Fog descended on this country yesterday, stretching from the city to the hinterlands, bringing to life passages from Ruskin's Queen of the Air, where he describes cloud phantasms as they play tricks with Hermes' hair beneath his cap, giving his face the appearance of a grotesque animal.
Ruskin writes that a great writer can "seize truths unconsciously which
are for all time", some which science has recently shown to be perfect symbols. Homer may have noted how swiftly the fly darts around, but he did not know of its many lungs, which propel them by pumping air through their small bodies. Ruskin's book is, by the way, a paean to Athena, "Queen of the Air".
Last night I spoke with a friend who is resistant to symbols, as I watched the fog being curled by that air into an enveloping force that hid parts of the city, lying about its non-existence.
So this morning, I continue to wonder how to write an apology for symbols, because I have felt drawn to them ever since I stood in the churches at Ravenna, marveling at the message in the numbers of the animals and the pose of the flowers.
Symbols, to my mind, are representative of communication when we depart from the daily bartering for bread or thread, when our hearts begin to sing and there is no trade; what is had is shared. Symbols are well chosen vessels to contain something like what Matthew Arnold called "sweetness and light", all that is the best of humanity, that one may reflect on, to live up to. These symbols belong in a hierarchy, ultimately pointing to larger values that grant us perception of our orientation in the world - through what Lakoff and Johnson call iconic augmentation, and Ricoeur calls the gathering together of significations. Symbols are made through metaphors.
Metaphors are mimesis, showing us to imitate the heavens; in the crocus, the mind may be trained away from Hades to the amaranth of Elysium (or lotus). Ruskin writes of "the ethical conceptions of Homeric poems ... for they are not conceived didactically, but are didactic in their essence, as all good art is. There is an increasingly insensibility to this character, and even an open denial of it, among us, now, which is one of the curious errors of modernism, ... [which] has become equally dead to the intensely
ethical conceptions of a race which habitually divided all men into two
broad classes of worthy or worthless,—good, and good for nothing." Symbols teach and give life, not like pseudo or abused symbols, which take life.
The fog shows that despite an attempt to see, it is possible to be fooled by phantasm. Perhaps one does not have to seek meaning beneath the surface of the world's great art—worldly learning is, after all, proved to be perilous; but I would argue that some most valuable lessons on humanity are hidden there, waiting for the archaeologist of the soul to bring back those truths from across the Lethe.