March 19, 2015


Well, Wafers, time for a new post. We've essentially run the deluded foolishness of 'progressives' into the ground, so I figure it might be time to change subjects entirely. Symbology seems to have been curiously ignored on this blog, so I thought: why not?

I should say that this topic was motivated by a marvelous article by Adam Gopnik on the Warburg Institute in London, in the March 16 issue of the New Yorker. I have a fondness for the place inasmuch as I applied to be a research fellow there in the early 70s, when I had begun thinking about the themes that would become part of The Reenchantment of the World. They cruelly turned down my application, which was a shame, since I could have used their medieval and Renaissance collection; but I somehow managed to survive without it, all in all. Anyway, to launch our investigation into symbology, let me quote two paragraphs from Gopnik's essay (he's talking about the founder, Aby Warburg):

"Warburg's ideas are often not just baffingly inbred but expressed in crunchy impenetrable German compounds. It is a brave man who would attempt to simplify them too sharply. Nonetheless, his theory of pictures might be summed up in three words: Poses have power. The repeated poses of art--young girls dancing, snakes entwining, the moment of the kill in the hunt, the confrontation of sea and single figure--are parts of an ongoing inheritance, a natural language of visual meaning that we all understand without having been consciously instructed in it. Warburg's favorite illustration was what he called the 'Nympha' figure: the young woman in flowing drapery who gives the illusion of rapid and graceful movement and can be found dancing through Western art for two thousand years, from Hellenistic sarcophagi to Botticelli's 'Primavera' and Isadora Duncan.

"Like all powerful things, such poses are double-edged. There is a white imge magic that feeds humanism and infuses art with healthy Dionysian passion, and there is a black image magic that causes us to surrender reason to the ravishments of our own fixations. Although Warburg died before Nazism came to a head, he knew very well the appeal of 'Dionysian' imagery to modern people dessicated by rationality. As the long 'memory traces' of mankind--Warburg referred to these as 'engrams'--reach us through recurring images, we can be overwhelmed by them or we can organize them. The constellations of astrology are a perfect illustration of this point. There are no rams and bears and heroes in the sky, controlling our behavior. The patterns aren't real, but they trap us into imagining that they are. Yet the act of organizing that the constellations represent proved to be essential to rational science, giving us mathematics through imagination."

Talk about food for thought, eh?

Of course, all of this could take us into the deluded world of Joseph Campbell, whose "scholarship" I regard as simplistic New Age dog poop, in which everything is uncritically related to everything else. (See my critique of Campbell in Wandering God, esp. the footnotes.) Still, even as great a scholar as Claude Levi-Strauss was occasionally drawn into this kind of uncritical, "universalist" thinking. So I was wary of introducing a topic like Symbology. But what the heck; Wafers must soldier on, clearly, wading through the dog poop as best they can. As America collapses we need to have a little fun, after all. Onward, then; into the breach!