In Defense of Symbolism
Where did the strings metaphor inPaper Towns come from?
Someone said it to me once, after a friend had attempted suicide, that “maybe all the strings inside him broke,” and I liked that image a lot because 1. puppets, and 2. We are all aware that there is this emotional/psychological life inside of us, right? But it’s very difficult to talk about, because it doesn’t have a physical location.
When your back hurts, it’s relatively easy to address this problem using language: You say, “My back hurts,” and I can understand what you mean, because I also have a back, and it has hurt before, and I remember that pain, which makes it easier for me to empathize with you.
It is much harder for me to empathize with you if what hurts is abstract. When people are imagining sadness or despair, they often try to render it in terms we find familiar. You often hear, “My heart hurts,” for instance, or “My heart is broken.” This problem, of course, is not actually in the heart.
(I do think a lot of people feel emotional pain physically near the solar plexus, but it’s not the physical manifestation of emotional pain that makes it so difficult: It’s the emotional/psychological/spiritual/whatever pain itself, which you can’t describe easily in concrete terms.)
To talk about emotional pain (and lots of other emotional experiences), we are forced to use abstractions. (“My heart is broken,” is a symbolic statement.) And many people feel, in this world driven by data and statistics and concreteness, that abstractions are inherently kind of less valid than concrete observations. But emotional experience is as real and as valid as physical experience. And the fact that we have to use metaphor and symbolism to describe that pain effectively does not make it less real—just as abstract paintings are not inherently inferior to representational paintings.
You often hear in high school English classes, for instance, that thinking about symbols is dumb or useless or “ruining the book.” But underneath it all, this is why we have language in the first place. We don’t really need language to share the news of your back pain: You can point at your back and grimace to tell me that your back hurts, and I can nod sympathetically.
But to explain to you the nature and nuance of my grief or pain or joy, I need abstractions. I need symbols. And the better our symbols are, the more clearly we’ll be able to communicate with each other, and the more fully we’ll be able to imagine each other’s experience. Good symbolism makes empathy easier.
So why the strings? The strings inside a person breaking struck me as a better and more accurate abstract description of despair than anthropomorphized symbols (broken heart, etc.).
And this is very important to remember when reading or writing or painting or talking or whatever: You are never, ever choosing whether to use symbols. You are choosing which symbols to use.
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