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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Kurt Seligmann’s Riddlesome Symbols


A shorter version of this essay prefaces the forthcoming third Seligmann lecture to be published by the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Each is available from the Center or through me for $15.



The use of symbols outlined by Kurt Seligmann in his lecture on the topic explicitly seeks to contribute to expand the term’s definition, though his opinions rest securely on nearly a hundred years of scholarly elucidation of symbolic meaning in traditional contexts. While Seligmann’s view of symbols does give a nod to Surrealist ideas, it in fact deviates considerably from that advanced by Breton, and in the end he proposes a method for renewing old symbols for use in the twentieth century distinctly his own, while incorporating the insights of philologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and literary critics.

Greek and Roman mythology had long been included in the European curriculum, but systematic knowledge and comparison of other symbolic systems only began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century writers like J. J. Bachofen mined the expanding fund of knowledge of antiquity to posit an early stage of matriarchy while William Robertson Smith found significant parallels between ancient Hebrew and other ancient Semitic beliefs. While the “higher criticism” sought to place Christianity in its Near Eastern context, scholars like Max Müller and Heinrich Zimmer were bringing the West its first accurate knowledge of Asian texts.

At the same time pioneering work described and analyzed the cultures of what were called “primitive” societies. Edward Burnett Tylor, Oxford’s first professor of anthropology, distinguished between “savagery,” and “barbarism” on the route toward civilization, and James Frazer undertook the first comprehensive study of myths and rituals worldwide, published in The Golden Bough and elsewhere. [1]

Attempts to organize and meaningfully relate the new information coming from the study of Babylon, India, and China, as well as the forests of New Guinea and the Amazon, followed. Meanwhile the foundations of the study of semiotics, of signs in general, were being established by C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Surrealists, on the other hand, had little interest in the use of pre-existing symbols. In his 1924 Manifesto Breton suggests the child, the madman, and especially the dreamer as models of the imaginative subject, but never refers to myth or suggests the re-use of any existing symbolic image. Indeed, his entire emphasis is on the generation of inscrutable new objects for contemplation. Furthermore, such Surrealist images (devised in a “hypnagogic state”) do not fit a pattern of symbol and meaning, but rather a new model: “two distant realities” united to form a new one in which “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be -- the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” Breton privileges “previously neglected associations” and “the disinterested play of thought,” and absolutely opposes convention and tradition. Through such newly-coined images, whose meaning is obscure if not ineffable, “we can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery.” [2] The most significant techniques for developing such material are first, the linking of unlikely pairs, resulting in a new semantic field and second, the use of aleatory methods to generate ideas entirely independent of both the past and conscious thought.

The Surrealist attitude is succinctly expressed by René Crevel’s unequivocal statement: “Poetry which delivers us of the symbol sows liberty itself.” [3] The recommended Surrealist practice may be illustrated by the editing of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou during which “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation would be accepted." According to Buñuel, "we had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." According to its maker (retaining his own emphatic capitals) “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.” [4]

Seligmann regards this Surrealist position as delusory. He begins his lecture by citing a number of symbols the meanings of which are “established by convention,” though even at this point he notes that interpretation is dynamic, changing through time. Surely he is thinking of his Surrealist colleagues when he observes that, “many an artist of today wishes to break completely with the past.” This cannot be done because the artist must have a public and “the only conciliator between him and the public . . . is precisely the symbol.” The symbol always represents at least a partial conjunction of what is signified by the sign-maker and what is understood by the sign-reader. Thus, the symbols of Surrealism “may seem at first glance to be entirely new creations. Close scrutiny, however, reveals their ties with the past.”

According to Seligmann one cannot rid oneself of semantic associations even when contemplating abstract forms. Though the non-figurative painter may abolish all conscious symbols, the unconscious is “ineradicable.” He says that “psychoanalysis has shown that all symbols . . .are signs arisen from the depths of our psyche.” Thus abstract paintings can be “read” though they lack explicit symbols because of this unconscious content in which “public and the artist meet upon common psychic ground.” Even a modernist’s “freely invented forms” are “not just a private affair” as they cannot escape this collective psychic base.

Furthermore, symbols are not only common to all humanity, they are in part consistent through history. The artist sounds very much like Jung when he discusses certain symbols the meaning of which “is deeply rooted in our psyches,” symbols that express “lasting ideas” will persist through the centuries. From a basic reassurance that the cosmos is orderly (and even just!) to the details of ritual, symbolic usage has always comforted humans with “the signs of civilization.” According to Seligmann “in times of uncertainty” (including his own era) “an uncanny profusion of images” will be produced in an effort to seize some control over circumstance.

