Symbolic reactions

Posted in Middle Eastern, Psychology, Reading, Travel by Alex L. on June 19, 2011

Hanging Gardens of Babylon engravingIn the deserts of the Middle East, goatskin seems to have been the material of choice for transporting water. This seemed strange to me when I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his travels in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula with the Bedouins. The way he described it, it seemed these goatskins had a tendency to sweat in the blistering sun and tear and leak their irreplaceable cargo as the nomads traveled from well to well.

Thesiger’s narrative formed images in my mind: the goatskin containers bulging with water and bouncing on a camel’s back; moisture congealing on the skins and falling in small droplets to sizzle on the sand; the Bedouins (and Thesiger with them) drinking gladly the animal-scented liquid at the end of a long day’s ride. Soon these water-bearing goatskins became for me part of a larger symbolism that I had affixed to the Bedouin lifestyle.

The nomadic Arabs were a complex people in Thesiger’s account. Ready to drive a knife through the chest of a child from a competing tribe if the customs of a blood-feud demanded it, the same Bedouin man would literally give the last shirt off his back or the last swigs of camel’s milk to a stranger who happened upon his camp. To me, reading and re-reading Thesiger’s book, Bedouins came to represent a love of freedom, a fraternal devotion to clan, and a proud contentedness with simple living.

But I have never met any real Bedouins (I’m not counting the hospitable entertainers of Bedouin descent who served coffee and rice for our Birthright Israel group before returning to their mansion in the desert for the night). Bedouins, along with their goatskin water bottles that I have never actually seen, exist only in my mind as symbol and metaphor.

That’s why my brain was slightly jarred when I began reading The Richest Man in Babylon the other day. The book, by George Clason, is a 1920s rendition – in the style of parables set in ancient Babylon – of the “the road to riches” type of self-help publication. It’s very short, easy to read, and full of sound financial advice (of the type, such as “pay yourself first” and “guard thy treasures from loss”, that almost any prudent householder would agree with). But though I couldn’t find anything disagreeable about the financial principles being described, I nevertheless experienced a resistance to a certain meaning of the text.

Soon enough, I realized that it wasn’t any of the ideas that were bothering me, but rather it was the symbols employed by Clason to describe them. The story begins with Bansir, a chariot-maker in Babylon, sitting on a low wall surrounding his workshop and bemoaning his poverty. He looks below and sees a procession of slaves carrying goatskins filled with water on their shoulders to nourish the plants of the Hanging Gardens. Bansir identifies with their toil and poverty and mentions this to his friend Kobbi, a musician, which sets both friends on the path to seeking the “wisdom” of wealth from their rich friend Arkad.

It was the goatskins, I thought! For me they had come to symbolize the Bedouin’s stark but happy life, while Clason was employing the symbols of desert existence to imply the futile and joyless struggle of the slave. What’s more, Clason’s decision to set the story in ancient Babylon, a city of “glory” whose riches “were the result of the wisdom of its people”, grated against my conception of Babylon as a recurring symbol of depravity in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thesiger, in Arabian Sands, contrasts the heroic lifestyle of the Bedouin nomads with the dull ambitions of the  Arab city-dwellers. I had internalized these metaphors, supplemented them with the Hebrew Scriptures’ ennoblement of wilderness life, and loved all of the implications of such a simple type of beauty. They had become real for me, a type of existence in my mind that in various unobservable ways governed my behavior. Symbols and metaphors become part of our reality, a landscape unto themselves.

Wilfred Thesiger photograph in the Empty Quarter

And here came Clason intending to turn my dear phantoms on their heads. It is the wealth-pursuing urbanites who are the heroes, not the lowly desert-dwellers. Babylon, slyly, is the ancient city to admire, not Jerusalem. Why drink water from decomposing goatskins when it can be bottled in the pristine founts of Switzerland and shipped to the doorstep of your estate?

I thought to myself how strange it was that I could value the ideas of The Richest Man in Babylon, even enjoy its narrative style, but experience a distaste for it on the symbolic level. Desert life, water stored in goatskins, and the city of Babylon were all “personal baggage” that I had been carrying with me that now, in some strange way, Clason sought to steal and retool for his own uses.

I think this landscape of metaphors and images that exists in our minds is both real and fragile. These symbols begin as neutral sensory data and are woven by experience and cultural inheritance into meaningful – though not always orderly – stories or reactions in our heads.

These mental impressions and imaginings once affixed in our minds are slow to change. But they influence our prejudices, world-view, speech, customs, and patterns of thinking, often in imperceptible ways. They tug at our subconscious, take center stage in our dreams while we sleep, and can be both a beautiful ornament to life or a hindrance in our path. We must sometimes even stop and sort them out. Not a small portion of wisdom, I think, is the ability to prevent the symbols of memory from hindering us as we try to experience the emerging world before us in the present moments.

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