Authors: William Golding
Looking back on the course of his life while undergoing interrogation in a German prison camp during the Second World War, Sammy Mountjoy confesses, “I do not believe rational choice stood any chance of exercise.” It is a striking conclusion. In both its religious and secular versions, modern culture is founded on the belief that human beings can shape their destinies through their conscious decisions. In different ways, the two dominant figures in Sammy’s childhood—the rationalist science master Nick Shales and the puritanical teacher of religion, Rowena Pringle—taught him that he could be the author of his life, with the rationalist asserting that human beings can live by the knowledge that science gives and the believer that they have a God-given freedom of will. The young Mountjoy absorbed both teachings and for the rest of his life has lived a contradiction.
Locked in the darkness of a store-room by his interrogator Dr. Halde, a psychiatrist who is now a Gestapo officer, Sammy finds the very idea of choice unreal. To be sure, there were moments when it seemed real to him. He recalls sitting as a child at the centre of a number of gravelled paths in a park “placidly considering what I should do next . . . I could take whichever I would of these paths.” But the vision soon faded, and when he recalls how he was drawn to his first love—Beatrice, a highly-strung girl who ends up incapacitated in a mental institution—only to leave her for a life with a more balanced and self-confident woman, it seems to Sammy that he was free only in being the spectator of his actions: “We can watch ourselves becoming automata; feel only terror as our alienated arms lift the instruments of their passion towards those we love.” Rising from a poor family to become a successful painter whose work is exhibited in the Tate, Sammy might be expected to feel content with his life. Yet when he looks back it is with guilt—at his love for Beatrice, to which he yielded while knowing his passion to be obsessive, his abandonment of her and the aimless drift of his later life. Interrogating himself as he is being interrogated by the Gestapo officer, Sammy finds no pattern in the events that have taken him from poverty, turned him into a war artist and brought him to the dark store-room.
(1955), the novel he published after
Lord of the Flies
(1954), Golding achieved the feat of imaginatively reconstructing the experience of a group of Neanderthals. Humanizing his Neanderthals while showing how they are radically different from ourselves, Golding allowed us to enter an alien form of life. In
(1959)—in some ways an even more astonishing achievement—the alien form of life that Golding explores is our own. Pondering his past, Sammy concludes that he lived as he did because it was natural for him to do so. Yet his nature seems to him contradictory and fugitive. A religious writer without any orthodox beliefs, Golding uses Sammy’s self-examination to question what it means to be human.
What Sammy finds is that his life—and by implication, that of all human beings—is essentially mysterious. Golding’s biographer John Carey has suggested that when, in a part of a radio interview that was not broadcast or published, Golding described
as “a confession” the writer may have been pointing to parallels between Sammy’s life and his own. Golding fell in love with a girl not unlike Beatrice, his school contained a prurient teacher of religion reminiscent of Rowena Pringle, and the ascetic science teacher Nick Shales has something in common with Golding’s father. Again, like Sammy Golding flirted with Marxism before the war, and met a new love—a highly intelligent young woman from the upper crust of society—at a communist meeting.
is an inquiry into some of the deepest human questions, but it also recreates a particular time and place—the sexually repressed, class-bound England of the thirties, moving uncertainly towards war—and the life of a particular
being, a fictive hybrid that includes much of the author himself.
A metaphysical novel whose central theme is the elusive quality of inner life,
recreates a world, a body of experience no system of beliefs or ideas can encompass. “I have hung all systems on the wall”, Sammy tells us, “like a row of useless hats . . . That Marxist hat in the middle of the row, did I ever think it would last me a lifetime? What is wrong with the Christian biretta that I hardly wore at all? Nick’s rationalist hat kept the rain out . . . It looks small now and rather silly, a bowler like all bowlers, very formal, very complete, very ignorant.” The gaps between belief-systems cannot be bridged, and between them is a world beyond understanding. Yet Sammy’s last word is not doubt or despair. When he is released from solitary confinement by the camp commandant he sees the dreary huts as glorious timeless things, and even the dust beneath his feet is “a universe of brilliant and fantastic crystals”. The world is unfathomable to human beings, and so are human beings to themselves; but rather than being a limitation or burden, this very unfathomability may be a kind of freedom and a source of joy. As the commandant who releases Sammy from his interrogator says in his broken English: “The Herr Doctor does not know about peoples.”
