Of allegories and symbols
I have two angles for approaching the day to day Masonic advancement:
First, I am a linguist and I am looking at the “texts” from a linguist’s standpoint – examining and analyzing the layers, the meaning, and connotation. Namely, because grammar, style, vocabulary usage reveal a lot about the time, the authors, their beliefs, assumptions, and ways of thinking.
The other is due to the fact that I was initiated (passed and raised) in one peculiar language with a specific ritual in another jurisdiction (considered regular by UGLE, by the way) and now I am practising in the more widespread Emulation (a variant of it, used in Ontario, Canada) – two very different approaches, very different requirements during the “advancement”, and very different expectations with different spiritual outcomes.
Which is better? – is the question too often asked, when I talk about my Masonic journey. Despite the shallow statements according which, there are no wrong questions… I do consider there are “wrong” questions. In the way as they teach greenhorn scribes in the (Hungarian) Journalism 101 course: if you ask silly questions, you will get silly answers.
They are just different. And they provided a good lesson when studying the use of symbols.
In the English world we heard the old and well-known phrase according to which Masonry is “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”. There is no English-speaking Mason who didn’t hear it.
Of course, these notions are present in the wider Hungarian definition as well but they express a slightly different meaning. Again, context and historical background…
Today, we are lacking the classical education, so it becomes less and less clear what an allegory and what a symbol is. However, we do sense and understand the one thing they have in common: they stand for something, they represent something that is behind. They are not the “real” thing that is to be known or learned about – they are just a prop if you wish. Stand-in, the movie people would say…
Ever since people – inside and outside of the lodges – began to write about Masonry they always tried to capture the deeper meaning of the rituals, stories, fables and objects in order to convey the experiences that every Mason goes through during the initiation and subsequent degrees.
Having these three: allegories, symbols and initiation… we already are on the slippery slope of something mystical, outer-worldly and unknown. (Humans are afraid of outer world and of unknown!)
I was a very young translator in the early seventies when I’ve learned from a world famous film-maker (while translating his essay) about the benefits of reading dictionaries. Not bilingual dictionaries, which would be expected in the translation process but the monolingual – or explicative – dictionary that gives definitions, history, usage and many more references. Those, the references, are almost like the internet hyperlinks today: they send the reader to other pages, other words, other worlds to discover.
Dictionary: Allegory – the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.
Dictionary: Symbol – a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
How easy (or difficult) is to decipher these hidden meanings?
The teachings about the human existence are already hidden behind the allegories and then we illustrate them with symbols. It is almost like the “twice removed” relative… it becomes so distant that we don’t really know how are we related to them. Twice hidden?
It is well known for cultural anthropologists and translators that words are deceiving. If machines (like Google translate) take a text or a word and convert it to its alleged equivalent in another language, it goes only for the “direct” meaning. Nothing behind it. However, human translators, especially those familiar not only with the language but also with the culture where it belongs, are painfully aware what a misconception is to translate in this way. Words, phrases, idioms not only have a ‘concrete’ meaning but also are full of many other non-linguistic aspects: emotional charge, positive or negative associations, historical background, even baggage and so on. Linguists call this additional charge: connotation.
In the case of translations the problems arise when one takes a word in the source language, finds its equivalent in the target language and transposes it in a text… hoping that the additional meanings defined by the connotation would be exactly the same. It is never the case.
One last language remark before we move to the real exciting territory of Freemasonry’s journey in time and space. Most users of any language – in other words, almost everybody – seems to forget that such differences in nuances, context, and connotation are possible not only when we move horizontally from one language to another by translation but also inside of the same language, let’s say, vertically, if we imagine the evolution of that idiom on a vertically placed axis of the time. Plain English: languages do change during their lifetime, and connotation, symbolic meaning, associations also change in the case of most words – as a result, a person who used the language with the same word three hundred years ago that you include in a sentence of yours of today, probably associated with it a different “halo” than you do.
Yet, we take for granted that the speculative Masons that were sitting in the lodge with Anderson meant the same thing as we do when they said the same words we are still using today – be it ritual or explanation or any “traditional” Masonic text. Words are changing and Masonic words are changing as well. More exactly, the meaning that is attributed to it in our head, is changing.
All my Masonic writings are an attempt to clarify the meaning. For me – and you. Today.