Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Beast Within

“We're English, and the English are best at everything.”

There are few novels assigned to schoolchildren so despairing and damning as Lord of the Flies. The story's central thesis, that there is a “Beast” inside our collective soul liable to wreck havoc on the Earth and murder enemies, is a most pessimistic parable to grasp, particularly for the middle-school reader, aged twelve. The author, William Golding, might have been serving the spirit of the times, that of a narrative beyond Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but sixty years on, the story resonates, as even the holocaust and atomic cataclysms have failed to learn us to be better persons, loving and respecting one another. This remains a world where Power corrupts and destroys, whether it be via military, corporate, or even schoolyard shows of force.

Lord of the Flies could be a metaphor for any badly governed state. A group of boys are marooned on a small tropical island paradise. There is the initial euphoria of independence (there are no grownups and therefore an absence of traditional authority figures), followed shortly by an attempt at republican organization, but which quickly collapses into factionalism, later secession, and finally civil war. From this random allotment of children, the main archetypes of society emerge. There is a natural leader, Ralph; an aspiring warrior-autocrat, Jack; an ineffectual intellectual, Piggy; a sensitive, effeminate, artistic clairvoyant, Simon; workers and/or hunters,“biguns;” and a lumpen-proletariat, “the littluns.” With the exception of Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and the twins, “SamnEric,” all of the biguns are from a choir group, and follow Jack's lead first in dissension and later in secession.

Ralph and Piggy want to be rescued, so their priority is maintaining a signal fire. Opposed to this longview, Jack and the choir-kids become “hunters,” obsessed with exploiting the island's most important (and limited) resource, pigs' meat. In true fascist tradition, they become obsessed with the pageantry of their lifestyle, abandoning old clothes for facepaint and dressing as “savages,” unifying objectives with song (“Kill the pig. Cut his throat...”), demonstrating heartlessness towards those of limited utility (the littluns are disposable “crybabies” who “don't hunt or build or help”) and ruthlessness towards their enemies (the abduction of Piggy's glasses, the forced conscription of SamnEric, and of course, cold-blooded murder of ideological nemeses.)

Photo still from the 1963 film adaptation

These may be children but they are innately aware of the talismanic power of certain objects. Piggy's glasses, though they define one of his physical shortcomings, are their only means for starting fire, without which, there is no smoke signal nor means to cook their quarry's flesh. Just as important, the conch, a shell of “fragile, shining beauty,” is the symbol of democracy. Ralph, democratically elected “chief” by the boys, calls a congress by blowing it and in meetings, the person holding the conch is the only one allowed to talk. When Jack and his minions speak out of turn or ignore protocol, links to civilization are undermined and when the conch is finally destroyed, so is the last link to Western humanism severed.

Of course the most important symbol on the island is that of the Beast, whose existence is rumored first among the littluns, affirmed by SamnEric, and whose mysterious representation of evil is availed by Jack for his belligerent ends. Essentially the Beast is to the children what the Devil was to medieval Europe, Communism was to 1950s Americans, and how Islamic fundamentalism serves as a Boogyman for contemporary nervousness-- a threat exaggerated by a power structure needed to justify its more extreme actions. Golding's point, of course, is that the Beast is within, and sets out to dramatize it by making his actors civilized British schoolchildren. Youth is usually conflated with innocence, but on this metaphorical island only a very few are good, a few are innately evil, and the majority morally malleable, unable to think intelligently for themselves, following the will of power rather than reason when given both alternatives: “There was the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill; and there was the world of longing and baffled common-sense.” As an inkblot, Golding sees a monstrous id colored in blood staining on our collective tabula raza. Youthful innocence is a canard if the Beast is always there, a potential manifestation from within. For a twelve-year-old reading Lord of the Flies for the first time, this is a rotten apple to consume from the Tree of Knowledge, difficult to digest, but an integral view on human nature we do well to learn and understand.

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