Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Musical Explanation 3/28: Lord of the Flies

I never read Lord of the Flies before last night. It was never assigned at Schechter or Beth Tfiloh when I was there, and my sense is that Hyde would have been idiotic to come within fifty miles of the book, lest it give their students any ideas. I'm sorry I've waited this long to read it, because beneath the simplicity - perhaps simple-mindedness - of its grim philosophical questions is a story about the torments we all face - regardless of age.

The parts of the book that will always remain with me are not the faux-cinematic spectacles of fire and blood, but the small moments of cruelty when the powerful subsume the powerless - it's a cliche that power corrupts, but power also infantilizes. It makes powerful people the least qualified to know what the best course of action is, both for themselves and the people over whom they rule. Civilization was and remains a hard-won achievement that's constantly corroded and rebuilt. If it functions properly, more and more of the powerless will gradually gain something resembling an equal footing with the powerful, and will add their natural gifts to the gifts which civilization bestows.

In other words, civilization (in this case perhaps, 'civilisation') was built for Piggy to flourish. He deserved better, and yet for every Piggy who has to endure being the victim of the work of fiction, there are billions of Piggys through human history, brought down by the brutality of the world before they had a chance to show what natural gifts they could offer to make our lives better.

I have no doubt that at that age, I'd have been a Piggy too, though perhaps without his common sense. Like all nerds from time immemorial, I had all those Ralph-like friends who turned their backs on friendship the moment it was expedient, and the sadistic Rogers who got a brief a taste of blood and became obsessed with drawing more, and oh boy did I ever know Jack Merridews - one of them even became a rabbi.

There is a cruelty about late childhood that is particular to itself, no other age can ever imitate it. You're old enough to grasp the basic conceits about right and wrong, but not old enough yet to internalize their importance. You're old enough to understand that your person and individuality can have power over others, but nowhere near old enough to internalize that power's limitations. It is an age when the terror of not understanding what you see can be all too real. I recall vividly the horrible dread I felt I was when my mother told me that in 4 billion years, the Sun would turn into a Red Giant and burn up the Earth. I still remember how terrified I was of the five foot stuffed bear that would sit right across from my bed, staring at me every night with its immobile smile - but I was too proud to tell my parents how horrifying it was. But it's also an age when you can become another kid's terror all too easily - I'm sure I was that too. There is no child too rough to never be a Piggy or a Simon, and no child too timid to never be a Jack or a Roger.

The problem is that while it gets better for us all as adults, or at least more domesticated, it doesn't get all that much better. One of the most striking details about Lord of the Flies, which I suppose you have to squint a bit to notice, is that the book portrays a dystopia within a dystopia. It takes place in some unspecified future date in which the world is already at nuclear war. The kids were not simply on a plane, they were on a rescue plane that was supposed to take them out of harm's way. For all we know, these kids were already traumatized like millions of children during the World War that occurred ten years before the book's composition in the early 50's. What happens on the island could be considered a microcosm of a world at war, and what happens to some of the characters in the book is downright merciful compared to the deaths that could await billions in a nuclear war.

Lots, far too much, is made of the symbolism and fable-like nature of these various characters: Simon seems saintly and prophetic, so perhaps he's Christ or Peter. Piggy, even with his low-class dialect, seems like a 10-year-old intellectual, so maybe he's Socrates or Galileo. Perhaps Jack is a standin for Hitler or a pint-sized Colonel Kurtz or even Satan himself (there's far more evidence for the latter than any other alleged symbol in the book...), and perhaps Roger is a Nazi torturer like Mengele or Dirlewanger or perhaps even a pre-teen complement to O'Brien from 1984. And perhaps the Beast can be anything from the human Id, to the primeval instinct toward fear and superstition, to our awareness of our limitations and mortality, to the burdens of history and consciousness. But to attach any particularly specific meaning to any of these characters is to completely miss the point - the point is to elicit comparisons and metaphors which are personal to each reader. If a metaphor occurs in this fable between a character and a larger figure in history or literature, that's certainly valid - and it probably will, but the point is not in what this fable means, but in wrestling with what this fable means.

