The Victorian Sage

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Tag: symbols

Carlyle, Jung and Symbols

I have sometimes liked to suggest that the central idea in Carlyle is that of the symbol as engine of social progress, citing a few old reliable quotes from Sartor and French Revolution. The locus classicus being, perhaps, the chapter “Symbols” from Sartor:

Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows’-meat for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen? Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horse-shoe? It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest.  (Sartor, III, 3)

Man works through symbols, Carlyle said. This is not wholly implausible, as any attempt to apply a rational basis to the description of human activity falls slightly short. The “enlightened self-interest” that Adam Smith saw as being the basis in humans on which the capitalist system was built doesn’t account for much of the behaviour of actual capitalists. So if we realize that a supra-rational symbol must always be at play we can bring in religion (source of some of Carlyle’s favorite dynamic symbols [dynamic referring here to the fact that these symbols produce an effect unpredictable, irrational and of potentially great force]) as well as culture, the arts, political movements and so on.

But Carlyle will only take us so far in his analysis of symbols. As is well known, he wasn’t always the most systematic of thinkers. In trying to work with symbols in a 21st-century context, one has to trace the evolution of the concept post-Carlyle. A major contributor here is Carl Gustav Jung. While Carlyle tended to talk of symbols in their socio-political roles, Jung’s analyses started from the point of view of the individual psyche – he was a psychologist, after all. But for Jung, the individual psyche has elements of the collective unconscious, so there isn’t an absolute divide between individual and group, in any case.

In Man and his Symbols, Jung states that “a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning” (4).  What this “more” consists of cannot be stated without reference to the particularities of the case. A symbol means something different to each individual whose psyche brings it forth in a dream or otherwise. Jung is rather different from his erstwhile mentor Freud in this: he’s a lot more ready to acknowledge the limitations of systematization or scientization in psychology. Essentially, it depends a great deal on the individual, and not only the individual patient but also the individual analyst:

[Dream analysis] is not so much a technique that can be learned and applied according to the rules as it is a dialectical exchange between two personalities. (44)

This is the type of admission Freud, insistent on seeing the analyst as a vessel of pure science, one who can hardly be contraverted, would never have made. Indeed, Jung mentions Freud in this passage, and it is clear how the more moderate theoreticism of Jung would not have been amenable to Freud’s visions of psychoanalysis. This passage is interesting as it shows Jung as a less totalizing and more flexible thinker than Freud.

But to return to symbols. To integrate Jung with Carlyle’s approach to dynamic socio-political symbols, we have to see how they work on the wider scale, not on the individual level. Here we come up against Jung’s archetypes:

The archetype is a tendency to form […] representations of a motif – representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern.


[Archetypes] reproduce themselves in any time or in any part of the world – even where transmission by direct descent or “cross fertilization” through migration must be ruled out. (58)

So the archetype is very vaguely conceptualized, having no formal characteristic that crosses representations; all that is common is the tendency. Jung’s actual example illustrates this vagueness. It is, simply, the Hero. This seems inarguable: surely the Hero does cross cultural borders even where direct descent can be ruled out. Therefore a study of its place in the psyche is clearly warranted. And it is another point of accord with Carlyle, who, in his later career, was interested in the Hero, too: not as archetype, though, but as agent of social change and social cohesion. As the prime mover of history, essentially.

With Carlyle there is perhaps some confusion about the Hero. Is the Hero a Hero because of what he is, or of what he symbolizes. It would be naive to think that they were the same thing, as people can often be misguided as to others’ true natures: the difference is the difficult one between essence and perception. This is something that has to be dealt with carefully when discussing Carlyle, but I won’t go into it for now. Jung, on the other hand, doesn’t give any historical examples of Heroes at all in Man and his Symbols, just mythical ones, so his contention appears to be that we should tell stories about heroes, and try to embody their traits, but not identify actual empirical individuals with Heroes. The archetypes are “pieces of life” (87), but only pieces – as an empirical person you can’t become absolutely identified with a single archetype, and you shouldn’t identify others with one, either.

The question one might ask Jung is: can we divorce our way of thinking from our way of thinking about empirical others? If we centralize the concept of the Hero, won’t we inevitably start applying it to someone (perhaps ourselves)? Here we should recall Carlyle: in the early Sartor he’s a theorist of symbols; in On Heroes and all his work thereafter, he’s invested in reading real historical people as symbols: a few heroes, the rest either loyal drudges or expendable layabouts or scoundrels. Once the practice of thinking symbolically becomes second nature to us, we cannot help but simplify our fellow humans into symbols. The problems of that approach can be serious, and some of Carlyle’s writings illustrate them quite starkly. But by illustrating these dangers, Carlyle exemplifies the fact that symbolical thinking is central to how people see the world.


