On symbols and symbolism

I don’t normally write about football on this blog. (For any translatlantic reader of this blog, I should explain that by “football” I mean what is generally known across the Pond as “soccer”.) This is not because I am not interested in football: I am, and always have been. And, having grown up in Scotland, I remain interested in Scottish football. And anyone who has been following Scottish football will know that momentous events have been happening lately: one of the two dominant teams of Scotland, Rangers, are currently in administration, and possibly heading for liquidation with even the currently confirmed debts well beyond anything they are likely to pay in full. And if the decision of the tribunal goes against them – which, from what I gather, is likely – and they find themselves owing even more in unpaid taxes than they currently do, then a way out seems, to a financial layman such as myself at least, something of an impossibility.

But I do not want to write about this: I know this blog does tend to range quite widely, but finance and football I would like to keep out of bounds – finance because I do not understand its intricacies well enough, and football because even as it is there is no shortage of a cacophony of opinions already on the net – articulate and inarticulate, intelligent and unintelligent, and prejudiced to degrees ranging from the mildly innocuous to the dangerously demented – for me to want to add to it. Yes, I do have opinions on this subject, but I would prefer, I think, to keep these opinions to myself: after all, if a football team thinks it reasonable that taxpayers should subsidise its quest for footballing glory, then why should a mere taxpayer such as myself take exception? Let be, let be.

But I raise this issue here to focus on a point that is perhaps incidental to the main thrust of this story, but which is, for me at least, rather interesting: and this is the part played in all this by the power of symbolism. Now, symbolism is something anyone with even a vague interest in literature has had to grapple with to some degree or other: how can one, after all, pretend to have even the most superficial interest in literature without having at some time or other asked oneself what the white whale symbolises? But, with all due respect, symbolism is not an issue one associates with football supporters (amongst whose ranks, incidentally, I count myself). However, ask any football supporter in Scotland what is signified by “jelly and ice cream”, or by “succulent lamb”, and they will be able to tell you. Those gleeful at the current difficulties of Rangers have long been singing about “having a party”, and enjoying “jelly and ice cream”, when “Rangers die”, and “jelly and ice cream” has now, as a consequence, come to symbolise an uninhibited joy at the current difficulties, or even the possible forthcoming demise, of Rangers: to such an extent, indeed, has this particular piece of symbolism taken root in the psyche of Scottish football fans that stalls have now set up outside Celtic Park selling jelly and ice cream at outrageous prices to enthusiastic customers, while many on the Rangers side of the divide have been known even to deprive their children of this once innocuous dessert because of what it has now come to represent. And “succulent lamb” is the menu item that certain Scottish sports journalists, invited to dinner by Sir David Murray, former chairman of Rangers, had rhapsodised about in what had passed for sports columns, and has now come to symbolise the uncritical and sycophantic commentary that these journalists have, allegedly, indulged in over the years, and continue – again, allegedly – to indulge in even now. Both these items of food, innocent of any association till fairly recently of anything to do with football, have now acquired symbolic resonances to put them on a par even with the white whale. So much for those who think symbolism is no more than an affectation of literary arty-farty types.

We may wonder sometimes why it is that certain writers who make extensive use symbolism should use X to denote Y when they could have used Y in the first place, but thinking in terms of symbols comes to us naturally: few of us, I imagine, will feel comfortable about cutting out the eyes from a photograph of someone we love, even though we know well that it is just ink on photographic paper, and not the real person. Sometimes, the reason we prefer to speak or think in terms of metaphors can be clear: a symbol may represent not merely one thing, but a variety of things that we have learnt to associate together; or a symbol can represent things which we may feel, often feel very deeply, but which our spoken or written language cannot articulate to any satisfactory degree of precision. This, I’d guess, is why symbolism plays so great a part in all our religions. And it is also, I think, the reason why it is so important in our literatures: the finest of our literatures are, after all, attempts to make language express that which is beyond its usual expressive scope.