I have walked by stalls in the market-place where books, dog-eared and faded from their purple, have burst with a white hosanna. I have seen people crowned with a double crown, holding in either hand the crook and flail, the power and the glory. I have understood how the scar becomes a star, I have felt the flake of fire fall, miraculous and pentecostal. My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are grey faces that peer over my shoulder. I live on Paradise Hill, ten minutes from the station, thirty seconds from the shops and the local. Yet I am a burning amateur, torn by the irrational and incoherent, violently searching and self-condemned.
When did I lose my freedom? For once, I was free. I had power to choose. The mechanics of cause and effect is statistical probability yet surely sometimes we operate below or beyond that threshold. Free-will cannot be debated but only experienced, like a colour or the taste of potatoes. I remember one such experience. I was very small and I was sitting on the stone surround of the pool and fountain in the centre of the park. There was bright sunlight, banks of red and blue flowers, green lawn. There was no guilt but only the plash and splatter of the fountain at the centre. I had bathed and drunk and now I was sitting on the warm stone edge placidly considering what I should do next. The gravelled paths of the park radiated from me: and all at once I was overcome by a new knowledge. I could take whichever I would of these paths.
There was nothing to draw me down one more than the other. I danced down one for joy in the taste of potatoes. I was free. I had chosen.
How did I lose my freedom? I must go back and tell the story over. It is a curious story, not so much in the external events which are common enough, but in the way it presents itself to me, the only teller. For time is not to be laid out endlessly like a row of bricks. That straight line from the first hiccup to the last gasp is a dead thing. Time is two modes. The one is an effortless perception native to us as water to the mackerel. The other is a memory, a sense of shuffle fold and coil, of that day nearer than that because more important, of that event mirroring this, or those three set apart, exceptional and out of the straight line altogether. I put the day in the park first in my story, not because I was young, a baby almost; but because freedom has become more and more precious to me as I taste the potato less and less often.
I have hung all systems on the wall like a row of useless hats. They do not fit. They come in from outside, they are suggested patterns, some dull and some of great beauty. But I have lived enough of my life to require a pattern that fits over everything I know; and where shall I find that? Then why do I write this down? Is it a pattern I am looking for? That Marxist hat in the middle of the row, did I ever think it would last me a lifetime? What is wrong with the Christian biretta that I hardly wore at all? Nick’s rationalist hat kept the rain out, seemed impregnable plate-armour, dull and decent. It looks small now and rather silly, a bowler like all bowlers, very formal, very complete, very ignorant. There is a school cap, too. I had no more than hung it there, not knowing of the other hats
I should hang by it when I think the thing happened—the decision made freely that cost me my freedom.
Why should I bother about hats? I am an artist. I can wear what hat I like. You know of me, Samuel Mountjoy, I hang in the Tate. You would forgive me any hat. I could be a cannibal. But I want to wear a hat in private. I want to understand. The grey faces peer over my shoulder. Nothing can expunge or exorcise them. My art is not enough for me. To hell with my art. The fit takes me out of a deep well as does the compulsion of sex and other people like my pictures more than I do, think them more important than I do. At heart I am a dull dog. I would sooner be good than clever.
Then why am I writing this down? Why do I not walk round and round the lawn, reorganizing my memories until they make sense, unravelling and knitting up the flexible time stream? I could bring this and that event together, I could make leaps. I should find a system for that round of the lawn and then another one the next day. But thinking round and round the lawn is no longer enough. For one thing it is like the rectangle of canvas, a limited area however ingeniously you paint. The mind cannot hold more than so much; but understanding requires a sweep that takes in the whole of remembered time and then can pause. Perhaps if I write my story as it appears to me, I shall be able to go back and select. Living is like nothing because it is everything—is too subtle and copious for unassisted thought. Painting is like a single attitude, a selected thing.
