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David Bouchier: A Symbolic Moment

Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

During the week leading up to Easter and Passover a house in our neighborhood had an eye-catching seasonal display out front. A big line of colored eggs came tumbling down the sloping lawn, presided over by a large, cheerful bunny. They made me smile every time I passed. Of course I know that bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with Easter, or Passover. They are echoes of a different and much more ancient tradition, the celebration of spring, which may be as old as humanity. In other words they are fertility symbols.

I had to discover this for myself. My mother never told me. But it is a striking symbol of how powerful symbols are, and how they can outlast their original meaning and be appropriated for quite different purposes. The swastika was originally a symbol of the sun or of divinity in Eastern religions, and in the early twentieth century it was the logo cheap brand of cigarettes.

Written language began, not with alphabets, but with symbols like Egyptian hieroglyphs. These ancient picture languages are quite simple – a pot shape represents a pot, a sheaf of wheat represents a sheaf of wheat, and so on. When we are very young and still recapitulating the history of the human race in the laborious process of growing up, we start by drawing things like that, very simply. A house is not a line of meaningless letters – H-O-U-S-E – it is a little square with a pitched roof, a door, and a chimney emitting a stream of smoke in defiance of environmental regulations. We don’t know any better. Eventually we grow up and discover spelling and central heating, but that childish symbol still has its power, and its charm.

Some symbols function almost like a universal language. Everybody understands the signs for “No Smoking” or “No Entry,” and everybody except the French understands a speed limit sign. Other symbols are more like a secret code, for example the mysterious icons on your computer desktop which might mean anything, but usually mean trouble. We also find on our little screens little pictures called emoticons to express feelings that, in more literate times, we knew how to express in words.

Some symbols were deliberately designed to create solidarity and commitment: national flags religious icons, and the logos of sports teams.

A symbol is a shortcut to our feelings, bypassing the process of thought entirely. In the late nineteenth century an artistic and literary movement called symbolism promoted the idea that art need not portray real things but should only symbolize their effects. For example the Golden Arches are not a burger in themselves, but they have the effect of making you swerve into the drive-through. The Symbolists have long since vanished, but their direct descendants in advertising and politics are everywhere, promoting their simple emotive symbols in place of a more complicated reality.

The symbol of the moment seems to be the sinister, doom-laden image of the coronavirus seen through a microscope, and millions are hypnotized by it. But symbols are a matter of choice, and for myself I would rather choose the Easter bunnies and their colored eggs, the ancient symbols of a new beginning.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.