The Symbolic Paradox In Storytelling

By ‘symbolic paradox’ I mean the symbolic equivalent of a contronym. A contronym is a word with two directly opposite meanings. For example, ‘cleave’ means to separate or cut with a tool, but also means to be in close contact with. To separate and to join, at once.

An ‘idea’ can also work like a contronym. And when it is utilised in a work of fiction to convey a certain meaning or tone, then we can call it a symbol.

It’s interesting to see how these equivocal or paradoxical symbols come about. In some cases, we can even track the history (e.g. edelweiss).

The paradoxical symbol is an especially useful symbol for storytellers, because there is simply more meaning to mine, and also because the symbol web can never be black and white. Paradoxical symbolism is especially useful when you wish your narrator to avoid coming down on one side or the other, or when expressing ideas such as ‘life is complicated’, ‘sometimes no choice is the right one’.

EXAMPLES OF THE SYMBOLIC PARADOX

BLACKBERRIES

Jill Barklem (1951 – 2017) British writer and illustrator Brambly Hedge Blackberry Picking

Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. See “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx for an example of the blackberry in action. In another short story, “Blackberries” by Thomas Kenneally, a middle-aged man falls in love/lust with a Black high school student and problematically compares her to a blackberry. For him, she is both tempting and dangerous.

Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973)  The Blackberry Fairy Flower Fairies of the Autumn
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) The Blackberry Fairy Flower Fairies of the Autumn

BROOMSTICKS

Broomsticks are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, broomsticks turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Via witchcraft stories, women are given the literal freedom to fly.

CATS

Cats are gods to the Egyptians, but demoted to demons by the time of the medieval witch-craze.

HERBS AND DRUGS

The most famous herbs utilised by witches all lead double lives. Mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade are hallucinogenic in small doses, deadly in large ones.

EDELWEISS

This paper about the Edelweiss explain in detail the history of its symbolism. Unfortunately, a benign, positive symbol can flip when something terrible happens to humanity. What started out as an alpine symbol, with associations of whiteness and inaccessibility. Unfortunately, this was a perfect symbol for the Nazi movement.

KNOWING

When there’s something different or weird about us, something shameful, we often wish to someone about it. But at the same time, we are asking them to accept something which we don’t necessarily accept in ourselves. The less we accept this part of ourselves, the more we need it to be known, by somebody. (Often our intimate partners.)

MOOCH

A mooch is someone who buys everything from scammers. Dupe is another noun for it. The interesting flip of this: being a good conman also makes you a really good mark. You’re always on the knowing side of things, and can’t imagine yourself on the dupe side. This gives you a lot of (false) confidence. This is explored in stories which end in the mooches getting duped e.g. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.

SECRECY

According to witchcraft, which is full of symbolic paradox, secrecy brings spiritual power, which is also why so little of its texts and methods exist today. (Plus because the witch craze, of course.) Secrecy decreases one’s power.

But secrecy can also increase any kind of power, whether that power is spiritual or destructive.

Keeping silent in certain circumstances, such as when a survivor, can cause severe damage. Yet as Daniel Dennett (the philosopher) has said, we must withhold the full extent of our desires from others to avoid exposing ourselves as wholly vulnerable, and therefore easily exploited.

SIRENS

Sirens are the terrifying winged creatures of Greek mythology, associated with sea disaster, and the Romanticism version — seductive women in and and around pleasant bodies of water such as baths and pools.

SPECTACLES

Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.

Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde

WITCHES’ HERBS

The most famous: mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade all lead double lives — hallucinogenic in small doses, deadly in large ones. 

YELLOW

Warm summers, happiness. But also old age See Annie Proulx’s short story “Bedrock” for an example of this double symbol in action. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is another example of sickliness, this time psychological.

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