Notes: The Everyday, Dreamlike Symbols in our Lives

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Not the original T-shirt – this is a digital reconstruction. The real t-shirt fell apart and was recycled a few years after this post was written.

I have a black T-shirt, acquired in Tasmania, Australia, that depicts a Tasmanian Devil. Or rather, it used to depict the Devil, which is a very endangered species. The whole idea of the T-shirt was to show the Devil the way you might actually see it, if you came upon it at night, when it is out hunting. The shirt was black (now ten years old, the shirt itself has faded to dark gray), and the image of the Tasmanian Devil was very faintly imprinted, in white and gray. You could see it clearly, but you had to look carefully. It’s mouth was open, showing the array of very sharp teeth and the fierce demeanor that earned it the name “devil.” A little ruff of whitish fur on the throat was the brightest spot in the image.

The shirt has been a favorite, and I often wear it in winter, under my standard turtleneck. After so many washings, however, the Tasmanian Devil is no longer discernible. A tiny whitish spot is all that remains of this once subtle, yet ferocious image.

This is quite in parallel with what has happened to the Devil itself, which is on the verge of extinction owing to an epidemic that emerged in recent years and is wiping out the species, in a macabre fashion. The disease is a virus-born cancer that causes tumorous growths on the face of the Tasmanian Devil, turning its scary little face into a true horror of suffering for the animal.

http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/WebPages/LBUN-5QF86G?open

When I look at my Tasmanian Devil T-shirt, I get a tiny feeling of vertigo. The history of the shirt is a history of the animal. The animal is fading, the image of the animal has faded. Of course, I do not mean to imply that there is any connection between them, other than the fact that I am projecting symbolic meaning onto this process. But that feeling of symbolic meaning that I get when thinking about my shirt is very close to the feeling of being in a dream. The imagery around one is loaded with symbolic potential. The events in the dream may roughly mirror the events of real life, but altered, translated into a different place, different people. The event in a dream may not be at all the same as the event it mirrors in real life, and yet one recognizes it immediately as “the same.” One feels the link.

Somehow, sitting with that odd parallel between Shirt and Animal, I feel the animal’s plight more keenly. Though the symbol is very much an abstraction — and a totally constructed one — it makes my relationship to the Tasmanian Devil somehow more tangible and concrete.

The notion that everyday occurrences could have symbolic meaning used to be a predominant human experience. Ancient Sumerian texts, written in cuneiform, include guidebooks to the interpretations of signs and symbols in everyday life — what it might mean, say, to encounter a snake in one’s path. These days, we call all such experiences of falsely mapping an everyday, natural, explainable occurrence over to a premonition of future events, or events happening somewhere distant, or anything like this, a “superstition.” Humans everywhere still struggle to free themselves from the oppressive nature of superstitious belief.

And yet … isn’t there something lost if we banish all sense of meaning from the everyday, dreamlike symbols of our lives?

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