But there is something about our use of and regard for symbols that goes beyond this. It seems that we humans enjoy symbols purely for their own sake, for some vague aesthetic satisfaction they afford. How else can one explain the jelly and ice cream, and the succulent lamb?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Having a half memory, as usual I searched on the internet to complete it:-
    The famous saying of Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin (Seigen Ishin):
    老僧三十年前未參禪時、見山是山、見水是水、及至後夾親見知識、有箇入處、見山不是山、見水不是水、而今得箇體歇處、依然見山秪是山、見水秪是水 (The Way of Zen 220 k)
    Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters. 13
    13 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 22. (The Way of Zen 126)


  2. Posted by alan on April 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    But seriously, isn’t it just the case that a lot of us confuse symbols and reality, the map and the territory, and pay the symbol too much attention instead of seeing it as a tool.
    Symbols can be much easier to deal with than the complexities of the concrete.
    I’ve never understood why some people see abstract thought as the main evidence of intelligence – employed by itself without regard to inconvenient facts it is often a tool of lazy minds.
    Your Rangers example is lost on me, but then tacit understanding of a symbol is surely part of its force in binding a community together and defining its ‘other’.
    Interestingly you’ve avoided discussing the religious symbolism that Celtic and Rangers supporters use to annoy each other with – delicacy with respect to this time of year perhaps ?


    • “Symbols can be much easier to deal with than the complexities of the concrete.”

      But symbols are often used to denote that which isn’t concrete. Even if we were to stick to literature rather than move to that bugbear of yours (religion), does the white whale Moby-Dick symbolise anything concrete? The tower in Ibsen’s The Master Builder? The fog in Bleak House? The trial & the castle in Kafka’s fiction? Are Melville, Ibsen, Dickens, Kafka et al evading reality and ignoring “inconvenient facts” with their use of symbolism?

      Obviously, as with everything else, symbolism can be used well or used badly, and at its best, I’d argue, it is used to communicate that which could not have been communicated otherwise. Your statement (quoted above) seems to imply that we resort to symbols because we find reality too difficult to handle. I disagree. The best use of symbolism does communicate reality, and, pace the positivists, there is more to reality than merely what is concrete. Much of what we feel, with all its subtleties and intricacies and nuances, is far from concrete, but that is not to say what what we feel is not real.

      I’d agree with you that abstract thought without regard to facts, whether those facts be inconvenient or otherwise, is indeed often the tool of lazy minds. It doesn’t follow, though, that all abstract thought ignores facts. To insist on a clear-cut dichotomy between the two seems to me misleading.

      You go on to say:

      “…tacit understanding of a symbol is surely part of its force in binding a community together and defining its ‘other’.”

      Yes, a common understanding of certain symbols can indeed bind together a community and define the “other”. But I am unconvinced that this is among the principal motives for using symbolism.

      As for Celtic and Rangers, it is no secret that the Celtic-Rangers divide in Scotland also represents a sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants; but, while there is much that is unsavoury about it, it is certainly not the case the supporters of either side are necessarily unpleasant bigots. Furthermore, the religious symbols of Catholicism and of Protestantism are not restricted merely to football fans: there are many pious Catholics and Protestants to whom religious symbols are important, but who take little or no interest in football, or in any other form of tribal identity politics. But yes, I have avoided discussion of sectarianism in Scotland, not, as you suspect, out of respect for this time of year, but because sectarianism in Scotland is not really the intended theme of this post. It’s a complex area that I am not really qualified to comment upon.


  3. Goodness, I never knew football was so fascinating! When I was working as a reporter the sports editor once took me to a local soccer match and let me write a feature about it (because I’d never seen a game). He tried to explain the rules,and told me stuff about offside things, and pies, but never said anything about symbols and symbolism, which would would have been much more interesting.


    • I think a sport that one has grown up watching, whatever its unsavoury elements may be (and, heaven knows, there are a great many unsavoury elements to football!) stays with you. I have loved football since I was a child. We moved to Scotland in the 60s, and my father, who loved football, could not believe that we were living only a few miles away from the home ground of Glasgow Celtic, who, at that time, was among the best teams in Europe (they won the european Cup in 1967, were runners-up in 1970, and reached the semi-finals in 1972 and 1974: for a team from as small a country as Scotland, that is a phenomenal record). My father used to go to football matches quite frequently – both Parkhead (Celtic’s home ground) and Ibrox (Rangers’ home ground: Rangers won the European cup-Winners’ Cup in 1972), and also to Hampden Park, the home ground of the Scotland national team. We were of Indian origin, and knew nothing about the baggage that cam ewith all this – that sectarian hatred which even now shames Scotland, particularly Western Scotland – but the love I developed for the game at that age stays with me still.


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