The importance of symbolism

This discussion would like to support a number of propositions.


  • The first is that the use of symbolism and metaphor is an  extremely important part of how people relate to their experience.
  • The second is that any effective communication with people requires an engagement with their symbols.
  • The third is that any creative product cannot help but symbolically betray the psychology of  its creators.


Symbolism is an extremely important part of human experience

The first point then is that symbolism is an extremely important part of human experience. Karen Maroda talks about the use of metaphor as being one of the most effective ways of getting through to some of her most troubled patients in therapy. Throughout her book, Psychodynamic techniques – Working with emotion in the therapeutic relationship, she discusses the effectiveness of symbolizing experience when treating patients with Borderline Personality disorders. Borderline personality is a condition marked by frequent splitting in defence of the ego and patterns of intense and unstable relationships. In short they are the bane of the therapeutic world, disliked intensely by mental health professionals and forever crossing boundaries. They are frequently thought to be ‘incurable’ so the notion that symbolic discourse could be efficacious in their treatment invites excited examination.

Maroda suggests that ‘[m]etaphor is about making cognitive connections, establishing meaning and creating new cognitive and emotional pathways.’ When trying to discuss the emotional impact one patient with BPD was having on others she used the metaphor or symbol of her responses being like using a bazooka to kill a fly. This example immediately resonated with the patient as did another allusion to the television show Third Rock from the Sun. This metaphor is said not only to have captured her experience but given her room for creative play. It is a metaphor that she turned around in her head for weeks and weeks deriving much humour and insight from it. The gist of the comparison was that the aliens in the television show while having a detailed of understanding of how humans lived had difficulty dealing with some of the most basic things that humans do. 


In further support of the importance of metaphor she brings in the work of Levin and Modell. Their work suggests that more brain centres light up in response to metaphor than any other form of human communication, thus indicating the formation of new neural pathways arising from and in response to the symbolic.

Any effective communication with people requires an engagement with their symbols

In his treatment of patients Yalom suggests that to effectively treat a patient one must engage with the symbols the patient chooses to achieve success in the therapeutic alliance. In treating a surgeon whose brother and husband had both died Yalom talks about having to deal with her symbolization of her grief/ rage as a ‘black ooze’. Yalom knows he must engage with the metaphor of the black ooze (and the idea that anyone who comes into contact with it will either abandon her or die) even though it is patently irrational he knows he must engage with it. It is only by dealing with her anger and her bitterness and not being ‘tarred’ by it that he can undermine the symbolization. At another point in the book he describes one woman’s hallucinated insects as ‘symptoms, which were symbolic, oblique cries for help’.

At yet another point in the book the deterioration of another relationship is described. This is his relationship with Paula a collaborator in a group of terminally ill patients. After a long period of neither of them talking to one another they decide to meet for lunch. It was then that Paula produced a lichen covered rock from her bag that she described as her anger rock. Yalom queried whether Paula was angry at him. The rock signified anger but at the same time Paula described her brother who died at the age of seventeen as her rock. It is towards an engagement with this symbol of a rock that he feels he must return his attention when they meet again. Yalom says to Paula that: –

Your saying that your brother was like a rock makes me think of another rock, the anger rock you once placed on the table between us. Do you know that you never until this day mentioned your brother to me? But his death helps me understand some of the things about the two of us. Maybe we’ve always been a threesome – you, me and your brother? I wonder if his death his the reason you have chose to be your own rock- the reason you would never let me be your rock

? Perhaps his death convinced you that other men would prove frail and unreliable?

Her response to him is to say that ‘[n]ow it’s time to feed you’. Yalom immediately examines this for symbolic content. He wonders whether it is an acknowledgement that he has in a sense ‘fed her’ emotionally or spiritually. Seeing Yalom, one of the world’s most eminent therapists, search so furiously for the symbolic in his interactions speaks to the importance of engaging with the symbols.

Any creative  product cannot help but symbolically betray the psychology of  its creators

It is remarkable found that Maya Deren disavowed any connection with the European tradition of experiment, rejecting the continental version of surrealism for relying too much on the unconscious.She is right that creativity represents a logical, imaginative extension of a known reality. However, she does not afford enough credit to the role of the unconscious in her own work. Even in the most deliberate of artwork the psychology of the creator is put on display for the world to say. Before returning to Deren’s work in Meshes of the Afternoon it is worth looking at one of the progenitors of cinema. Before there was D W Griffith there was Melies an illusionist turned filmmaker. His films were most definitely ‘logical, imaginative extensions of a known reality’. They carried with them the deliberate acting and stiff constructions of the stage and yet they still spoke to the unconscious of Melies. Eric Rhode suggests, in his History of cinema, that Melies’s famous image of the rocket in the eye of the moon in a trip to the moon speaks to infantile feelings concerning sexual assault. 


