Speaking in Symbols

Learning the language of the subconcious

Archive for the category “art”

Suicide as Symbol

I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately, trying to be more cognizant of the symbols around me, especially those that show up in dreams. I’ve mentioned my depression before, and it seems that when it rears it’s ugly head, doing anything, especially something that might lead to getting better, becomes difficult to the point of being impossible.

I’d like to state, that, despite being in a dark place, and despite the symbols of death and suicide that I’m going to examine in this post, I am not currently suicidal. I have been, as recently as January, but right now, I am not seeking my own death.

If you are, suicidal or otherwise considering hurting yourself, please get help. There’s the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as numerous local helplines. If you’re the religious type, talk to your pastor. And, in the very worst case scenario, go to the emergency room. I know how dark and scary it is standing on that brink, but I also know that it can and will get better.

I’m also still hanging out at my parent’s house as I write this post, so I don’t have access to the books that I use to look up symbolism. I’m going off of what I wrote in my art/symbol journal. I’d also like to reiterate that when I talk about symbols, I’m bringing up what they mean to me–in no way am I writing a comprehensive symbol encyclopedia.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those dreams that is so powerful, it stays with you. In this dream, I have broken in to the school where my mom used to teach. I’ve gone there with the intention of hanging myself. I went first to her classroom, and, using her key, let myself in. I stand in the middle of the room for a while just breathing in the scent. I want to remember the way it smelled.

I then go to another wing of the school, and break into a random classroom, this time, picking the lock. Once there, I stood on a desk and looped a rope through the drop ceiling, and hanged myself.

Searching out the symbols in this dream have been difficult, naturally. It makes me wonder why my subconscious can’t be giving me rainbows and puppies and unicorns, but it is what it is.

astral-tarot-hanged-manI kept coming back to the tarot when looking for these symbols–specifically, the Hanged Man, and the Death card. Now, I’ve tried tarot, but the cards just don’t “speak” to me–and I’m slightly jealous of those who can read and understand the cards. If you are such a person, and see that I’ve missed something in my interpretations, please let me know in the comments. All that I’ve written here comes courtesy of Google.

Anyway, Suicide by hanging.  Suicide is the act of ultimate despair. It’s forcing and ending by taking matters into your own hands. In the western world, it’s wildly perceived as the ultimate sin, while in the east, it’s more of a mixed bag. Hanging is a disgraceful way of dying, especially in places that execute criminals on the gallows. It’s also one that’s very easy to arrange. You can walk into any hardware store or sporting goods store and buy rope with no background checks or waiting period.

The Hanged Man of the tarot is hanging from the World Tree, like Odin seeking wisdom. He symbolises suspended action, feeling of being stuck, and sacrificing for a higher goal.

tollundman4

While researching symbolism of hanging, Tollund Man came to mind. This man lived and died in the 4th Century BCE in Denmark. Now, Tollund Man probably died by strangulation, not hanging, but the noose was left around his neck.

I don’t know if I have a genetic connection to Tollund Man, but I do know I have Danish ancestry, and it’s likely my ancestors worshiped in the same manner as those who sacrificed Tollund Man. (I am interested in learning about Pre-Roman Europe, especially the religion, but, alas, there’s just not that much information.) We can speculate as to why Tollund Man, and the other bog bodies were sacrificed, but, unfortunately, if there is a definitive answer, I could not find it. Tollund Man for me represents family, however distant, and the religious traditions that I don’t believe in anymore. He also becomes a symbol of mysticism, in that I don’t know why he was sacrificed, what god or gods the people were trying to appease (or even if he was a criminal or prisoner of war, rather than a religious sacrifice). He, and the culture he comes from, represents a lost knowledge, something for which there are currently not answers.

DeathFor all the negative imagery, death, in the Tarot, at least, is a positive thing. It represents change, endings, the old giving way to the new.  I don’t know if I’ve talked about soil on this blog or not, but I know I’ve mentioned it with my therapist. The individual bits of soil–manure, dust, rotted leaves and other organic matter–are vile things, but when they are combined together, they create something beautiful and useful. Without death, not only would the world be over-crowded, but nothing new could grow.

In the modern, Western world we are removed from death, while for the generations before us, death was simply a part of life. So death, for me, becomes a symbol of knowledge lost.

800px-Standard-lock-keyThe other powerful image in this dream is that of a key. I let myself into the school, I didn’t break in to the school, and it wasn’t my intent to cause property damage–I didn’t want to harm anything but myself.

In this light, the key represents being in charge of my own destiny, controlling what the change is I need to make in my life. A key can open or close, lock or unlock. Keys are associated with 5f22683e4576b147cb783984111263c4Janus, whom I’ve written about before. The image of a two-faced person, especially when the two faces represent opposites, has been a reoccurring symbol for me, and one that I’ve adopted to represent myself.  I especially like this particular image, where the balance is between male and female figures.

As I was looking over these symbols and images in my art journal, I realized that they are all about being stagnant, standing still, and stopping, as well as being indicators of change. This flat out scare me. I tend to get comfortable in my ruts, and being forced out of them, even when it’s for my own good, is always a painful experience.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been getting a lot of images about death and change, and this is only a small sampling of those symbols. I don’t know if the change I’m being asked to make is related to my recent medication change, or if there’s still something else that I need to do.

 

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The Ethereal Nature of Symbols

I recently found myself in Kansas City, a very cool town by any account, and one made cooler by  the fact that my sister lives there.  While most of my trip involved hanging out at her house, I did make a point to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has a very nice collection, and the added benefit of being free to the public.

Kerry James Marshall, American, b. 1955, b. Birmingham, AL Memento #5, 2003

Kerry James Marshall, American, b. 1955, b. Birmingham, AL
Memento #5, 2003

There is a piece in the Nelson that stops me dead in my tracks every time I see it–Memento #5 by Kerry James Marshall.  Part of the amazing power of this painting is its size, it’s 9’x13′ of unstretched canvas. Part of it is the shiny factor, the little rectangles covering the image are glitter, but mostly, this is as very powerful image.

This painting is full of symbols, some very unambiguous. And since I won’t be able to explain Marshall’s intent sufficiently, this is the write-up the Nelson has of this work:

“Memento #5 is the final painting in Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall’s Memento series, a five-part elegy to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The monochromatic painting on unstretched canvas depicts a black angel standing at the center of a living room and facing outward. Solemnly, the figure draws closed a glittery, silver curtain, symbolically concluding a decade of peaceful civil disobedience, courageous marches, visionary speeches, righteous legislation, explosive riots and tragic deaths. Behind the angel, at left and right, are the faces of four assassinated leaders: President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Each year of the tumultous decade is counted out between the glitter strands, and fragments of the word “Remember” are also visible. At the bottom of the painting, Marshall has written, “What a Time. What a Time.”

Except that’s not what I see.

I mean, I see the angel, the images of the Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I see the years, I see the text, and I certainly see the artist’s intent.

What I don’t see is a curtain. When I look at this painting, I see bars, like to a jail cell–and rather than pulling them closed, in my mind, the angel is bending them apart. Rather than being an elegy mourning the end of the civil rights movement, it’s a reminder, 50 years on, about how much more work there still is to do.

Which brings me back to the topic of symbols.

One of the things that I love about art is that the painting you see isn’t necessarily the painting the artist saw. The symbols morph and change for each person. Good art (and literature and music) has as many interpretations as it does viewers–and no one interpretation is better than any other.

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