jar of pickled eggs on a diner counter in Atwood's Surfacing. Years later, a classmate of mine asked her about it. Peggy was dumbfounded.

I think authors also may recognize symbolism in their writing retrospectively. The thing about symbolism is it works on you, or through you, subconsciously. If I were a writer, I might to back on subesequent drafts to tweak what was already there, but what do I know.

D.B. said...

Funny. I've often wonder how many authors works are "interpreted" when all they wanted to do was write about a damn fox!