Symbols themselves have lost much of their power to reverberate in the mind and feeling since this power depends on the existence e of a coherent world. Without such a world symbols tend to become indistinguishable from signs. Gas stations, motels, and eateries along the highway have their special signs which are intended to suggest that these are not only convenient but good places for the motorists to pause. Holiday Inn’s trademark promises room, food, and service of a certain quality. What else does it say? We can of course think of other values, but characteristic of the live symbol is that it does not require explication. Consider the modern skyscraper. People who take note of it are likely to offer a broad range of opinions concerning its worth and meaning. To some it is aggressive, arrogant, and monolithic; to others, on the contrary, it is daring, elegant, and lithe. Such divergent—even opposing—views exist despite the fact that the high-rise is the product of an age to which we belong. A consensus gentium is notably lacking with regard to the artifacts of modern culture. Turn again to the Gothic cathedral. As with the modern skyscraper it is capable of provoking divergent opinions. It has been called “an expression of ignorant and monkish barbarians,” “the finest utterance of a noble faith,” “the architectural image of primeval forests,” and “the lucid embodiment of constructive mathematics.” But what is sampled here are the literary views of critics who lived in later times. To those who built the cathedral and to the faithful who worshiped in it, the edifice probably did not require further literary exposition. In that age of concrete symbols people could accept it as the forecourt to paradise, and artifact handsome in itself and yet revelatory of a far more exalted realm.

Yi-Fu Tuan (from his book Space and Place)

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