Symbols And The Interpretation of Symbols: Two articles by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

The graduate, whose eyes have been closed and heart hardened by a course of university instruction in the Fine Arts or Literature is actually debarred from the complete understanding of a work of art. If a given form has for him a merely decorative and aesthetic value, it is far easier and far more comfortable for him to assume that it never had any other than a sensational value, than it would be for him to undertake the self-denying task of entering into and consenting to the mentality in which the form was first conceived. It is nevertheless just this task that the professional honour of the art historian requires of him; at any rate, it is this task that he undertakes nominally, however great a part of it he may neglect in fact.

The question of how far an ancient author or artist has understood his material also arises. In a given literary or plastic work the iconography may be at fault, by defect of knowledge in the artist; or a text may have been distorted by the carelessness or ignorance of a scribe. It is evident that we cannot pass a valid judgment in such cases from the standpoint of our own accidental knowledge or ignorance of the matiere. How often one sees an emendation suggested by the philologist, which may be unimpeachable grammatically, but shows a total lack of understanding of what could have been meant originally! How often the technically skilled restorer can make a picture look well, not knowing that he has introduced insoluble contradictions!

In many cases, however, the ancient author or artist has not in fact misunderstood his material, and nothing but our own historical interpretation is at fault. We suppose, for example, that in the great epics, the miraculous elements have been “introduced” by an “imaginative” poet to enhance his effects, and nothing is more usual than to attempt to arrive at a kernel of “fact” by eliminating all incomprehensible symbolic matter from an epic or gospel. What are really technicalities in the work of such authors as Homer, Dante, or Valmiki, for example, we speak of as literary ornaments, to be accredited to the poet’s imagination, and to be praised or condemned in the measure of their appeal.1On the contrary: the work of the prophetic poet, the texts for example of the Rgveda or of Genesis, or the logia of a Messiah, are only “beautiful” in the same sense that the mathematician speaks of an equation as “elegant”; by which we mean to imply the very opposite of a disparagement of their “beauty”. From the point of view of an older and more learned aesthetic, beauty is not a mere effect, but, properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause; the beautiful is not the final cause of the work to be done, but “adds to the good an ordering to the cognitive faculty by which the good is known as such”2; the “appeal” of beauty is not to the senses, but through the senses, to the intellect.3

Let us realise that “symbolism” is not a personal affair, but as Emil Male expressed it in connection with Christian art, a calculus. The semantics of visible symbols is at least as much an exact science as the semantics of verbal symbols, or “words”. Distinguishing “symbolism” accordingly, from the making of behaviouristic signs, we may say that however unintelligently a symbol may have been used on a given occasion, it can never, so long as it remains recognisable, be called unintelligible: intelligibility is essential to the idea of a symbol, while intelligence in the observer is accidental. Admitting the possibility and the actual frequency of a degeneration from a significant to a merely decorative and ornamental use of symbols, we must point out that merely to state the problem in these terms is to confirm the dictum of a well-known Assyriologist, that “When we sound the archetype, the ultimate origin of the form, then we find that it is anchored in the highest, not the lowest.”4

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  1. As remarked by Victor-Emile Michelet, La Secret de la Chevalerie, 1930, p. 78. “L’enseignment vulgaire considère que le poéme èpique en vertu de sa tradition et de la technique du genre, renforce le recit des expoits guerriers par des inventions d’un merveilleux plus ou moins conventionnel destiné à servir d’agrément et d’element decoratif.”()
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa., 1. 5.4. ad 1, and Comm. on Dionysius, De Div. Nom. V()
  3. And thus, as recognised by Herbert Spinden (Brooklyn Museum Qtly., Oct. 1935), “Our first reaction is one of wonder, but our second should be an effort to understand. Nor should we accept a pleasurable effect upon our unintelligent nerve ends as an index of understanding.”()
  4. Andrae, W., Die ionische Saule 1933, p. 65. The reader is strongly recommended to the whole of Andrae’s “Schlusswort.” Cf. Zoltan de Takacs, Francis Hopp Memorial Exhibition, 1933 (Budapest, 1933), p 47: “The older and more generally understood a symbol is, the more perfect and self-expressive it is” and p. 34: “the value of art forms in (the) prehistoric ages was, therefore, determined, not simply by the delight of the eyes, but by the purity of traditional notions conjured by the representation itself.()
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  • We fashion wood for a house, but it is the emptiness inside that makes it livable. We work with the substantial, but the emptiness is what we use.

    - Tao Te Ching 11