“The girl dreams she is dangerously ill. Suddenly birds come out of her skin and cover her completely ... Swarms of gnats obscure the sun, the moon, and all the stars except one. That one start falls upon the dreamer.”
~ C.G. Jung
Our lives are full of the meanings of things. Symbols walk and talk and fly away, we cannot help but wrap them into our words. But though symbols are always included, they are never fully controlled by the artist. We cannot hope to tie a meaning to our symbol and have it absorb completely, nor can we manipulate a symbol into something it will not be. Many times the artist-with-agenda attempts to control the symbols he employs - if art triumphs, he fails, and the symbols rise and make art despite him, if he succeeds, art fails and the subverted symbol catches the audience like a splinter.
Michael O' Brien, who has been my reading candy recently, is very interested in what he calls "symbol-erosion" - the distructive mis-use of symbolism. His book, A Landscape with Dragons, argues that the dragon can be nothing but a demonic symbol, and he happily beats the dragon to death in the attempt to prove his point. But no symbol is so limited, and the book becomes ridiculous in it's pursuit of demons.
"Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes."
O' Brien makes a similar mistake in his analysis of the film Pan's Labrynth. A film in which the artist's attempt to manipulate the symbol fails entirely to create the "truly profane" image intended. It fails because del Toro, the filmmaker "made it art first" and looses control of his symbols. The beauty, despite violence, the light-in-darkness, the ultimate redemption of the heroine, Ofelia, is pure fairy-tale. It overcomes the artist's agenda. Mr. O' Brien, however, refuses to see past the darkness of the film's mythology, and the less-than-ideal representation of Church officials. He refuses to realize that at some point, both writer and reader must give up the attempt to control symbolism and simply allow it to act on them, as dreams do.
“And who understands? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all.”
The artist so often has to wait for his symbols to be discovered by his audience. He doesn't understand it all, if he did he would be more than he is, like God, who understands all and forgives all. Pretending to understand fully, to break things down into neat little boxes and present them cleanly is not the role of artist, and ought not be the role of the critic. Simply because we want to see something deep and profound, or dark and terrible is not proof of it's existence. For every Mr. O' Brien insisting evil lurks in every image that is not created solely for evangelism, there is a critic finding Christological symbols at the bottom of the book-pile. Forcing symbols either way is a mistreatment of art, an inability to allow the symbol to live it's role.