I apologize for failing to produce material for your delight and entertainment last week, but I was caught up in the maelstrom that is life. I have created a good 5000 words of introductory and contextual material for my first chapter (the drafts of which you’ve seen a little already), and am currently sinking my teeth into the good stuff, that is to say, water symbolism.
I have been attempting to create 2000 words or so in which I explain the nature of the symbol, water as a symbolic entity and the importance of their study to our understanding of the medieval imagination. I have started to home in on the 12th century as my area of focus, and am primarily favoring a Neoplatonic approach to epistemological symbolism. I have found studying the complexity of medieval metaphysics to be very rewarding, and a constant reminder of the core similarities and differences between our world-view, and that of our medieval forebears.
Without further ado, here are a few extracts from my current work to tide you over. It is pretty crude stuff, but it gives you some idea of the argument that I am trying to make. I may post again later in the week regarding some article ideas that I have been contemplating, but for now, I am content to muse about symbols.
Dream interpretation and the exploration of the subconscious has taught us to associate imagined physical objects within the ‘psychic landscape’ of the mind with more obscure, abstract intellectual concepts.1 The associative interpretation of symbols as an epistemological tool is not exclusively the offspring of modernity: it existed, albeit based on very different assumptions, within the structure of medieval epistemology. Within the final portion of this chapter, I will demonstrate through a series of examples that the questions and problems of knowledge are frequently aqueous in their symbolism. Through this exploration of primary source examples, it will become apparent that when thought was discussed within many medieval source materials, water was not far away.
To imagine meaning for the human race within this distinct paradigm was to understand that all things existed in a continuum of reality: the small reflected the large, and all imperfect things had a perfect counterpart. As a consequence of making meaning by this route, the symbolism of any component within nature must necessarily reflect a higher principle. This was a great boon for the Christian understanding of the world, for God, in his infinite generosity, had allowed humanity to understand something of His own essence through the simplest of things.
Water was a signifier of the broader notion that the physical world held within its very nature a symbolic copy of the human being, existing as a bridge between the large and the small. The body required water with which to sustain its vital functions, and thus the spiritual dimension of human nutrition was symbolised in kind. Within the allegorical world of the spirit, water carried with it all of the traits associated with life itself: it was the logical and natural representation of all that sustained the spirit. Through the doctrines of Christianity, the medieval imagination came to visualise water as the representation of life over death, health over sickness and satiety over want.
The bond of like to like resonated strongly within medieval Christian thought: the small mirrored the large in all things by virtue of their shared creator. The entire created word was in effect a theophany, or divine messenger.The essence of God was mirrored through the contraction of divine essence or quidditas contracta of His Creation. The notion was strong within medieval thought that all things within the cosmos were of the same essence as the Creator, albeit in a greatly reduce or diluted form. The human being was a minor mundus within the larger world of Creation, and thus every trait found within the individual was mirrored within the wider world.
The imagination and the intellect require a symbolic vocabulary with which to explore the psychic realm of ideas. For the medieval mind, the world to be explored was a spiritual one, the symbols used to render spiritual context replacing the diagnostic and empirical goals of scientific thought. Through water, the medieval mind sought to attach the intellectual profundity of the celestial realm, via symbolism, to a comprehensible entity within the material world.
The dynamics of knowledge and its relationship to the intellect were played out by means of signification and representation within the dynamics of water. The relationship between key contextual dichotomies such as distance and proximity, purity and profanity, concentration and dilution, movement and stagnancy, and clarity and occlusion could just as easily be applied to water as they could be to knowledge. Thus, the major defining characteristics of water could be said to apply in equal measure to ideas within the realm of the non-corporeal realm – more specifically, to principles pertaining to the mind, spirit and soul.
Within the very structure of this thesis, a fundamental concept is embedded: symbolism is not simply a by product or creation of thought, but a key facilitator of epistemology itself. Through this assertion, I challenge a long standing tendency to assume that the symbol-laden edifice that was medieval thought treats symbols as we do. By reducing the symbol to an explanatory factor, regardless of how much importance one ascribes to it, is to relegate symbolism to a lower hierarchy within our understanding of thought.
It is is my goal to demonstrate to the reader that a symbol never exists as a purely explanatory element within medieval thought: symbolism was a fundamental causative working within the structure of medieval epistemology. It had a force and power within medieval thought, shaping its mechanics, assisting in expressing its goals and becoming or representing its constituent elements. The symbol formed the bridge between worlds, allowing the mind to cross from the realm of the senses into the realm of the spirit through representation. Through symbolism, metaphysical concepts that would otherwise be obscured or incomprehensible could be explained through visual or literary imagery.
The physical object hid within it the key to a higher concept, from the loftiest of principles to the humblest and smallest of things. In the words of Paul Rorem, “because the consist of exterior form and interior meaning, all symbols balance incongruity and insight. Even the loftiest of them falls short of literal truth and even the lowliest contains some measure of accuracy, once properly interpreted”2 Through symbolism, humanity was able to transcend the natural boundaries of knowledge and participate in the spiritual realm. Chenu wrote that transcendent symbolism of things was not superficial appendage, but that “rooted in the “dissimilar similitudes” of the hierarchical ladder, it was their very reality and reason for being.”3 In the words of Hugh of St. Victor, “a symbol… is a juxtaposition, that is, a coaptation of visible forms brought forth to demonstrate some invisible matter.”4 The symbol bridged the gap between the intellect and the simple and superlative, making a leap that would otherwise be strictly impossible.
1For the modern mind, the Freudian theories of the unconscious and the Jungian notion of the archetype reignited a process of symbol-association as old as thought itself, placing it firmly within a paradigm of science and empiricism. Scientific epistemology has harnessed the power of symbols as tools of interpretation, extant within the abstract world of the mind yet linked to the deep and fundamental motive forces of the human mind.
2P. Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence ; Oxford, Oxford University Press, USA, 1993, p. 56.
3Chenu, M. D., Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century ; Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 123.
4Chenu, M. D., Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, p. 103.