Rhode suggests that ‘themes borrowed from Gounod, Berlioz, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe are shorn of their promise and made subordinate to his psychopathology. Rhode says that Melies symbolism was so limited that had his films been longer ‘they would have a mind piercing monotony’. He draws out attention to the fact that a grimacing decapitated head, usually his own, is a recurring motif and that this is probably a form of genital displacement. In Meshes of the afternoon similarly the logical and deliberate enterprise of making the film cannot exclude the unconscious. The symbols even if chosen unconsciously often carry some other signification not immediately apparent to the chooser.

In Meshes of the Afternoon Maya Deren was probably trying to get at trying to find her own personal identity within a conventional relationship. She probably wanted to deal with the paradox that she feels at her safest when awakened by her boyfriend when she should have been running from him the whole time to find herself. It is he who returns the telephone to the receiver. Phones are used in dreams to suggest a lack of communication between the dreamer and whomever she is trying to get through to in this case herself. The film could, however, be read much more simply. It could just be about fellatio being sanity restoring. This is probably not the logical, imaginative extension Deren envisaged.

Following Freud the key in Meshes would be a phallus but if we follow a Jungian train of thought we get more the idea of keys as opening up areas of life.This latter version was probably what Deren was aiming for but even following this line of thinking we arrive at the penis version of the key. Jung would have amplified the image of the key with myths, etc to find out the essence of keyness. If we take the french folk tale of Bluebeard it his illuminating . Bluebeard took a wife and gave her a set of keys for every room in the house there was only one room that he forbid her from entering. She used the key that allowed her to enter the forbidden room and saw the bodies of many women. When Bluebeard returned he discovered blood on the key and told her that she could now join all of his former wives in the forbidden room. The blood on the key here could be taken to represent the blood produced after the hymen is broken upon discovery of sex.

In Meshes Deren takes the key from her mouth. Which is symbolic of taking a phallus from her mouth. She repeatedly tries to take possession of the phallus only to have it resist her efforts and return to the table before turning into a knife. This could be a form of penis envy or lack. This phallus as a knife is then driven into her mouth and then she is awoken by Hammid who puts her in connection, (by returning the phone to the receiver). The knife is initially seen in bread. Bread being symbolic of love or affection that the knife can provide. After the bread though the knife is seen in isolation as a tool of destruction. Perhaps Meshes of the Afternoon could be renamed Enlightenment at the end of a man’s penis.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Looking at Breakfast at Tiffany’s we see that the symbols throughout the film are interested in the difference between what is real and what is mere artifice. Whether conscious or not the production of the film concerns itself with what is real in people and speaks to the preoccupations of the films producers. Even to the point of making significant changes from the book. At one point in the film Holly and her writer friend have sex and this is after they remove party masks which are symbolic of their social masks. Its inclusion in the film where it had not occurred in the book suggests that it speaks even more to the psychology of the film’s creators.The film repeatedly deals with the theme of a lack of substance itself being substance.

Mirrors are used from nearly the opening scene to let us know that we are not dealing with real woman but with some reflection of the woman. The only real relationship that she has throughout the entire film she has to make unreal by calling him by her brother’s name. She only has sex with him after they both take of two party masks, again symbolic, of the masks that they present to the world. The version of herself that she sees herself as having left behind at the age of fourteen is represented by a nameless cat that she tries to rid herself of at the end of the film. She reassures the cat there are plenty of rats where she is abandoning him perhaps these are the same ‘rats’ and ‘super rats’ that she has to deal with throughout the film.


Her agent says early in the film that she is a phoney but ends the film by referring to her as the most real phoney around. It is this paradox that the film concerns itself with. When the writer talks about saying that he wants to marry her at the end of the film he tries almost to smuggle the proposal into her world of abstraction and life lived at a remove. Even then it is something she simply will not register. When she is forced to deal with some reality and past in the form of her husband whom she has run off on she cannot do this. She tries to get the one person with whom she has a real relationship with to do the dirty work for her. Even here her one real relationship is lived at the remove of being attached to her brother. Furthermore what I think initially attracted her to him was that he was similarly trapped in a fiction. His relationship with a decorator who supported him. The film is conscious of this tension between the real and the false that it is creating but it is not conscious of all of the instances where this point is made. A close re-watch of this film would throw up unintended symbols and comparisons that were perhaps not fully planned out in the creative process. The changes from the book to the film invite more examination in terms of the psychology of the film’s producers.


3 thoughts on “The importance of symbolism

    1. Yeah I studied law but I love reading about psychoanalysis and particularly about symbolism. I enjoyed reading your entries too. Are you a fan of tarot cards?

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