“When correctly viewed,” sang Tom Lehrer, “everything is lewd,” and anyone who has ever laughed at a dirty joke knows that language is full of double meanings with symbolic reference. Indeed, we are ourselves all symbols and everything around us radiates with symbolic meaning. Colors, shapes, images, sounds, smells, all sensory experience, stimulates associations and memories. These thoroughly subjective impressions and fleeting associations are what we are talking about when we talk about symbols. Even if we are not conscious of the associations in the backs of our minds that attract us and repel us, those unconscious symbolic meanings are there. As Emily Dickinson said, “‘Tis not revelation that awaits but our unfurnished eyes.” Behind the literal surface, meanings lurk everywhere if only we have the eyes to see them. When John Wayne Bobbitt’s Latin American wife cut off his penis with a carving knife, the macho image of America that John Wayne once personified suffered its final blow. It was a powerfully symbolic moment. The great symbol maker who is always, as Kurt Vonnegut says, busy, busy, busy had done it again.
What, after all, is a tie? Why do men wear a piece of cloth around their necks? Is it to hide the buttons? What is the symbolic meaning of a tie? Ties are first of all masculine objects; men wear them. They are also symbols of authority, which is a form of power. World leaders, lawyers, businessmen, men who expect to be taken seriously all wear them. So ties are long narrow objects that hang down in the middle of men’s bodies that are symbols of masculine power. They tend to be pointed too. Those flat, cut off ties can be found in the backs of the racks, but they are clearly less popular. Maybe John Bobbitt wears one. And what about bow ties? Aren’t they usually associated with a Mr. Peeper’s nerdy wimpiness? You get the point.
In Slovakia, where I labored for a year trying to bring American culture to the recently liberated victims of a socially-constructed utopia, I was startled to learn that on the morning after Easter, men and boys carrying home-made whips traditionally visit the homes of women. When the females open the door, the males whip them across the back and then throw perfumed water on them. Then the females, to make the symbolic game complete, hand the guys Easter eggs. And as if that isn’t bad enough, the mothers then reward the guys for symbolically impregnating their daughters by handing out candy to the kids and booze to the older guys. When I suggested that this ritual had obvious sexual symbolism, my Slovakian students were outraged. “You decadent Westerners see sex everywhere,” I was told. I couldn’t deny it. But when asked what the ritual meant, the students told me they did it because their ancestors did it. And why did their ancestors do it, I innocently asked? Because their ancestors before them did it; that’s why! They were not ready to admit that this ritual might have arisen with symbolic meanings since lost in the fog of time and kept alive by the enduring power of that unconscious symbolism. They clung to the literal.