What is symbolic ascension?
Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension.
Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent.
If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly.
Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.
“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”
In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills.
But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken).
Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.
Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.
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