The word symbol is a venerable word in the history of literature. It has rendered great services to the interpreters of religious forms and, these days, to the distant descendants of Freud, to the close disciples of Jung. Thought is symbolic. The most limited existence lives on symbols and gives them life. The word “symbol” reconciles believers and nonbelievers, scholars and artists.
Perhaps. What is strange in the use of this word is that the writer to whose work we apply it feels while he is engaged in this work very remote from what such a word designates. Afterwards, it is possible that he is grateful for it, and lets himself be flattered by this fine name. Yes, it is a symbol. But in him something resists, protests and secretly asserts: it is not a symbolic manner of speaking, it was only real.
… From the start, it wants to jump outside of the sphere of language, of language in all its forms. Its goal is in no way expressible; what it offers to sight or hearing is not susceptible to direct understanding, or indeed understanding of any kind. The plane it makes us leave is only a trampoline to lift us or precipitate us toward another region that lacks other access. Through symbol, then, there is a leap, a change of level, sudden and violent change; there is exaltation, there is falling, a passage not from one meaning to another, from a modest meaning to a vaster richness of significations, but to that which is other, to that which seems other than all possible meanings. this change of level, a dangerous movement downward, even more dangerous upward, is the essential nature of the symbol.
All this is already difficult, promising, and rare, such that speaking about the symbol should not be done without precautions. But other singularities ensue. Allegory has a meaning, much meaning, a greater or lesser ambiguity of meaning. Symbol does not mean anything, expresses nothing. It only makes present — by making us present to it — a reality that escapes all other capture and seems to rise up, there, prodigiously close and prodigiously far away, like a foreign presence. Might symbol then be an opening in the wall, the breach by which what is otherwise concealed from all that we feel and know might suddenly become perceptible to us? Is it a graph traced on the invisible, a transparency in which the obscure can be guessed in its obscurity? It is none of that, and that is how it keeps such a great attraction for art. If symbol is a wall, then it is like a wall that, far from opening wide, not only becomes more opaque, but with a density, a thickness, and a reality so powerful and so exorbitant that it transforms us, changes instantly the sphere of our ways and habits, takes us away from all actual or latent knowledge, makes us more malleable, moves us, turns us around, and exposes us, by this new freedom, to the approach of another space.
… The result of symbolic reading is sometimes of great consequence for culture. New questions are raised, old answers silenced, humankind’s need to speak is nobly nourished. But the worst part is that a sort of bastard spirituality finds its resource in it. What is behind the scene, behind the narrative, of which one has had a vague premonition like an eternal secret, is reconstituted into an actual autonomous world, around which the mind is stirred in the dubious happiness always procured for it by the infinity of the “more-or-less.”
The end result of this for the work is its destruction, as if it had become a sort of screen, tirelessly bored through by the insects of commentary, with the aim of facilitating the view over this hinterland that is always too poorly seen and that we try to bring close to us, not by adapting our sight to it, but by transforming it according to our gaze and our experience.
Thus it is to a double alteration that symbolic research almost necessarily leads by its gravity. On one hand, the symbol, which is nothing if not a passion, if it doesn’t lead to this leap that we have described, turns back into a simple or complex possibility of representation. On the other hand, instead of remaining a vehement force in which two contrary movements are joined and confirmed — one expansion, the other concentration — it passes little by little wholly into what it symbolizes, tree of the cross that the greatness of the mystery has gnawed and used fiber by fiber.
… Everything occurs as if the writer — or the artist — could not pursue the accomplishment of his work without giving himself, as object and alibi, the pursuit of something else (that is undoubtedly why there is no pure art). To exercise his art, he must have a distortion by which he can hide what he is and what he does — and literature is this dissimulation. Just as Orpheus, when he turns back to Eurydice, stops singing, breaks the power of the song, betrays the rite and forgets the rule, so at a certain moment the writer must betray, renounce everything, art and the work and literature that now seem like nothing compared to the truth he glimpses (or to the people he wants to serve), to the unknown he wants to grasp, to Eurydice, whom he wants to see and no longer to sing of. It is only at the price of this disavowal of the work that such a work can acquire its greatest dimension, which makes it more than a work. And it is often at this price that it gets lost, and also when it seems most to give nourishment and justification to the symbol.
What does this notion of symbol offer to the writer? Perhaps nothing but forgetfulness of his failure and a dangerous tendency to delude himself through relying on a language of mystery. If he were forced, in order to specify the experience that is unique to him, to use another word, it would rather be the simple word image, for often he is like a man who has encountered an image, feels himself linked to it by a strange passion, has no other existence than to remain near it, a dwelling that is his work.