Is Lord of the Flies as great as its reputation? Well... it's probably deserving of most of it... It's a tremendously effective and disturbing fable, but the fable is brought upon us with a tremendously heavy hand. William Golding, in spite of his Nobel Prize, is yet another of those 1950's writers who managed one great book and never repeated the feat. Most of us could easily name a dozen books from mid-century writers known for a single book that a book-lover hardly ever heard from again: Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon, Catch-22, Under the Volcano, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Winesburg Ohio, The Moviegoer, Watership Down... The list goes on and on, I can easily name a dozen more. Generally speaking, these are great books written by less than great writers. In the case of Lord of the Flies, Golding's grasp of ideas far exceeds the limits which his command of prose should allow him. Over and over again, Golding decamps from his sometimes magnificent prose to the world of cliche, the most famous example perhaps being right at the end of the book: "____ wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, the fall through the air of the true..." There is a still a kind of poignance in this writing - the character in question is still too young to understand the real depths of the world's darkness, so perhaps what's cliched to us is not cliched to him. But even so, a better writer wouldn't even make us ask the question.

In fact, a better writer would probably avoid making this story into a novel - realizing that a story with so many high-concept effects can be told much, much more effectively as a screenplay. Like so many of its successors, Lord of the Flies reads as a movie on the page. The novel can get us inside the heads of characters, but it can't possibly convey spectacle with the vividness of an actual picture. When you read all those macro microaggressions with which Piggy and the Littleuns are tormented, you might gasp. But when you read about the eruptions of the fires and the man in the tree, there is nothing about a written page which can render it with the vividness such images deserve. But this is what was asked of writers of that era, and what's asked even more of writers today.

Near as I can tell, there was something about the pressure of being a famous high culture creator in the Postwar period that was unbearable. This was a phenomenon by no means limited to novelists. Creating something great requires solitude, yet the media took the most promising talents in the English speaking world and immediately turned them into celebrities. How can a writer possibly create great novels when he has an offer for a $10000 speaking engagement every day? Norman Mailer tried to do both, but just about everyone but him agreed that he failed. Critics and fans have always been brutal in their assessments, but a disappointed fan could never call Balzac or Dostoevsky up on a listed phone number at any point during the day. Whereas the reading public of the previous age could only have their narratives conveyed to them through words, writers of the new era had (have) to compete with cinematic images. She has to not only create scenes that can inspire an imagination trained far more by Spielberg than Melville or Twain, but she has to create those scenes using a vocabulary that is, by definition, more limited than readers of previous generations because they don't spend as much time reading. When you think of it from that perspective, perhaps it seems like a miracle that so many talented writers managed even one great book.

Aside from the culture of celebrity, the ground for high culture was simply not as fertile in the 20th century. The most popular literary novels almost invariably have conceptual hooks - a novel can't simply be a novel that tells a meaningful story, it needs a quasi-cinematic conception to distinguish itself in the marketplace. Even the most talented writers can exhaust themselves simply coming up with ideas they can pitch to a publishing firm before they even write a word. Today, literature lives in an Age created by the ABC's (Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke), Heinlein and Vonnegut, JRR and CS, Jo and George. Fiction nearly requires a concept to be marketable. Concept now dwarfs actual story or character or language or psychological and philosophical depth. It's become all-important, if the concept is good, everything else about the book can suck and it can still be a hit. Instead of holding mass-appeal and elite/critical appeal in balance, the concept ensures the mass-appeal's mass primacy. To a confirmed stick-in-the-mud like me, I can't help looking and that and seeing (yet) a(nother) cultural disaster.

20th century novelists, like poets and composers and artists and choreographers, were like olympic swimmers with a hand tied behind their backs. Aristocratic artists writing for an aristocracy that can't possibly exist in a demotic age. Considering the impediments in their way, it's amazing that artists from high culture ever come up with anything good at all.

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