Symbolism versus resonance
How do you feel about the use of symbolism in what you read? What you write? I confess that I’m not a big fan of deliberate and conscious symbolism as it is often used by writers. I’ve read books (Steinbeck anyone?) where the Christian imagery is rather overwhelming, and obvious. I don’t like being hit over the head with a writer’s point. I don’t like having them force my recognition of their philosophy or anti-philosophy. I did not, for example, find Pilgrim’s Progress a compelling read. This is one thing I didn’t care for in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I believe that George Lucas made better movies before he became so conscious of the fact that he was writing out Joseph Cambell’s concept of myth. On a lesser note, I tried to watch the new sitcom Cavemen last night but not only was it not funny, but it tried to symbolically connect the modern “caveman” experience to that of African Americans and those of Jewish decent in a way that I found incredibly trivial.
On the other hand, I enjoy discovering symbols and meaning when it is subtle and serves completely the needs of the story. I love how Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters can be read as indictments of Cold War paranoia. But, first and foremost, these stories stand on their own as stories. The symbolism, the relevance, is gravy.
What Finney did was create a sense of “resonance” in his story rather than using overt symbolism. The power of this approach is that it is all about the “reader” and not the writer. The reader feels the currents passing underneath them. They know something is stirring in the depths, that it’s rising toward them, but it takes a while to figure out what. By the time they figure it out they are already engulfed with the awareness. And seldom will two different readers figure out the same thing. Such stories are very much a “build your own adventure” or at least “build your own meaning” experience.
I may post some more on this topic because it fascinates me. I know I run the risk of insulting folks who like overt symbolism, but such is not my intent. Some excellent works exist where the symbolism is clear. But there are plenty of works that lack overt symbolism but still create a sense of resonance in the reader. I personally prefer the latter. How about you?