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Reviving Symbolism

Long ago, in a high school far, far away, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. It was among the few assigned books I remember actually reading and enjoying, not just playing "Feed the Teacher," but it also stands as the symbol of what can go wrong with symbolism in the classroom. With our books still scattered in five different rooms and storage from the last move, there's little chance of locating the book for now, so I'm working from memory on the text. Forgive minor inaccuracies.

There's a scene where the sheriff is called in to shoot a rabid dog. Instead, he suggests that Atticus (father and lawyer) do the shooting, much to the surprise of Atticus's children. They are even more astounded when the sheriff tells them that their father used to be the champion shot in the county. Atticus takes the rifle and makes an accurate shot. My well-intentioned teacher recognized that this was an important scene, and she explained to us that this was the symbol of justice shooting down the mad dog of prejudice. That may be the approach that literary critics applaud, but it isn't what readers are after. I knew there was an absurdity afoot here, but I had no better response as a 16 year old.

After teaching for several years and talking individually with my students every week, I began to understand one of the most basic patterns. Student after student had a trace or surplus of anger toward one or both parents just because the parents proved to be fallible. Even if we don't get along with our parents, they begin as our image of perfection, the big people who can do the things we can't, such as walk, talk, and get a glass of water without help. We become consciously aware of their humanity all too easily, but that subconscious image can play powerful mind-games with us when we don't get it out into the light. Some of the most common jokes about psychoanalysis revolve around this pattern, telling us that the pattern is both overplayed and still quite real.

The shooting scene is crucial because it's one of the first times the children have been forced to consciously deal with their father as human, a person with a past similar to theirs, a person who wasn't always this large, bespectacled lawyer. It symbolizes that realization for all of us, a specific picture of the larger pattern, metaphor of the literal. It's symbolism that remains grounded in experience. Calling the scene justice shooting prejudice dehumanizes the characters, takes them from personal experience to near-platonic ideals in one leap. That's not fair to authors who spend so much effort creating "real" characters, and it isn't fair to readers trying to understand (even if not consciously) their own experience and it relationship to larger patterns of experience. The best, most powerful symbols will most often humanize an idea, not "idealize" a human. More accurately, strong symbols will first ground themselves in human experience before connecting that experience to larger patterns and ideals.

We enjoy reading when we feel some connection to the story, even when the setting or characters are exotic, and we want to build stronger, deeper, and more numerous connections as we read, moving back and forth between text, experience, and our social context. Keeping the symbolism grounded helps us use those connections to understand ourselves and constantly re-create ourselves while trying to find a sense of how the world works or how we want it to work.

On the other hand, no one should ruin the joy of reading by trying to analyze the text and consciously make all these connections the first time through. First you should read and enjoy. Drink the story and absorb it, letting the images settle into the subconscious peacefully. There's time later to kick the ideas around in your mind or in conversations, and there's no contradiction in putting fun before learning. Teachers and students know that we read less when we enjoy it less, and reading for the teacher means doing it only with the conscious mind while expending tremendous energy in resentment and resistance that keeps the waters far too roiled to let much find its way down to or up from the subconscious, where most of the important thoughts are rooted. I'll be writing a lot more about the importance of play, especially what Donald Schuster tabbed "utilitarian play" when I described some of these ideas. For here, I'll just say that play isn't intrinsically bad, and work isn't intrinsically good. Read, enjoy, play, think, talk, write, play, read, think, play, write.............
(For more on the importance of the subconscious, especially in writing, jump to the writing about Legos and control.