Monday, 2 January 2012

Serendipity in imagery- or how symbols can acquire new resonances

As I have argued in a a previous post the human brain seems particularly inclined to think in terms of imagery- to recognise the grounds of comparison in terms of connotations and allusions between an idea, concept, feeling or thing and the image, or 'vehicle', with which it is presented. Symbols are the purest expression of this tendency, where artists create a vehicle that is rich in connotations and invite the reader to think about grounds of connection with some feeling or some object or person in the real world. Of course over time the field of connotations on which an individual reader calls can change substantially, meaning that symbols can acquire resonances that were unforseen by their orginal creator.

Blake's the Sick Rose is a well known example of such symbolism, and no doubt readers over the years have felt in it uncanny resonances with particular relationships or emotions they have experienced. What Blake would have been unlikely to be able to foresee was how apposite some readers felt it to be as a symbol for AIDs.  Tennyson's the Eagle can be read as a simple descriptive poem or as a symbol of autocratic, despotic power. Again it is unlikely that the poet could have foreseen the grounds of connection with Adolf Hitler, sitting alone in his Adlerhorst, plotting to unleash the thunderbolts of his Blitzkrieg on a war-torn Europe.

In both of these poems the new grounds that modern readers see, though unsuspected at the time by the poets, chime well with the presumed original intentions of the authors. What fascinates me is where symbols an author creates take on entirely new resonances that their creators would find surprising, even perverse. If a reader sees in a symbol uncanny resonances with concepts or situations that are divorced entirely from their original context, is there any problem with them doing so? I will present two examples and let you judge.

George Orwell's Animal Farm is an acute and moving satire on the way the idealism of the Russian Revolution descended into the brutal repression of Stalinism. A turning point in the plot is when the windmill that the animals have created with enormous, backbreaking effort has been destroyed in a storm. In the story this is clearly a symbol for the failed industrial policies of the Soviet Five Year Plans, and Napoleon's identification of Snowball as the culprit a reference to Stalin's scapegoating of Trotsky and others.

However for me in autumn 2001 this symbol acquired terrible new resonance. On the 11th September a great tower in the real world came crashing down. As in the novel "a cry of despair broke from every animal's throat. A terrible sight had met their eyes. The windmill was in ruins." What was particularly chilling was the way that almost immediately afterwards the actions of George Bush and the neocons, ably assisted by Tony Blair, so exactly paralleled Napoleon's actions in the novel:
"Napoleon paced to and fro in silence, occasionally snuffing at the ground. His tail had grown rigid and twitched sharply from side to side, a sign in him of intense mental activity. Suddenly he halted as though his mind were made up.
'Comrades,' he said quietly, 'do you know who is responsible for this? Do you know the enemy who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill? SNOWBALL!' he suddenly roared in a voice of thunder. 'Snowball has done this thing! In sheer malignity, thinking to set back our plans and avenge himself for his ignominious expulsion, this traitor has crept here under cover of night and destroyed our work of nearly a year. Comrades, here and now I pronounce the death sentence upon Snowball. 'Animal Hero, Second Class,' and half a bushel of apples to any animal who brings him to justice. A full bushel to anyone who captures him alive!'"

Substitute Saddam Hussein for Snowball and there you have it.

The second example is perhaps even further from the author's intention but I find it fascinating. Dickens' Great Expectations is a perennial favourite, recently reimagined as a BBC drama. This adaptation had some excellent features, though it misrepresented the original in some aspects. A key point in the televised version is that Pip might have brought Magwitch the file because he was frightened, but the bringing of the pie was an act of pure goodness that Magwitch never forgot and chose later to reward. Pleasing as this notion might be it is not there in the text. Pip brings the pie because Magwitch tells him "'You get me a file.' He tilted me again. 'And you get me wittles.' He tilted me again. 'You bring 'em both to me.' He tilted me again. 'Or I'll have your heart and liver out.'"

It is in the character of Magwitch and his treatment by Pip that on my last reading of the novel I began to see a symbol that surprised me with its serendipitous relevance. In the original Magwitch is clearly symbolic of the brutalising effects of Victorian England's penal system and Pip's contempt and disgust for him symbolic of the way polite society sought to sweep any awareness of that world under the carpet. Yet I began to see their relationship as a fascinating symbol of the relationship between the rich West and the colonies of the Third World.

Before you immediately stop reading, just think about this summary of the plot, considering Pip as symbolic of the rich West (us) and Magwitch of the Third World:
Pip (the rich West) comes across Magwitch (the Third World) in a dark and baffling whirlwind of fear and excitement. He provides Magwitch with some leftover food and a file (beads, charity and weapons). Later, in the company of men with guns, he comes across Magwitch in a deadly struggle with another convict (another Third World country). The men make no attempt to understand the nature or causes of the struggle but intervene with force to bring about a sort of peace.
Over the years, Pip benefits massively from wealth that originates from Magwitch (the exploited peoples of the Third World). He fails to recognise the origins of his new-found prosperity but sees it as no more than his due, because of his connection to Miss Havisham (the raddled remnants of a grand aristocratic past). In due course, Magwitch, who has "lived rough that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work." decides he wants to visit Pip (the rich West) to whose benefit he has been breaking his back for years. Here the mood changes and Pip responds with alarm and disgust to the appearance of his benefactor. Pip finds himself "shrinking from him with the strongest repugnance" and experiences "a half-formed terror that it might not be safe to be shut up there with him in the dead of the wild solitary night" (the fear and prejudice directed towards the ex-colonial immigrants by people in the West).
There is great pressure to have Magwitch (the immigrants from the old colonies) removed from polite society. There is then a final scene in which the inexplicable conflict between Magwitch and Compeyson flares up again, in a murky, muddy landscape where nothing can be clearly seen (take your pick- the Iran-Iraq war, the Middle East conflicts, any one of a number of brutal sub-Saharan wars).
To make matters worse, a vast amount of money simply disappears into the dark waters of the Thames (the banking crisis).

This reinterpretation of the text is not intended to be taken entirely seriously. If it was I would be far more guilty than any BBC screenplay writer of distorting the original. However it does demonstrate for me the strange protean power of symbols in literature- that we can see in a text connections and symbolic resonances with events, feelings and situations that the author would never have imagined.

No comments:

Post a Comment