Carl G. Jung and others, Man and his Symbols, Dell [Random House], 1968.




Civilizational Apocalypse in The Dark Knight Rises

Revolution and the overthrow of all the reigning structures of power and governance is one of the great fantasies of the post-industrial individual. We all want  to do it. The ambivalence we feel for society is noted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930):

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying his good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of  security. (65)

[C]ivilization is built up on renunciation […], it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – by suppression, repression or some other means. (44)

It is in the nature of things that a sense of gratitude for the increase in security wears off along with the memory of the insecurity of early stages of civilization, and we begin to consider those thwarted drives of ours, and consider how much civilization weighs down upon us, and, as Freud notes, decreases our chances of happiness. This is why, perhaps, one of the great fantasies of popular culture is the breakdown of civilization, a total social apocalypse. It’s not something we would want to experience in real life, probably – remember that additional license brings additional personal insecurity, increased threat from nature and our fellow humans – but we have to have some outlet for that aggression borne of those repressed or suppressed drives. If we can express our hostility to civilization by destroying it in imagination, that will perhaps be enough.

This is where film comes up trumps. It is the great medium of violence and destruction. Societal breakdown can be done in books, but film engages the senses directly, and destruction is an experience of the senses. In literature, Dickens took on modern history’s greatest societal breakdown of the French Revolution in his A Tale of Two Cities, and made the climactic set-piece a description of the mob violence in inner-city Paris. For effect he relies heavily on the recurring metaphor of the rising sea to describe the mob:

The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave,whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them, (A Tale of Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 21.)

This is a relevant example because a recent blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has taken its cue from Dickens’ book in depicting the end of civilization as we know it, as Christopher Nolan (director and screenwriter) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter) made clear. The influence is apparent also in the film, where there are a few nods, most notably a certain character’s graveside oration being taken from the famous closing paragraphs of the novel.

The Dark Knight Rises uses Dickens to deal with issues around total societal breakdown and civilization’s descent into anarchy leavened with kakistocracy. The film’s villain, Bane, is concerned to usher in “the next era of western civilization”, and to do so he takes over Gotham, imprisoning or killing all the politicians and fatcats of the business world and invoking “giving Gotham back to the people” rhetoric. There are some cathartic scenes of mob violence and a breaking-open-the-prison scene reminiscent of Dickens’ Bastille scene. We see all the rich and powerful being “ripped from their decadent nests”, as Bane puts it, and getting their comeuppance. We’ve already been shown their corruption in the early parts of the film, so there’s no sympathy.




But Nolan’s sympathies aren’t really with the mob at all, and the people of Gotham never rise above a faceless mass. Apparently the people’s republic is run entirely by criminals; all the decent people just hide in their homes, it is implied, and we never meet any of them. In fact, one of the big problems with this film for me, judging it as a piece of socially and politically engaged work of narrative art rather than simply a superhero film, is how narrow its character-base is: everyone’s either a criminal or a cop. (I think, by the way, it wants to be judged as more than a superhero film, and that’s why they publicized their use of Dickens: he has a certain intellectual cachet they want to appropriate.) The criminal or cop thing is a problem: eventually, the film will have to come down on one very narrowly defined side, and that side definitely isn’t going to be the criminals.

And that’s what happens. The eventual reclaiming of the city from the Bane faction is undertaken by Batman with the help of a huge cohort of policemen who have been trapped underground but now burst forth into daylight. The huge final set-piece is a street battle of cops still in their blues versus Bane’s mercenaries. While Gotham’s general population are apparently hiding in their bedrooms, the police come along and do all the work. The camera lingers on them and a tribal beat kicks in as they line up in an orderly fashion to begin battle against the usurpers.

Cops ready for battle

Cops ready to battle to take back Gotham

So it’s a fairly blatant authoritarian fantasy at this point, one that asks: what if the police were freed up to really clean up the streets and take out the trash without holding back? Wouldn’t that be awesome? At the end of a film that has seemed to question western civilization to its very core, to announce the death of the American way, to allow Bane to call his revolution a “necessary evil” and imply (by the depiction of absolute and ineradicable corruption among Gotham’s elite) that he’s right, it’s back to square one: the same old militaristic and authoritarian fantasy. The same institutions. The same cops. It’s not consistent and it’s not smart. It just means that, ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an interesting film, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not Kubrick.

