Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Another holiday, more symbols

While digging through book reviews from 1883 for dissertation research, I discovered that one book published that year (which was apparently fairly popular, since I saw several different reviews) was all about the symbolism of various flowers you might give and receive. This was a popular pastime in the Victorian era, with many books and pamphlets produced to be sure that you could say or interpret exactly what you wanted with your floral gifts.

Low and behold, while home this morning because of the ice storm, Lisa Benenson of Hallmark Magazine appeared on the Today show to discuss just this subject. Here is her list of the meanings of flowers. I was a little surprised at the definiteness she gave the subject—such as the absolutely horrible nature of yellow flowers, implying jealousy, disdain, etc.

It seems that unless someone is privy to this system, all these meanings would not be clear. They aren't universal symbols, or else all the books that were published would have been unnecessary. But, it made me think about other issues—namely, as to why, like at Christmas, someone was on television dictating symbolic language to America. What is it about holidays that brings a symbolic urge to companies?

Ronald Grimes, the ritual theorist, maintains that an underlying symbolic language begins at birth, with the rituals established between mother and baby as the baby cries for food and the mother picks it up, day after day. Again I wonder about symbols that are dictated to people, as opposed to those arising naturally. Can they have any effect? Or, in this case, is just the commonly understood symbol of love from flowers enough? And, Hallmark should remember that symbols are always multivalent—different people interpret them differently. Things less fundamental than water, food and drink seemingly would be more difficult to include in an underlying symbol system.

The emotions inherent in Valentine's Day (you can read its history at this quality internet website) and Christmas would definitely give strong associations with the symbols surrounding them. Is it the emotional nature of the holidays that brings out easy symbol appropriation? And, what does that say about other symbols? Does emotional content help their effect? Or, conversely, does it cloud their effect?


millinerd said...

That Hallmark link left me feeling sufficiently unmanly to have to change the subject to tough-guy things like espionage.

If you think about it, when a spy agrees upon a secret signal with another spy, this is just the phenomenon you've been referring to in the last few months and in this post - but with espionage it's only two people who make the connection.

A "symbolic universe" of sorts happens when this agreement occurs on a culture-wide scale, as we know it did in the Medieval era (which had a much more interesting flower symbolism in my opinion).

Hallmarks attempts will be inevitably shallow. For example, the white lily as purity is a mere echo of it being an earlier reference to the purity and virginity... of Mary. It is probably impossible to erect such a coherent symbol system in our culture again. The church, however, can. What makes a symbol effective is not just arbitrary decisions like espionage, but historical precedent. This is what the church has going for it, and to resurrect it involves reeducation.

As you said, indeed symbols must be multivalent. In art history, the school of iconography (think the Index of Christian Art) was subject to much criticism in the last two decades for assuming a one-to-one correspondence in Medieval art... but as one might expect, art history has gone too far in the opposite direction, assuming only "subversive" correspondents or no correspondents.

We don't have to think the Medieval folk were naive enough to assume always a one-to-one, or that these symbols were hard-wired into the universe and not playfully employed. They weren't part of nature, they were respectfully layered onto nature.

I like this conversation... why does no one else talk about it?

Lance said...

Millinerd, thanks as always for your insightful comments. I was hoping you might comment on medieval symbols. Whenever I bake or cook with cloves, I'm quick to think about the nails of the cross as you've reminded me.

As to Christians discussing this, there are a few, especially in the liturgical field. But, there is some reticence, because, as I was told, many people studying symbols don't take into account the Holy Spirit—an astute criticism, and one which you yourself made a while back.

But, I think it is helpful to really think seriously about such symbols. You should come to the upcoming Koinania forum at PTS. Symbolism in baptism is going to be discussed!

millinerd said...

Dolphins, shells, anchors, oh my!