Symbol 'participates' in the thing it represents


In your Jan. 6 column, you write, "Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols." What symbols are you talking about? -- S., Las Vegas

A symbol is not a sign. A sign is merely a shape, a color, a gesture, an object or a word representing something else. A "stop sign," for example, is a red octagon with the word "stop" on it. It is a sign representing a legal mandate, a boundary for people operating vehicles through an intersection of roads. The mandate is "stop." Come to a full stop. Then go. Wait your turn. So you don't die. Or kill anyone. Or smash up your car and watch your auto insurance rates go from ridiculously expensive to really obscene.

Signs are functional. Useful and necessary. But the stop sign itself is worth no more than the sheet metal and paint out of which it is made.

The difference between a sign and a symbol is something first felt, and only later comprehended. Consider this illustration ...

Let's say I'm standing in front of a stop sign, holding a 12-gauge shotgun. Let's say I've had enough beers to open the padlock on the cage detaining and restraining Stupid Macho Man Moron. When Stupid Macho Man Moron gets out, somebody usually goes to jail, the hospital and, sometimes, the morgue. At the very least, there are repair bills.

So, Stupid Macho Man Moron gets the idea that it would be both fun and meaningful to shoot the stop sign with the 12-gauge. And so he does. Ka-blam. Buncha smoking holes in the stop sign now. SMMM has conquered, and is king of all he surveys.

Now, if the county sheriff happens to witness this little masculine adventure, he will arrest me. I'll be charged with wanton destruction of public property. At the very least, I'll be fined, put on probation, made to make restitution, perhaps sentenced to community service.

But it isn't personal. No one would be "hurt." Disgusted, maybe. But no one would be horrified or personally devastated.

Now, let's say you're happily married in a great love affair. I'm over for dinner. I compliment your wedding ring. Ask to see it. You take it off and hand it to me. I get up, step out on the back patio, take a hammer out of my pocket, and smash it to bits with three rapid blows. White gold flattened. Diamonds rendered to dust.

Your mouth would drop open in a silent or not-so-silent scream. You might cover your face with your hands. Hold your stomach, straining, bending over so as not to implode. You hold the ruined ring in your hands, cradling it like a dying sparrow chick, fallen from the nest. Eventually, you weep.

In some other -- but equally real -- reality, I have hit you with the hammer three times.

That's the difference between a sign and a symbol. A symbol "participates" in the thing it represents.

Now I'm ready to answer your question, S.

I'm talking about all kinds of symbols. Marriage is a symbol. Wedding rings are symbols. That collar around the neck of the priest is a symbol. Old Glory is a symbol. Hair can be a symbol (see Samson). Fire (see sweat lodges). The Alamo is a symbol. (I was in San Antonio on the day Ozzy Osbourne urinated on it. Texans reacted, well, badly. Dramatically, even.)

Only in a culture as overly rationalized and material as this one could we ...

* wear the American flag as jockey shorts;

* refer to a wedding license as "just a piece of paper";

* be absent collective rituals for grief;

* be absent collective rituals for rites of passage to adulthood;

* think it's funny to try to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh;

* think potato chips and Pepsi could stand in for bread and wine;

* refer to a girl's first menses as the arrival of "The Curse";

* think a glowing light bulb is the same as a perpetual flame;

* ask them to mail your doctoral diploma to your house;

* dare to be impatient when stuck behind a funeral procession in traffic.

Here's my first question in premarital counseling: "What do you want to change in your relationship on (date)?" Wanna know the most common answer? The couple exchanges a befuddled glance. One of them sits taller. Proud of this answer, mind you. "Nothing," he/she says quizzically, as if I've asked a very strange question.

If your goal was to change nothing, wouldn't it make sense that you would do nothing?

Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols.

Originally published in View News, Feb. 3, 2009.