It’s dangerous, too, if we get back to Freud. The aggression felt in Gotham against society is eventually channeled into aggressive action upholding the very institutions that are responsible for the forcible repression. The way to escape being repressed is to channel it all into repressing others. That’s the one socially and legally viable expression of primal drives. It’s a very vicious cycle (“vicious” in more than one sense). This approximates to Freud’s account of the formation of the super-ego: “The aggression is introjected, internalized. actually sent back to where it came from; in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego” (77). So if one wanted to make a purely Freudian reading, Bane and co are the ego, because the superego (the cops and Batman) turns its aggression on them. But what the aggression that could be against society is really being turned against in the diegetic world are a group of criminals and neer-do-wells whose guilt has already been clearly established by the objective eye of the camera. The fantasy at work is of having one’s cake of security in civilization and eating it in the form of permitted aggression against a group who wholly deserve it. As long as there’s a Bad Group who can be punished with compunction, civilization’s strictures aren’t unbearable. Freud mentions this too:

One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression. (64)

Gotham has that now. And. as far as the old guard are concerned, all is forgiven.

The Future of Gotham

So one might engage in a bit of speculation as to what happens in Gotham after Bane has been defeated. Firstly, who’s in charge? The police, one supposes. It’s now a police state. As a symbol and an icon, Batman’s in charge (we see his statue being erected in a plaza downtown, as the local dignitaries look on), but as a person, he’s out of the picture. But symbols are important, as Nolan’s trilogy has always made clear. “The idea was to be a symbol”, Bruce Wayne says in Rises; Dent was a symbol: that was how pre-Bane society kept from anarchy. Symbols are more important than actual people. Now, they’ve got a new symbol, but no new ideas or no new possibilities for structures. Father Reilly is still around, too, taking the kids into Wayne Manor, which is to be an orphanage. Maybe religion isn’t dead in the new land. The point is, though, people are feeling good. Foley represented the lazy, unmotivated cop, but even he got off his ass when he saw the Bat-symbol light up the sky and knew the fight against Bane was on. It’s a new symbol, not a new regime. The regime might be liberal-capitalism, fascist, feudalist (like the time of Thomas Wayne as depicted in the first of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins). Doesn’t matter. It’s about Real Heroes/ Symbols, not structures.

But one could wish Nolan had put in some real people – as in, not just police. The citizens sat on their asses till the police who had been buried underground broke free and took back the town. And Nolan even feels no need to acknowledge the people. He doesn’t even dramatize their cowardice. They just don’t exist. They’re nothings, waiting for some real cops with proper training to get shit done. But I guess that’s the superhero genre: it’s not a democratic genre. It’s fascistic. In so far as community is invoked, it’s a community of well-drilled fighting men. In the end, commitment to genre values maybe trumped what Nolan might have wanted to say about society and history. Or maybe he really is into the idea of the police-state.

Could Nolan have learned anything from Dickens’ book here? The thing about Two Cities is that for all the stuff about revolution, it ends up being a personal drama. Why does Carton die? For his beloved, Lucie. Does his sacrifice mean anything in terms of the revolution? Nope, nobody even knows except Lucie and her family. It’s an act of private heroism that doesn’t really redeem the situation. Nothing changes. Maybe the message one can pick up from these two works is just that nobody knows what comes after a revolution. It’s hard to create an diegesis of post-revolutional society and rebuilding structures. All bets are off. A police-state is probably as good a guess as any. The French Revolution didn’t take long in giving birth to a dictatorship under a military leader. In Gotham, maybe Gordon takes over; he was in charge of the resistance to Bane, at any rate. Not much of a political innovator, Gordon. He’ll just reinstate the old regime, the old structures of power. Soon he’ll be maneuvered out of power by some ruthless young punk. Remember the exchange at the beginning of the film: the congressman says Wayne is about to be fired because he’s a war hero and “this is peace”. Some of those old Machiavellians might still be around, or if not, there are more where they came from. Give it eight months, Gordon will be gone; give it eight years, Gotham is back where it was: a steaming pile of corruption and a disenchanted populace. Something terroristic will grow. Remember Bane’s revolution was a harvest, and in this Dickens’ philosophy was key:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

The theory of revolutions and of necessary evil in Rises means that things have to change to stop all this happening again. Again, Nolan is clear that it’s a harvest: there was a causal connection between the draconian Dent-Act-era politics and the Bane uprising. So my prognostication for Gotham is grim: nothing’s changed, the happy-clappy dancing around the Bat-symbol can’t last long, and soon the reign of idealism will give way to materialism, responses grounded in actual conditions of living, and the structures will fail again, because they have every time so far. The Dark Knight will have little choice but to Rise again, but in the meantime he should brush up on political theory – maybe try something socialist going next time, help the proletariat to lose their chains? Symbols will only get you so far for so long, and this is the one thing Gotham’s never tried.

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