Archives For Symbols

C.S. Lewis and Flags

September 6, 2017 — 3 Comments

flag globe.png

Do you find flags interesting? Even inspirational, perhaps?

A recent article on the subject reminded me that one of my early avocations was as a vexillologist. If you also enjoy learning about flags, you can become a vexillologist too (ability to spell the title not required).

The article discussed the diversity of America state and territory flags. Some are rather mundane, featuring state seals on single colored fields. While my own Washington State flag falls into this category, the fact that the first president’s face dominates the seal makes it rather attractive. Many seals though, are terribly busy and jumbled.

The Nebraska flag is so bland that it once flew over the state capitol for several days, before anyone noticed it was upside down.

One of the most distinctive flags is that of New Mexico, which features “the sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo. The red and yellow imitate Spain’s national colors, paying tribute to the region’s colonial heritage.”

You can view all of the American flags here, if you are interested.

Or, if you are more interested in international flags, you can see and read about them here (compliments of the CIA).

The best part of the article, “Fifty Flags” by John J. Miller, is the author’s citation of C.S. Lewis.

The main purpose of a flag is to unite people behind patriotic, military, or civic causes. A good flag stirs emotions, tingling spines at Olympic ceremonies and encouraging soldiers to hold fast.

“In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment, wrote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.”

Inspired by this passage, I’ve gleaned several more references that the Oxford scholar makes to flags.

Quotations from C.S. Lewis Mentioning Flags

The flag serves as the emblem of a nation as it projects its image beyond its own borders.

After breakfast [Lord Bern] asked Caspian to order every man he had into full armor. “And above all,” he added, “let everything be as trim and scoured as if it were the morning of the first battle in a great war between noble kings with all the world looking on.”

This was done; and then in three boatloads Caspian and his people, and Bern with a few of his, put out for Narrowhaven. The King’s flag flew in the stern of his boat and his trumpeter was with him. (Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

The absence of a flag or identifiable markings leaves an enemy uncertain about how to proceed.

Inside, he was wondering if there were any way of getting rid of these unwelcome visitors. Had he known that Caspian had only one ship and one ship’s company with him, he would have spoken soft words for the moment, and hoped to have them all surrounded and killed during the night.

But he had seen a ship of war sail down the straits yesterday and seen it signaling, as he supposed, to its consorts. He had not then known it was the King’s ship for there was not wind enough to spread the flag out and make the golden lion visible, so he had waited further developments. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

The enthusiastic waving of flags can be a visible manifestation of patriotic fervor. In a letter to his brother, written between the wars, Lewis describes conversation with an Anglican priest, William Stead, who had just returned from Italy.

Lewis is rather dismissive of the priest’s comparison of Italy and Great Britain because, unlike Lewis and his brother Warnie, the cleric had never been to the front lines.

Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”

They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.”

They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England. Stead is an American and has not been to the war. (All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis)

A flag can also be used to gain the attention of a friend or potential ally. Lewis uses the image in his first letter to Charles Williams, who would join him in the Inkling writing community. The story of their mutual respect is fascinating. Williams response to Lewis begins, “My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed.”

I never know about writing to an author. If you are older than I, I don’t want to seem impertinent: if you are younger, I don’t want to seem patronizing. But I feel I must risk it. A book sometimes crosses one’s path which is so like the sound of one’s native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

In “Religion Without Dogma?” Lewis includes a flag as one of the symbols with more inherent inspirational power than can be uncovered in a lifeless religion. He is discussing spiritualism, which offered supposed communication with ghosts wandering through an ill-defined afterlife.

A minimal religion compounded of spirit messages and bare Theism has no power to touch any of the deepest chords in our nature, or to evoke any response which will raise us even to a higher secular level—let alone to the spiritual life. The god of whom no dogmas are believed is a mere shadow. He will not produce that fear of the Lord in which wisdom begins, and, therefore, will not produce that love in which it is consummated.

The immortality which the messages suggest can produce in mediocre spirits only a vague comfort for our unredeemedly personal hankerings, a shadowy sequel to the story of this world in which all comes right (but right in how pitiable a sense!), while the more spiritual will feel that it has added a new horror to death—the horror of mere endless succession, of indefinite imprisonment in that which binds us all . . .

It can never be a controller or even a rival to our natural sloth and greed. A flag, a song, an old school tie, is stronger than it; much [stronger are] the pagan religions.

The flag can delineate the leading edge of an advance into enemy territory. Lewis uses this notion with great effect in his treatise on pain.

No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. (The Problem of Pain)

In his essay “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis uses the flag as a metaphor for where one’s ultimate loyalty lies.

When I first became a Christian . .  . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and gospel halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target.

It is extraordinary how inconvenient to your family it becomes for you to get up early to go to church. It doesn’t matter so much if you get up early for anything else, but if you get up early to go to church it’s very selfish of you and you upset the house.

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can’t do it without going to church.

A Final Observation on Flags & War

In one of Lewis’ less well-known essays, “Talking about Bicycles,” he discusses a fascinating procession through which many of our experiences pass. “Let’s give them names. They are the Unenchanted Age, the Enchanted Age, the Disenchanted Age, and the Re-enchanted Age.”

His illustration using the example of marriage is excellent, and accurately describes the chronicle of many if not most marital unions. It is, however, in his example related to war that he mentions the symbol of the flag.

Let’s take an example that may interest you more. How about war? Most of our juniors were brought up Unenchanted about war. The Unenchanted man sees (quite correctly) the waste and cruelty and sees nothing else.

