Sunday, 18 March 2012

Darkness Visible

There was an extremely good documentary about William Golding yesterday. Obviously, part of the focus was on his most famous book, "Lord of the Flies", but his other repertoire, and his personal life story was also discussed.

In a telling anecdote, Stephen King revealed how he had asked his librarian for a book about real boys, and she'd given him "Lord of the Flies", on the strict understanding that he was not to reveal that she'd given it to him. He was overwhelmed by it because, as he explained, it dealt with real boys, boys that he could see in himself and his peers, and it illuminated, but didn't preach.

William Golding (1911-1993) could perhaps best be seen as an illuminator, and in particular, to use the title of one of his books, an illuminator of "darkness visible." That is not to say that all his books do not contain some element of hope, but he brings a mirror to show humanity what it is really like, and how far it is capable of falling.

The idea of original sin is often misunderstood; it is seen purely in a religious and cultic setting. Sin is what the church terms wrongdoing which is also an offense to God. But the mythology of original sin is really more profound that that, and it is that which Golding's works return to and explore.

Jack: We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English! And the English are best at everything!

In "Lord of the Flies", there are two main leaders in the boys stranded on the Island when the plane crashes - Ralph and Jack - Ralph is the leader of reasonableness, who refuses to resort to violence, and Jack is the lead of the choirboys, who finally takes charge in a regime that fast descents into a savage dictatorial control which hunts and kills any transgressors. It is no coincidence that it is the sweetly singing, initially pious Jack who falls the furthest, who tears up the rules, because the lust of power, and the need to kill and survive rise above the veneer of civilisation.

"The rules!" shouted Ralph, "you're breaking the rules!"
"Who cares?"
Ralph summoned his wits.
"Because the rules are the only thing we've got!"
But Jack was shouting against him.
"Bollocks to the rules! We're strong - we hunt! If there's a beast, we'll hunt it down! We'll close in and beat and beat and beat - !"

It is a very dark vision of human nature, in which when the rule of law breaks down, there is no protection for anyone against the reign of terror that follows. Yet time and again, we have seen, as for instance in countless African countries, how what begins as a democratic and independent state ends up without the rule of law, where the only rules are those made by the dictators, and their army and secret police can hunt down and destroy anyone who stands up to them.

Laws, as much as we groan under their weight, or moan about red tape, are also there to protect against the tyrant or the bully. As St Thomas More tells Will Roper in "A Man for All Seasons", without laws, we would be defenseless against those who had more power. Laws prevent the dictator from governing, and they also prevent, or at least slow down, the ability of the wealthy to buy what they want from society:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

The New Age mentality which is risen to prominence, often runs counter to these themes, which infiltrate and permeate every part of society. It is a book on Creativity in Business which says:

We look within to find our own individual self and universal source. That source has been called the inner self, the Self, the hidden mind, the divine spark, the Divine Ego, the Great I Am, God, and Essence. Some say that the very purpose of human existence is to get acquainted with your own essential qualities and express them in your daily activities. Whether it is the purpose of life or not, it is a fine definition of personal creativity: living every moment from your essence.

It is a reversal of all the old ideas about original sin; as the New York Times notes: "One concept commonly transmitted in the sessions by 'human potential' groups is that because man is a deity equal to God he can do no wrong; thus there is no sin, no reason for guilt in life."

You might think that the endless rain of news stories about how people behave would give the lie to that, but amazingly, people still buy into that. It is perhaps no wonder that Fred Goodwin's loss of a knighthood should be criticised on the grounds that he did nothing illegal. If you buy into the notion that the only kind of actions which are reprehensible are those which are illegal, because you have dispensed with the notions of morality as relics of religion, then you can support him. Obviously, those who criticise him are simply jealous.

Golding's Lord of the Flies shows us how facile and shallow these ideas of human nature as fundamentally good can be. It is not a story which preaches a religious notion of sin and salvation, but it takes up the mythology of original sin, the idea that even the best of motives can be corrupted over time, and reworks them into a fable for our time.

As Golding says:

Before the Second World War I believed in the perfectibility of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society... but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another... I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head.

1 comment:

Tom Gruchy said...

Watching this programme through one eye only I noticed a reference to his re-writing the Lord book, under advice, by removing the religious theme that dominated the author's thinking at that time. So in the interests of finding a market it was edited.
Also I was interested to note the author's battle with depression which was ( and still is) a family charactaristic.

The need to re-evaluate such illnesses of the mind is ever present. As with so many things we tend to say that such human frailties do not matter and we should not be discriminated against because of a difference such as depression. In practice of course life in the real world is totally different so it is valuable to observe that somebody like Golding is so acclaimed now, in spite of all his "character failings."