The Personhood Symbolization
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
There is a vase on our bookshelf. I don’t know why it’s there. There’s nothing in it to speak of, save some serious fluff bunnies. It doesn’t hold flowers, dead or alive, or pens, or drumsticks. It’s just sort of there as a decoration, without any other meaning than the aesthetic. Or perhaps there is more to this ceramic fixture than I know. Perhaps it symbolizes some greater truth. Maybe it is waiting to be filled so that it can be fulfilled. Maybe its purpose is to take up space on our bookshelf. Could it be an alien transmitter? Or perhaps a device planted by the government to spy on malcontents-for I am an avowed malcontent. I don’t remember when we acquired it, after all. It could’ve come from anywhere, and here it is: unassuming, uninvolved. Back in my philosophy days, I would’ve questioned its reality, but not now. I’m too tired, too caught up in the joys and pains of life to give this vase much thought at all. And yet…there it sits.
I don’t know why I bring up the vase, other than it puts me in mind of a subject I’ve been considering off and on over the last few years: hypostatization. The word hypostasis means “an underlying reality or substance.” To hypostatize something means to “treat or represent something abstract as a concrete reality.” To some this may be considered a philosophical fallacy, but, thankfully, I’m not one of those people.
The reason I bring up all this is that when I was in seminary, some friends and I liked to talk about our favorite stories. The writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and JK Rowling were among the favorites, as you might expect at a seminary. In our discussions of the theological significance of these, and others, a question arose that I haven’t quite gotten past yet, and that is this: do these characters that we enter the narrative with, that we live with, and love, have existence? Are they concrete realities? Certainly, Tolkien has posited that they are “real,” but a secondary real, as they are part of a subcreation. According to him, we live and exist in the Primary World while these fictional places and people we love exist in a multitude of Secondary Worlds. Pretty cool, right? And this means that they are, in some sense, persons.
Throughout various literary, and mythological, traditions, these persons have taught us life lessons, morality and values. They have scared us, delighted us, and revealed the truths of transcendent reality. But for a long time they’ve been relegated to mere illustrative symbols without any concrete substance. In other words they were mere representatives of abstract concepts, with no real personhood. For example, people who tend to be much smarter than me believe that characters in literature are symbols of various concepts like faith, reason, vengeance, social justice and so forth. Not only do these erudite fellows believe, and teach, such things. There are scores of writers that have written this way. If you’ve taken high school, or university, literature courses, you’ve no doubt been inundated with this type of literary commentary. The problem with this, however, is that it robs the characters of their personhood. It’s as if being the symbol of an abstract is somehow more important than the personhood of the symbol. But if a symbol is simply illustrative, or simply represents a concept, it has no hypostasis itself. It has no concrete reality. The result is that the characters from our favorite stories are quite superfluous and interchangeable. Their personalities, their experiences and feelings don’t ultimately matter, because they are only a stand-in for the concept the writer wants to convey.
But there has been a shift from this type of symbolism in our new mythologies. I think this may be due to an unconscious recovery of the original meaning of the world, “symbol.” What makes a symbol a symbol is that it has its own essence and yet shares in the reality it symbolizes. Without losing itself, the symbol manifests the reality it symbolizes. To put it another way, a character like, say, Neville Longbottom symbolizes courage because he manifests courage through real experience. And even though this real experience is through a work of fiction, as the character has a secondary existence (due to the character inhabiting a real secondary world), it is no less a symbol for those of us who live in the Primary World.
And we intuitively know this. When we’re watching Chuck or Star Wars, or reading Lord of the Rings, Batman, or Harry Potter, we know these characters and their experiences aren’t simply stand-ins. We can’t connect with stand-ins. Even though concepts can be portrayed through narrative, for us today, in a post-modern world, we need the characters to be more than that. We need it, because it reveals a truth about human nature, about who we are, about our loved ones, family, children, friends. And if we’re prepared for it, it teaches us a truth about our enemies as well. Persons, true hypostases (plural of hypostasis) are more than individuals. Each one of us is also a symbol. We, in our daily experience, manifest virtue, vice, the Good, and so on. Because we, ourselves, are symbols-retaining our own personhood-we are drawn to stories, to mythologies, to characters and fictional hypostases who manifest goodness, grace, mercy, courage, and heroism.
This connection is due to our nature as human persons. But being able to recognize it is only part of the equation. The other part is the storyteller that gives us the characters, and tells us the stories. In our new systems of mythologies, people like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Fedak, JK Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of others, have become purveyors of I like to call “hypostatic symbolism.” They have hypostatized their characters. They haven’t been afraid of allowing their characters to be full persons who are naturally, essentially, symbolic. This is why we relate to them. It is why we love them, and learn from them. It is why we become obsessed over them, and try like crazy to keep them going. It is also why we feel a profound sense of loss when they are over.
It is a great time to be alive and entering into these wonderful stories. Remember when you read, or watch, or hear, good stories, you are exposed to symbolic persons. You can be drawn into the lives of the characters, and learn something true through what they manifest in themselves throughout the narrative.
So, you see, the vase really had nothing whatsoever to do with this post. Or maybe it does. Maybe the vase is symbolic of myself, of each of us, waiting to be filled. In our case, we are waiting to be filled with good stories, and transcendent truth, and we are only fully human when we are filled. Thank you, vase. Stay awesome.