Literature has always been charged with the responsibility of depicting the reality of things and events so as to allow the reader, whether present or not, to fathom the occurrences and determine their authenticity. It is, therefore, expected that writers will use words and details that will create an impeccable mental picture in the mind of the reader as to the things that were taking place. However, 20th century writers have been trying to grapple with thoughts on how they should pass information pertaining to horrific acts, or things that would leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the reader. In most cases, writers have had to use other means to convey or impart a mental image in the mind of the reader give a clear impression of the things that transpired. One of the most common ways of depicting horrific events has been the use of symbolism. This is because they claim that the horrific events that they witness and wish to depict are unimaginable, as well as inexpressible. This is the notion that is outlined in Joyce Wexler’s article titled, “Writing About Violence in a Secular Age: Conrad’s Solution”.
Wexler acknowledges that as much as atrocities were not entirely new in the 20th century, never before had their horrific nature silenced the witnesses. The political violence experienced in the 20th century was unprecedented thanks to the fact that it was occurring in secular cultures. Communal beliefs, in the past, had condemned and justified a large number of horrific acts, but the crisis of belief that characterized the 19th century made it impractical to have any consensus as to the meaning of violence. This resulted in aesthetic dilemma as the representation of violence would give it meaning.
However, writers such as Conrad have found it more amenable to represent horrific events through the use of symbolism. He, therefore, would represent horrific events by giving realistic accounts of historical events a symbolic meaning. This strategy, however, has not gone unopposed, most notably by other writers such as Chinua Achebe.
Jacobson, in Heart of Darkness” underlines the relationship between symbolism and violence and states that the multiplicities of meanings that come with symbolism impede any efforts made in explaining the specificity of violence (100).
According to Conrad, extreme events may look distinctive simply because they are shocking. However, they would be incomprehensible if they are entirely unlike anything else. He states that realistic description of horrific or extreme events do not convey their impacts while symbolic representations mitigate and evade their gravity.
Symons underlines the power of symbolism in offering the readers access to irrelevant sources of meaning. He states that the conscious making of symbolism carries out a spiritual function. He equates symbolism to religion or sacred ritual and states that symbolism, in speaking to the reader in a solemn and intimate manner tantamount to that of religion, becomes a religion itself with all the responsibilities and duties that come with sacred ritual (101).
Ian Watt acknowledges that the symbolism, that Conrad espouses, is a response to the 19th century crisis, which was familiar to literary history because of its manifestation of the elimination of the omnipresent author and the death of God. He acknowledges the deficiency of controversy in earlier times when there was a fixed order where every item had its own social, religious and moral role. The disappearance of this order meant that symbolism was rendered ambiguous by personal meanings. He doubts symbolism or impressionism have sufficiently clear meanings as to justify their use (104).
Chinua Achebe, on his part, considers the use of symbolism in depicting horrific events or ideas as virtually irresponsible. He, instead, advocates for realism and states that the use of Africa as the metaphysical battlefield depersonalizes and dehumanizes the victims (105).
Wexler, on her part, argues that the violence depicted in Conrad’s works is not symbolic to European crisis rather it amounts to a blend of symbolic patterns and empirical descriptions.
Fredric Jameson on his part opines that irrespective of the writer’s own aesthetic blinkers, the use of symbolism renders the art worthless and discredited. He argues that the use of symbolism involves the dishonest modification of existing things into numerous tangible and visible meanings. He underlines the importance of realism and states that the symbolism can only be studied rather than valued. Indisputable interpretation of any works of literature revolves around the radical historization of the form (106).
However, Wexler, on her part, states that if events are depicted using realism without symbolism, they would be rendered meaningless. Obtaining meaning in stories or depiction of events necessitates patterns, where the author would relate one thing to another. As much as the actions of a person are rendered futile in the confusion of war and violence, narratives links a person’s experience to that of other people. In essence, the story of an individual gains its meanings by relating to other stories, even as it loses its singularity (108).