There is another reason. We are dumb and blind yet we must see and speak. Not the stubbled face of Sammy Mountjoy, the full lips that open to let his hand take out
a fag, not the smooth, wet muscles inside round teeth, not the gullet, the lung, the heart—those you could see and touch if you took a knife to him on the table. It is the unnameable, unfathomable and invisible darkness that sits at the centre of him, always awake, always different from what you believe it to be, always thinking and feeling what you can never know it thinks and feels, that hopes hopelessly to understand and to be understood. Our loneliness is the loneliness not of the cell or the castaway; it is the loneliness of that dark thing that sees as at the atom furnace by reflection, feels by remote control and hears only words phoned to it in a foreign tongue. To communicate is our passion and our despair.
With whom then?
My darkness reaches out and fumbles at a typewriter with its tongs. Your darkness reaches out with your tongs and grasps a book. There are twenty modes of change, filter and translation between us. What an extravagant coincidence it would be if the exact quality, the translucent sweetness of her cheek, the very living curve of bone between the eyebrow and hair should survive the passage! How can you share the quality of my terror in the blacked-out cell when I can only remember it and not re-create it for myself? No. Not with you. Or only with you, in part. For you were not there.
And who are you anyway? Are you on the inside, have you a proof-copy? Am I a job to do? Do I exasperate you by translating incoherence into incoherence? Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now. The star’s light reaches us millions of years after the star is gone, or so they say, and perhaps it is true.
What sort of universe is that for our central darkness to keep its balance in?
There is this hope. I may communicate in part; and that surely is better than utter blind and dumb; and I may find something like a hat to wear of my own. Not that I aspire to complete coherence. Our mistake is to confuse our limitations with the bounds of possibility and clap the universe into a rationalist hat or some other. But I may find the indications of a pattern that will include me, even if the outer edges tail off into ignorance. As for communication, to understand all they say is to pardon all. Yet who but the injured can forgive an injury? And how if the lines at that particular exchange are dead?
I have no responsibility for some of the pictures. I can remember myself as I was when I was a child. But even if I had committed murder then, I should no longer feel responsible for it. There is a threshold here, too, beyond which what we did was done by someone else. Yet I was there. Perhaps, to understand, must include pictures from those early days also. Perhaps reading my story through again I shall see the connection between the little boy, clear as spring water, and the man like a stagnant pool. Somehow, the one became the other.
I never knew my father and I think my mother never knew him either. I cannot be sure, of course, but I incline to believe she never knew him—not socially at any rate unless we restrict the word out of all useful meaning. Half my immediate ancestry is so inscrutable that I seldom find it worth bothering about. I exist. These tobacco-stained fingers poised over the typewriter, this weight in the chair assures me that two people met; and one of them
was Ma. What would the other think of me, I wonder? What celebration do I commemorate? In 1917 there were victories and defeats, there was a revolution. In face of all that, what is one little bastard more or less? Was he a soldier, that other, blown to pieces later, or does he survive and walk, evolve, forget? He might well be proud of me and my flowering reputation if he knew. I may even have met him, face to inscrutable face. But there would be no recognition. I should know as little of him as the wind knows, turning the leaves of a book on an orchard wall, the ignorant wind that cannot decipher the rows of black rivets any more than we strangers can decipher the faces of strangers.
Yet I was wound up. I tick. I exist. I am poised eighteen inches over the black rivets you are reading, I am in your place, I am shut in a bone box and trying to fasten myself on the white paper. The rivets join us together and yet for all the passion we share nothing but our sense of division. Why think of my dad then? What does he matter?
But Ma was different. She had some secret, known to the cows, perhaps, or the cat on the rug, some quality that rendered her independent of understanding. She was content with contact. It was her life. My success would not impress her. She would be indifferent. In my private album of pictures, she is complete and final as a full stop.
At odd moments when the thought occurred to me I asked her about my dad but my curiosity was not urgent. Perhaps if I had insisted, she might have been precise—but what was the need? The living space round her apron was sufficient. There were boys who knew their fathers just as there were boys who habitually wore boots. There were shining toys, cars, places where people ate with grace;
but these pictures on my wall, this out-thereness amounted to a Martian world. A real father would have been an unthinkable addition. So my inquiries were made in the evening before the “Sun” opened, or much later in the evening when it shut again and Ma was mellow. I might have asked as indifferently for a story and believed it as little.