The Enchanted man is in the Rupert Brooke or Philip Sidney state of mind [both were poets whose lives were cut violently short in war]—he’s thinking of glory and battle-poetry and forlorn hopes and last stands and chivalry.

Then comes the Disenchanted Age—say Siegfried Sassoon [another poet who survived WWI, in contrast to his contemporary, Brooke].

But there is also a fourth stage, though very few people in modern England dare to talk about it. You know quite well what I mean. One is not in the least deceived: we remember the trenches too well. We know how much of the reality the romantic view left out.

But we also know that heroism is a real thing, that all the plumes and flags and trumpets of the tradition were not there for nothing. They were an attempt to honour what is truly honourable: what was first perceived to be honourable precisely because everyone knew how horrible war is. And that’s where this business of the Fourth Age is so important.

C.S. Lewis did, indeed, recall the trenches. He understood the horrors of war, but had matured in his viewpoint to become reenchanted with its glory. Flags, pennants and guidons are visible emblems of its chivalry and honor. Lewis would certainly concur with the declaration of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States of America army, that “it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Fortunately, flags fly far more commonly in peace than they do in war. Their peaceful fluttering is far more familiar to the masses than their battle shorn visage. May that always remain true.

_____

The image at the top of the page is copyrighted by its creator, Joel Lisenby, and used with permission.

 

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 10 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.

Dislike emoticonEmoticons. Some people love them. Others find them irritating. I’m in the latter camp. That’s why I enjoyed a comic in the paper this week.* A fifty-something husband and wife are talking as she’s typing on her desktop.

Jeannie: I wish I was a little more computer-literate.

Charlie: I don’t really care for that term.

Jeannie: Why not?

Charlie: I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.

I am forced to respond with a wholehearted “ditto!”

I find the evolution of alphabets fascinating. Primitive pictographs amaze me. Emoticons, not so much.

I have to admit that I occasionally use the primitive :) to indicate that something is intended to be humorous, rather than serious. It has served as useful shorthand for written speech, conveying what would be evident in the intonations of oral communication.

However, this nouveau-punctuation has mutated into an abomination. Today there are innumerable graphic variations of that once modest “smile.” And some of them are truly bizarre.

Emoticons run amuck are an evidence of humanity’s demand for novelty. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis shows how an incessant demand for something new saps the joy out of the present moment. As the senior demonic tempter declares:

Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. . . . Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up. This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire.

I realize it’s a bit of a stretch to apply this passage to the subject at hand, but the principle remains the same. When is enough enough? When it comes to emoticons, apparently, that level has yet to be reached. 

I am not seriously suggesting that there is a conspiracy going on here, but one never knows.

Please forgive me if I have offended any Mere Inkling readers who may suffer from emoticonaddiction or some other disorder. It is not my desire to upset you. Feel free to continue your unbridled (ab)use of these tiny monstrosities.

Simply include me (and C.S. Lewis) alongside Charlie in saying, “I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.”

Postscript: I must confess to finding one set of emoticons rather amusing. If you are familiar with Spock from Star Trek, you too may enjoy these Vulcan emoticons that exhibit the full range of Vulcan expression.

vulcan

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* You can see the strip I am referring to here.

 

Misinterpreted Symbols

October 31, 2013 — 10 Comments

finn planeFew symbols evoke the intense reaction caused by the swastika. Regardless of the color in which it is rendered, it is inescapably associated with the Nazi insanity of the Third Reich.

And yet, for millennia it meant something else. And even today, in many lands it is recognized as representing something completely different.

I recently read a fascinating article* about the 1939-40 Winter War between the Soviet Union (Hitler’s “ally” at the time!) and tiny Finland. The Finns fought valiantly, and although in the peace settlement they forfeited territory to the insatiable communists, they inflicted terrible casualties on the aggressors.

Finnish bitterness toward the Soviets, due to their invasion, led them to ally with the Germans once the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union ended. Without any sympathy for Nazi beliefs, they naturally hoped to regain the land they had been forced to surrender in 1940.

Prior to the Finnish alliance with Germany, the swastika already served as the official symbol of their small but talented Air Force. Ironically, they had adopted it in homage to the Swedish noble who donated one of the first foreign planes imported to fight the Russians.

The plane pictured above is the modest aircraft donated by Count Eric Von Rosen. The symbols adorning it are based on his personal crest, which was in turn based upon ancient Viking runes. It represented good luck.

After the decisive defeat of the National Socialist Party, the offensive symbol was virtually wiped away. However, as one writer says, “Although de-Nazification was enforced throughout Scandinavia, it was taken rather lightly in Finland, where the symbol had become an integral symbol for their Air Forces.

This is understandable because in Finland, the symbol meant something completely different than the common association linked to Hitler’s mania.

This should serve as an important lesson for those of us who work with words (which in large part are symbolic). A meaning we may consider patently obvious might turn out to be missed entirely by a reader for whom the “symbols” mean something else entirely. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis provides an entertaining illustration of this.

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. . . . People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

The fact that we know the swastika has an ancient pedigree, and that it continues to mean something completely different than Nazism in some locales today, is unlikely to calm the minds of the vast majority of people who will never become comfortable with it.

Turning to Lewis once more we find a dynamic image that is perfectly apropos to our discussion of the swastika as a symbol. Symbols, he reminds us, are inherently powerful. Although written in a different context (“Williams and the Arthuriad”), Lewis could easily have had in mind the preeminent symbol of Nazism and the Holocaust when he wrote:

A symbol has a life of its own. An escaped metaphor—escaped from the control of the total poem or philosophy in which it belongs—may be a poisonous thing.

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* You can download a copy of “The Winter War” from Air Force magazine at this link.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

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* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.