Slippery Symbols

Symbols—the ones that we wear, or put on our bumpers, or hang in our windows, or sear onto our flesh—are slippery things. My mistaken assumption that the nail necklace originated with the movie The Passion of the Christ got me thinking about such symbols, but before I get to that let’s start with the American flag.

The flag still serves as a unified symbol when it adorns public institutions, but as a personal expression of patriotism, it has long been fractured. In the Vietnam era, displaying the flag was associated not simply with support or enthusiasm for one’s country, but with support for the current government and especially its policy on the war. War protesters and draft dodgers didn’t fly flags—sometimes they burned them, a clear indication that they associated the symbol not with America-in-general but with an establishment they felt estranged from. (Of course some protesters no doubt did wave flags, but not with a subtext of ‘Well, duh, why wouldn’t I be flying a flag?’ but rather ‘Hey! This is my symbol too!’) UPDATE: See Patrick’s comment in the comments on this point. (I’m very curious about the pre-Vietnam history of the flag-as-symbol—anybody know anything about it?) Resentment and anger are bound to erupt whenever different groups look at the same symbol and see different things.

For a brief moment immediately after 9/11, the American flag moved toward achieving a unified meaning. When tears streamed down my cheeks watching a huge flag unfurl down the side of the Pentagon, it wasn’t because I had had a sudden change of heart about the current Administration; it was because what that flag meant at that moment had nothing to do with government, even for a habitual non-flag-waver like me. A couple weeks later, I was annoyed to hear someone complaining about how everyone had started displaying flags. “Don’t you get it?” I wanted to say to him, “It doesn’t mean what it used to.” Sadly, the meaning has drifted again, and now the flag does mean pretty much what it used to, thanks in large part to the polarization of public opinion over the Iraq war. Much as we talk about the flag as an abstract symbol of liberty and patriotism, there seems to be a strong force pulling it toward association with our government and its policies at any given moment in time.

The Christian cross is a far older, clearer symbol than the flag. Look at someone wearing a cross around her neck—now, or at any point in the past several centuries—and you don’t have to worry about semantic drift or speculate as to what exactly what they mean by wearing it. They mean to say that they’re a Christian. As statements go, though, that’s awfully broad. A cross conveys the basics of their religious outlook, but given the vast number of Christians in the world, and the dizzying diversity of their cultures, theologies, and political persuasions, it doesn’t really tell you their tribe.

And that’s what a lot of symbol-wearing comes down to: identifying your tribe. A cross does this to an extent, but a Celtic cross, an Ethiopian cross, a St. George icon, or a WWJD bracelet clarifies even more. When I go to Gencon I have to decide if I’m going to wear my Over the Edge t-shirt, my MECCG t-shirt, or just a regular old t-shirt (which at Gencon is itself a sort of tribal identification). Nose rings, Nascar jackets, and plenty of things between serve a similar purpose. Even the American flag, in the more narrow meaning I described above, identifies one’s tribe.

But I digress. Another thing about the cross is that the horrific event it literally represents is often forgotten precisely because the symbol is so old and well-established. That’s why Ana wore a nail necklace, as she described in the comments of my earlier entry:

I wore mine that Lent, I think it must have been either ‘95 or ‘96.
It is a more raw symbol than a cross, just because we have seen the Cross as symbol of Christ’s death for so long, that it stops being something shocking. Sometimes when we walk around as Christians for years we forget what it means.

This act of finding a new symbol in order to recover a sense of shock reminds me of Tolkien’s notion of “recovery,” which I’ve mentioned before, though never in its proper context, which is refering to fantasy stories. It works quite well as a general notion, though: very often in our lives, symbols, perspectives, even modes of behavior get calcified. We think of them as boring, even, when what really need it to reclaim a new view of them. Maybe what I’m really after here is Chesterton’s word “mooreeffoc,” which Tolkien cited in his discussion of recovery:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

We could all do with a bit more mooreeffoc in our lives. Re-energizing symbols is only one of its cool powers. Sadly, whatever’s going on with the movie tie-in nail necklaces is the very opposite of mooreeffoc. It’s taking a symbol that may have some fresh potency and making it bland through mass production and crass marketing. Or trying to—whether it succeeds or not is something we won’t know for a while. The happy ending will be if, upon seeing someone on the street with a nail necklace, one doesn’t immediately think “Ah, yes, it’s that thing from that Passion movie,” but rather, “Why the heck does that person have a nail around their neck?!”