Ghosts and Guardian Angels
Thursday, 13 February 2014
I have written a piece for a book being compiled to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Lord of the Flies. It won't be available for months, so as a small token in thanks for your pledging support, here's an excerpt which skips the main physcological biography and jumps to the Darwinian conclusion.
For me, the vital importance of The Lord of the Flies touches the very core of my being human. I’ll try and explain this rather grandiose statement … A common analysis of these central issues in the book focusses on evil and the need for civilisation, its schools, policemen, and laws, to keep order. Without such things we would all be savages. Stripped of civilisation, the beast surfaces. Such conditions remove the layers that buffer us from our environment. Exposed, we are at the mercy of nature and susceptible to her laws. Professor of Modern English, Norman Page presented a paper to the First International William Golding Conference in 1993, in which he stated, “Darwinistic ideas of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest never seem far distant.” Probably no coincidence as On the Origin of Species was part of Golding’s personal library, and one of the paperback editions sent back at great expense from a sojourn in the States.
Philosopher Gilbert Ryle attributed our animalistic, violent tendencies to primitive wiring within our brains. In his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, he hypothesised that artefacts left over from our ancestors were retained during our evolution, but their influence on our behaviour remained submerged deep within our psyche until such time as they were released. He termed these behaviours the “ghost in the machine”, which Arthur Koestler went on to popularise in his 1967 book of the same name.
But the beast of The Lord of the Flies isn’t just base savagery, an inherent wildness that hibernates, awaiting its return to nature when civilisation breaks down. For example, Jack embodies savagery on the island, the beast within, however even he displays a rational side, “… fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream”, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied his “fellow Americans” for the struggle out of The Great Depression, saying in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
So, “mankind’s essential illness” is undoubtedly something more, and can be seen to be the untameable element in our consciousness, and that part of our brain that gives rise to our superstitious imaginings. When fuelled by fear and freed from constraint, there are few bounds on what gods and monsters our minds may conjure and project as part of reality.
And for me, that is where Golding’s genius lies, at the heart of every one of us. Setting good against evil, truth against myth, and life versus death, the battle is fought out in an insular arena. Insular in every sense of the word: isolation and ignorance. Plus its technical use too, for the insular cortex, that part of the brain associated with consciousness and human interaction. Now, that is a fascinating coincidence, considering the happenings on that island.
And what a fascinating internal conflict encapsulated by this brilliant book. However perturbing, it is an existentialist struggle facing the inquiring mind, and all humans are blighted with this essential illness. It is in our very essence, and vital, and I love Golding ever more so, and his book, for telling its story.
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