I just came across this quote in a biography of Jung I have been reading.  I have struggled previously here and here to explain why I think symbols cannot be reduced to mere metaphors and poetry cannot be reduced to representation language.  This quote by Jung, from his essay “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon”, captures more or less succinctly what I have been talking about:

“One certainly has an understandable desire of unambiguous clarity; but we are apt to forget that matters of the soul [psyche] are processes of experience, that is, transformations, which should not be unequivocally designated if one does not want to petrify the living movement into something static.  The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the process of the soul far more trenchantly, more fully and, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept; for the symbol not only conveys a visualization of the process but — and this is perhaps just as important — it also brings a re-experiencing of it, of that twilight which we can learn to understand only through inoffensive empathy, and never through the great pull of clarity.”

Jung thus identifies three reasons why symbolic language is more appropriate than representational language when speaking about the psyche:

1.  Symbols evoke the original religious experience that gave rise to the symbol.

2.  Symbols create a visualization.

3.  Symbols express the protean nature of the contents of the psyche.

This explains (to me at least) why symbols are not mere metaphors.

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  • What did Jung mean by “inoffensive” empathy, I wonder?

    • I think he might have meant “sensitive”.

      • That makes me wonder what *insensitive* empathy would be…

  • Symbols speak in a language our souls understand, even if our minds can’t always decipher them. I, too, struggle with the need to explain everything. Sometimes I just have to step back and let it be.

  • A symbol is more than a metaphor quite simply because it is symbolised, by that I mean a symbol is in a context. If you see a cross on a road sign that’s a yellow diamond, you don’t think “Church” you think “Four way intersection ahead”. If you see a white cross on a green background you think “First aid” or “Hospital”. These contexts are things we have created socially and etymologically, we know what they mean and give them context from our experiences. If we DON’T know what we mean we create one base on a situation. I.e. We see a big cross on the road side, we assume it means someone had died there, but in reality it was actually just an old sign for a ice creme store that has lost its core flute, we have given it meaning it didn’t originally have. Giving a symbol context is often the means of giving it meaning, but often we will make one up if one isn’t there.

  • Even the use of language can stifle and reduce the experience of transformation into a set point in time. The language we speak and think in shapes our experiences to conform with the structures inherent within it. The fact that many things that are known by one language speaker is unknown to another (Schadenfreude etc) makes it easy to illustrate this concept. Language inhabits and shapes our religious experiences (the change from Latin to vernacular by the Roman Catholic Church is one example) and personal interpretation alters the shared experience.
    Sadly, all we can do is use these inadequate forms of communication to express deep and important concepts in a static form that only hints at the depth and beauty of our experiences.

    • Yes, we dwell in language, to borrow a Heideggerian phrase. But I think the real usefulness of symbols is not to express the full beauty and depth of our experience, but to help us re-create the experience.

  • Just thought of something relevant after watching a surprisingly interesting TED Talk by Virginia Postrel on “glamour” and why things are “glamourous.” The speaker noted that translucence is glamourous. Transparency and opacity not so much, but translucence has that perfect balance accessability and transcendence. It occurs to me that functional symbols must be similarly translucent: they must allure with the possibility of understanding while remaining forever beyond final interpretation.

    By contrast, a symbol or concept that is perfectly incomprehensible to a person, like a supernatural “God” to a stalwart atheist, is opaque and therefore of no interest. Meanwhile, a concept that is perfectly understandable, like “coffee cup”, is transparent and therefore of no interest. But a concept that holds out possibilities of interpretation while remaining mysterious, like a mythic story, is translucent and therefore tantalyzing.

    • That’s great analogy! It’s interesting that you described the coffee cup, which is visible, as transparent, and a supernatural God, which is invisible, as opaque. But when speaking of their comprehensibility, that makes perfect sense.

  • Thank you for this quote. I read this essay a long time ago and I’m glad yo brought it back to my memory.

  • Reblogged this on symbolreader.