Balanced precipitously on the edge of my mind I was composing something to try to explain why these seemingly multitudinous issues regarding blogging, documentary photography, linking, symbols, identity, narrative, and representation are in essence one problem. But then I watched a movie. The Pledge just blew me away.
It is a trauma narrative. I analyzed a ton of them in a class last semester. The seminar I took on “writing and healing” was far from a “fru-fru” new agey thing. This field of study is small, and the principles behind it brought together years of research I’d been doing on symbol and narrative, as well as decades of real world experience with the problem of representation. To try to express it in few words is impossible; but it is deeply involved in the problem of distance and the nature of the self.
Nicholson, in The Pledge, besides reminding me a great deal (physically) of my oldest brother who died recently, precisely acts out the collapse and compression of self involved with traumatic events when they are denied resolution. The traumatic event becomes a symbol, usually wrapped around an image, which the mind just can’t let go of. The funny thing is, literature is often taught the same way, traumatizing students with the endless deferral to symbols. Somewhere about half-way through my deep involvement with William Blake I began to see symbols as the enemy; they compress meaning into hard quantities which obscure more than they reveal. There are books (that I don’t recommend) which compress Blake into a veritable dictionary of symbols, completely missing what he was really on about. Blake has far more in common with the eighteenth century writers than he does with the advocates of symbol who followed, “interpreting” him. They imposed a distance to his words that really isn’t there. Distance is a complex thing. In order to “heal” a certain distance must be created from the traumatic event; in some ways, symbols are the limit of distanciation, in others, they are the limit of compression.
That’s why Weinberger’s idea that links (in a symbolic sense) are the ultimate in “otherness” (distance), and Jill’s idea that they are the ultimate in barbarity (collapse) can coexist. This is the paradox of the symbol. What comes out in the study of healing narratives is that the degree of distanciation is a key consideration: too much, and it’s a strategy of hiding behind mythic enabling, too little, and it doesn’t expand the collapsed, traumatized self back into a whole person. The middle ground (and the way I believe Blake is best read) is in the realm of allegory, or narrative.
Allegory was thought to be an inferior form by the Modernists, and was met with conflicted responses by the Romantics (including Blake). When I read “The Rhetoric of Temporality” by Paul De Man, I began to appreciate the difference in distanciation involved. For over three years now, that light bulb has been burning. I’ve had this intuitive concept in my head that I can’t seem to get out that I keep struggling to rationalize. It’s sort of like wanting to build a bridge back to the Middle Ages, because it seems like something really important and vital has been lost. The control of displacement. What is unique about Walker Evans, and the reason why I sort of elected to spend my summer trying to understand what he was up to better, is that he faced the same problem of distance without resorting to symbol. He did not resort to narrative either, and so is completely anomalous; there is no literary model which describes Evans’ approach to representation.
So, there is a handful of words that attempt to impress a logic on what I have been writing about. I think it is incredibly important to tease out the fine distinctions in approach. But ultimately, it’s just a gut feeling that I’ve been operating on for several years; being an ENFP, I’m trying to backwards engineer a rationale behind this overwhelming feeling that symbols are not the answer to the problem of representation. Symbols increase complexity without a commensurate gain in expressiveness: symbols don’t heal, they wound— all the while seducing us with their power.