“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.”
– Oscar Wilde, from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
Symbol means, in its etymological root,
literally “that which is thrown or cast together,” from syn– “together” (see syn-) + bole “a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam,” from bol-, nominative stem of ballein “to throw” (Etymonline.com)
What two things, exactly, does a symbol “cast together”? I hope to establish this and more in the following essay. What I hope to establish is that the two things that are “cast” together are matter and spirit – or material consciousness and a nonmaterial concept which exists somewhere deep in our psyche. That is a symbol is a sensible, material sign that stands for something that is not material, and it casts the two together.
Frithjof Schuon and others in the symbolist tradition chased what has been called throughout the history of the humanities the “perennial tradition” otherwise known as the “perennial Sophia.” (Therion indeed has a song about “The Perennial Sophia,” which you can – and should – listen to here.) The perennial Sophia is, Schuon says, the “transcendent unity” behind all religious traditions, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor of The Essential Frithjof Schuon, explains Schuon’s theory as such:
[Schuon] emphasizes perennial religion, or religio perennis, that he also calls the religion of the heart, which resides at the center of every particular religion and also at the center and in the very substance from which man is made. (Schuon 5)
In an essay on Sufism, Schuon explains that there is a “spirit” behind the “husk” of all the religions:
Behind the husk of the literal text [exists] a concrete and active spiritual presence which goes beyond the words and the mind. (Schuon 304)
The title of this blog entry, of course, comes from this essay by Schuon. Schuon refers to a fruit or a seed or a spirit that goes beyond literal text, past images and symbols and into somewhere ethereal. I will delineate in this essay two sides to the religions here analyzed: 1) the husk or shell (exoterism) and 2) the seed, fruit, or spirit (esoterism). Again, Nasr explains in the introduction to the massive volume:
Religion is like a walnut, to use the Sufi image, with both a shell and the core or fruit which can grow and possess existence only within the shell. The purpose of the shell is to protect the fruit but without the shell there would be no fruit. Likewise, the final end of religion is to guide man to God, to enable man to be delivered from the bondage of limitation which is the goal of esoterism here in this life and which even exoterism aspires to in future life. (Schuon 12; emphasis mine)
You cannot send a message without a vessel through which the message travels (without performing some sort of Star Trek Vulcan-esque mindmeld), and this shell or husk, once pulled or peeled away, provides access to the fruit within. This is what a symbol “casts together”: the sign (letters on the page), the shell (image) and the fruit (signified).
So where does the “husk” or “shell” come from?
When people write, they write what they know. If a person frequents the desert and rides camels, that person will write about deserts and camels, or in very near proximity to such. If one has never seen or heard of a camel, one can’t very much write about a camel. The authors of Judaic scriptures wrote about deserts, rivers, and temples which they knew very well. If the authors of the Judaic scriptures can conceive in their minds a green, flowery oasis, they might write about that too – and perhaps call it the Garden of Eden? –and use it as one of their symbols.The authors of the Christian scriptures wrote about shepherds, sheep, boats, Romans, Pharisees, and other familiar figures. When Rowling was a child, she wrote many stories about rabbits – not because she had one, but because she and her sister knew of rabbits and desired one very much. This rule rings true for religion and mythology and the perennial tradition as well.
And many alchemical operations, like religious and mythological tales, are symbolic, metonymic, allegorical, and at their core (their fruit?) spiritual. That is, they each tell a symbolic story of the perennial Sophia – explorations of psychic contents that are the same in essence but different in form. Yes, even within the same tradition the process takes a different form. The shell is, however, necessary.
It must be noted and emphasized that a majority of people – indeed most people – will not see the fruit of the story. They may catch glimpses of it or have a notion of it, but it takes a special kind of nature to perceive clearly the fruit or spirit. Therefore, the outer shell of the tale or mythology must be convincing and gripping enough to hold the attention of those who only see the shell. The exoteric tradition must be as compelling – or more compelling – than the esoteric one, and must survive in order to pass the esoteric side of the tradition on, as Nasr explains:
Exoterism is…absolutely necessary to make the attainment of [deliverance from bondage] through esoterism possible even when man lives in this world. Without the exoteric, no esoterism could survive and be efficacious. But also without esoterism religion would be reduced to only its external aspects without means of providing a way for those whose nature is such that they must follow the esoteric path in order to follow religion. (Schuon 13)
I urge my readers to, if they so desire, look within the symbols of religious traditions for the “transcendent unity of all religions,” and follow the path. It is said to be full of thorns, but “sublime”:
The Path by which to Deity we climb
Is arduous, rough, ineffable, sublime;
And the strong massy gates thro’ which we pass,
In our first course, are bound with chains of brass;
Those men, the first who of Egyptian birth,
Drank the fair water of Nilotic earth,
Disclosed by actions infinite this road.
And many paths to God Phoenicians showed;
This road the Assyrians pointed out to view,
And this the Lydians and Chaldeans knew.
– Oracle of Apollo, from Eusebius