According to Seligmann “tradition and convention” had always governed the reading of symbolic language, but along with clearly significant symbols, artists used as well archaic ones whose meaning had been largely lost, and these “mysterious” symbols came to be regarded as more magical, among them the attributes of Abraxas. Such underdetermined symbols, as the Symbolist poets recognized, potentially are more powerful than those with clearly assigned meaning.

Seligmann notes as well that intuitive symbols may arise naturally in the mind of the artist or the consumer of art and yet still be associated with pre-existing symbolic associations. Though such symbols are “direct,” spontaneous, not prescribed but “from personal emotions,” they remain related to earlier patterns of symbolic significance. Similar notions had already been developed by psychologists who found insight into the minds of their patients in exotic myths and rituals. Freud, to whom the Surrealists owed so much, quoted literary texts and classical myths to support his view of the dreams and fantasies he encountered in his practice. [5]

Even more important for Seligmann in his revaluation of the relevance of ancient symbols for modern man were surely the works of his fellow Swiss C. G. Jung who proposed the notion of a collective unconscious [6] in which were recorded not merely instincts but also archetypes. Jung delighted in exactly the same sort of symbolic religious, alchemical, and occult texts that Seligmann collected, and for both authors the illustrations were of primary interest.

Discounting the value of the chance conjunctions beloved by the Surrealists, Seligmann nonetheless finds particular significance in somewhat indeterminate symbols. According to him, though all symbols had at first a set coded meaning, some had become more “mysterious” as time passed, and these were particularly likely to acquire occult uses. He persists in recognizing what he several times calls “riddlesome” symbols as the most fruitful.

Seligmann, while accepting a general position on symbols less radical than orthodox Surrealism would propose, nonetheless insisted upon maintaining his own idiosyncratic fascination with magic. According to him certain powerful symbols “do not only reflect, they also emanate ideas.” If the meaning of those words is far from clear, the artist then explains that such symbols “assume talismanic power” and illustrates by the case of the Star of David used in occult operations as the Seal of Solomon. He suggests that a visual or written collective production of the sort called “exquisite corpse” may result in a “riddlesome emblem.”

More dramatically, Seligmann recounts the story of Victor Brauner who had represented himself with only one eye long before he lost an eye in an accident. To Seligmann his intuitive precognition is bound up with a symbol rich in parallels such as Oedipus and Cyclops. These occult claims have little effect on his aesthetics, either in theory or practice, though they do contribute a note of sensation and a vague background of imminent portentous significance. He slides here from Brauner’s story to the myths of the sort that inform his ultimate world view: alchemical procedures, the worm ouroboros, and the philosophical challenge to dualism, all firmly based in earlier symbolic systems.

In fact, Seligmann only modifies the view of symbols as signs with a conventional meaning by reinforcing the observations of Freud and Jung that the very same symbols sometimes occur to individuals independent of tradition and by his recognition that some symbols have partly or wholly indeterminate meanings. His fascination with symbols in magical use and in non-European cultures deviates from Breton’s Surrealist orthodoxy, and his acceptance of such procedures as the “exquisite corpse” seems designed primarily to please his colleagues in the movement, fitting awkwardly as it does with his historical investigations. A survey of Seligmann’s visual work indicates a lack of dependence on aleatory techniques and instead a consistent use of myth and symbol from the past including paintings representing Baal and Astarte, Melusine, Clio, Leda, Cybele, Amphitrite, Sphinx and Minotaur as well as works featuring motifs from Carnival and heraldry. Seligmann’s images, for all their distortions and individuality, are firmly rooted in European history. Rather than adopting the pose of rejecting the past, he has indeed made it new.


1. Other scholars associated with his methods including Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray and A. B. Cook revolutionized the study of Classics by noting similarities between ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and those of other peoples.

2. The French Symbolist poets likewise recognized the power of underdetermined symbols. Note too, the similarity to the koan used by some schools of Zen.

3. From L’Esprit contre la raison.

4. Luis Buñuel, “Notes on the Making of Chien Andalou,” in Art in Cinema, ed. Frank Stauffacher (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947), 29-30.

5. In his New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly says, “In such cases confirmations from elsewhere - from philology, folklore, mythology or ritual - were bound to be especially welcome.” He proceeds then to provide examples.

6. Jung first used the term in "The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology" (1929).

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