“What was my dad, Ma?”
Out of our common indifference to mere physical fact, came answers that varied as her current daydream varied. These were influenced by the “Sun” and the flickering stories at the Regal. I knew they were daydreams and accepted them as such because I daydreamed too. Only the coldest attitude to the truth would have condemned them as lies, though once or twice, Ma’s rudimentary moral sense made her disclaim them almost immediately. The result was that my father was sometimes a soldier, he was a lovely man, an officer; though I suspect Ma was past the officer and gentleman stage by the time I was conceived. One night when she came back from the Regal and pictures of battleships being bombed off the shores of America, he was in the Royal Air Force. Later still in our joint life—and what was the celebration this time? What prancing horses, plumed helmets and roaring crowds? Later still, he was none other than the Prince of Wales.
This was such tremendous news to me, though of course I did not believe it, that the red glow behind the bars of the grate has remained on my retina like an after-image. We neither believed it but the glittering myth lay in the middle of the dirty floor, accepted with gratitude as beyond my own timid efforts at invention. Yet almost before she threw the thing there, she was prepared to snatch it back. The story was too enormous, or perhaps the daydream
too private to be shared. I saw her eyes shift in the glow, the faint, parchment colour of her lighted face move and alter. She sniffed, scratched her nose, wept an easy gin-tear or two and spoke to the grate where there could well have been more fire.
“You know I’m a sodding liar, dear, don’t you?”
Yes. I knew, without condemnation, but I was disappointed all the same. I felt that Christmas had disappeared and there was no more tinsel. I recognized that we should return to Ma’s fictitious steady. The Prince of Wales, a soldier, an airman—but whores claim to be the daughters of clergymen; and despite all the glitter of court life, the church won.
“What was my dad, Ma?”
“A parson. I keep telling you.”
On the whole, that has been my steady, too. There would be nothing in common between us but our division yet we should at least recognize it: and I should know behind the other face, the drag, the devil, the despair, the wry and desperate perceptions, conforming hourly to a creed until they are warped as Chinese feet. In my bitter moments I have thought of myself as connected thereby to good works. I like to think then that my father was not doing something for which he had either an excuse or moral indifference. My self-esteem would prefer him to have wrestled desperately with the flesh. Soldiers traditionally love them and leave them; but the clergy, either abstemious or celibate, the pastors, ministers, elders and priests—I should be an old anguish once thought forgiven now seen to be scarlet. I should blow up in some manse or parsonage or presbytery or close, I should blow up like a forgotten abscess. They are men as I am,
acquainted with sin. There would be some point to me.
Which branch, I wonder? Only a day or two ago I walked down a side street, past the various chapels, the oratory, round the corner by the old church and the vast rectory. Of what denomination shall I declare my fictitious steady to be? The church of England, the curator’s church? Would not my father have been a gentleman first and a priest afterwards, an amateur like me? Even the friars walk round with trousers showing under their well-cut habits. They remind me of the druids on Brown Willie, or somewhere, coming in cars and spectacles. Shall I choose a Roman Catholic to be my father? There is a professional church even when you hate her guts. Would a bastard tug one of them by the heart as well as the sleeve? As for the ranks of nonconformity so drearily conforming, the half-baked, the splinter parties, the tables, and tabernacles and temples—I’m like Ma; indifferent. He might as soon be an Odd Fellow or an Elk.
“What was my dad, Ma?”
I lie. I deceive myself as well as you. Their world is mine, the world of sin and redemption, of showings and conviction, of love in the mud. You deal daily in the very blood of my life. I am one of you, a haunted man—haunted by what or whom? And this is my cry; that I have walked among you in intellectual freedom and you never tried to seduce me from it, since a century has seduced you to it and you believe in fair play, in not presuming, in being after all not a saint. You have conceded freedom to those who cannot use freedom and left the dust and the dirt clustered over the jewel. I speak your hidden language which is not the language of the other men. I am your brother in both senses and since freedom was my curse I
throw the dirt at you as I might pick at a sore which will not break out and kill.