Joyce Wexler seems to underline the notion that, symbolism has to be used in literature especially when describing events that would be distasteful or horrific to readers. She points out that the use of symbolism, while allowing narratives to lose their singularity, gives the story meanings as it related them to others. This may underline the importance of symbolism in the literary world. However, I would disagree with her on the issue of necessarily using symbolism especially when outlining messy and horrific events. My discontent is based on the effects of symbolism and imagery on any text.
First, it is worth noting that the use of symbolism in depicting any event or situation means that the event would be open to interpretation. This is because the meanings of symbols are incorporated in the images, emotions and ideas that it elicits in the mind of the hearer. It goes without saying that different individuals or people will have different emotions and interpretations to any literary work or text. This underlines the fact that symbolism would be liable to creating an unreal picture in the minds of people as pertaining to a single event as different people would interpret a single event in a different manner.
On the same note, symbolism creates an element of ambiguity in the depiction and interpretation of events. This ambiguity emanates from the differences in the interpretation of any literary work. It creates a fuzzy or unclear picture in the minds of the readers as to the events that are being described. Symbolism, as scholars outline, enables the writers to express messages directly to the readers mind, but it serves as an emotional shortcut. This emotional shortcut is a euphemism for reduced clarity and enhanced ambiguity in the conveyance of a message. It aims at conveying certain moods and conjuring images about certain events while not giving a clear picture. This as Jameson states, the use of symbolism underlines a dishonest modification or alteration of existing facts into numerous tangible and visible meanings. This makes it difficult for readers to make an indisputable interpretation of the works of literature, which would only be aided by clear, radical and direct depiction of facts, or rather a realistic depiction of facts.
In explaining the difference between realism and symbolism, scholars have defined realism (depiction of the observed reality) as metonymic while symbolism is metaphoric. They state that symbolism has the capacity to evoke referents that surpass the sensory experience. While acknowledging that every text or phrase incorporates symbolic and realistic significance, they state that the numerous interpretations that may be made on the symbolic depiction of facts would hinder efforts made in explaining the specificity of events especially in cases of horrific and violent episodes. This underlines the fact that the ambiguity and randomness of interpretation of symbolism in any texts will potentially create an unintended and unclear picture pertaining to the events that occurred.
Of course, there are instances where symbolism comes as the only way of communicating some truths. However, this is only in myths, legends, rituals and parables. In such instances, concepts such as insight, immortality, rebirth, truth, doubt, spiritual suffering and other “mere” words would potentially fall short of expressing ideas that may be underlined in the experiential and symbolic level. This is essentially the main point of symbolism. It would be likely to either exaggerate or fall short of explaining real details and facts especially where violence and horror is concerned. This means that it comes with an element of fallacy in its depiction of facts, in which case it falls short of creating clear images of the same.
The focus of symbolism also renders it inappropriate in depicting horrific events and violence. It is worth noting that the use of symbolism in texts mainly focuses on creating a more understandable view than passing the message as it is in reality. Writers, in an effort to create an understandable view of the same, are likely to distort the picture. This comes as extremely unpleasant especially considering that the interpretation of symbolism would also be subjective to the ideas, moods and views that are elicited in the reader. In essence, symbolism would be a considerable cultivation of fallacy and distortion of the main facts of an event, both on the side of the writer and the interpretation of the reader. This underlines the importance of eliminating the use of symbolism in the depiction of horrific events or violence.
In conclusion, the depiction of violence and horrific events has been presenting an ethical dilemma for many writers. This is especially considering that the incorporation of graphic details pertaining to a horrific event is considered distasteful by many readers. In essence, many writers find refuge in the use of symbolism. While this may come as a convenient route, it is worth noting that symbolism creates space for distortion of facts by the writer. In addition, the interpretation of readers is entirely subjective in which case the message that the writer intended to convey would be potentially distorted. On the same note, the symbolic depiction of facts would hinder efforts made in explaining the specificity of events especially in cases of horrific and violent episodes. This underlines the fallacy of using symbolism in outlining horrific events.