The Art of Darkness
IN HIS CELEBRATED The Lord of the Flies, British Novelist William Golding neatly reduced human society to the scale of a few small boys on a castaways' island and briskly demonstrated that men are innately depraved and all social systems therefore doomed. Now, in The Spire, he symbolically sums up the works of civilization as a stone spire and all human consciousness as the exaltation, confusion and final despair of one lightheaded old churchman struggling to have the spire added to the body of a Gothic cathedral.
Faith or Folly? Offered with much advance fanfare after three intervening novels (widely praised but not very widely read), The Spire is clearly intended as a crowning work. Like Golding's other books, it is less a novel than a kind of fable in which a thin skin of realism is stretched to meet a rigid allegorical frame. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes tedious, it does not fully confirm the remarkably high reputation Golding now enjoys. But it proves that he has made himself the relentless modern master of two ancient and provocative themes—the loss of paradise and the sinfulness of man. At a time when fictional pessimism often drifts off into murky private maunderings about the alienation of isolated individuals, Golding's resounding and rigorous fable is bound to provoke admiration and outcry. "I used to believe that all you had to do to perfect man was to perfect a social system," Golding has said, adding that he saw much during the war "that can't be accounted for except on the basis of original evil."
Jocelin, the dean of the cathedral, at first seems a perfect incipient saint. Unworldly, passionate, sure of God's love, he is imbued with a vision of the spire as a living prayer of praise. His master mason and architect threatens to quit, the cathedral has no real foundation so that the spire, even if built, is likely to fall, his fellows in the cathedral chapter all oppose the plan, but Jocelin will brook no interference. Consumed by his dream he goes into debt, disrupts the services of the cathedral, fills the choir with the blaspheming of dirty workmen.
He finishes his prayer in stone. But is it a blessed victory? Naturally not. Slowly, and then in a landslide rush, Golding undermines the reader's faith in the saintly fool. Soon Jocelin himself is wrestling with the high cost of inspiration, strung taut between the tenterhooks of divine and earthly means. He condones adultery and acquiesces in an accomplished murder to keep the master mason on the job.
Epitaph for Everyman. Before he is done, Golding has stripped Jocelin of every last shred of self-delusion. Jocelin thought he had, at least, been chosen by God for his post in the cathedral. He finds that the choosers in fact were the king and his paramour (Jocelin's aunt) who pleased the king and asked a favor for her nephew. He thinks his vision of the spire is divinely inspired—but Golding insistently suggests that it may just as well be a phallic sublimation of Jocelin's repressed yearnings for the red-haired wife of a cathedral worker. Even the warming presence of an angel who, Jocelin believes, comes to watch over him as he prays is explained away as the effect on his spine of some un speakable organic disease.
Debunking religious inspiration in this secular age is like shooting ducks in a barrel. If this were all, Golding's book would be little more than a puerile anticlerical shocker. This time out, however, Golding has moved up from pessimism to relativism. Stripped of everything, calling for help and for forgiveness, Jocelin becomes Golding's prototype for the true status of all men—creatures unable to know if God exists, but redeemable, if at all, only through his mysterious grace; pitiful, bare forked animals whose highest aspirations may be engendered by their own glands, or by God, or by nothing. Like many contemporary crisis theologists, Golding suggests that what little hope of heaven mankind may have depends on admitting helplessness, and forcing the mind to face this fate. His dying epitaph for everyman: "How proud their hope of hell is. There is no innocent work. God knows where God may be."
Enigmatically, perhaps encouragingly, the spire stands and with it the possibility that God works in bloody-minded ways his wonders to perform.
Numbed Awareness. As in Golding's other books, the story does not live, but the metaphysical message comes through loud, sometimes too loud, and clear. Golding has been deeply disappointed that of all his four previous books, only Lord of the Flies is popular. The fact is that Lord of the Flies is the only book Golding has written that would excite general interest apart from its message. Deprived of his passel of small boys (drawn from real-life experience during the author's 17 years as a junior master in the Bishop Wordsworth School in the cathedral town of Salisbury), Golding's later books tend to focus grimly on one individual and become a kind of fictional equivalent of closet drama.
The Inheritors, told mainly through the bewildered impressions of a primitive man named Lok, cleverly and chillingly chronicled the unequal confrontation between some gentle and not very bright Neanderthal men and a group of hateful, new, bloodthirsty creatures that only at the end are revealed as the first true ancestors of modern man. Pincher Martin seemed to recount the desperate struggle of a naval officer to survive on an outcropping of rock in the Atlantic. But when, on the last page, the reader learns that the sea boots Martin had shucked off to keep from drowning on page 10 never got shucked off, and that Martin in fact died on page 8, he is forced to see the book as a fantastic metaphysical presentation of a greedy human ego in a kind of purgatory.
What Is Greatness? By all the standards of current fiction, Golding, with all his faults admitted, is a provocative and imposing figure. But whatever greatness is, he plainly has not yet demonstrated that he possesses it. He does not bear comparison, for instance, with Joseph Conrad, the man to whom his admirers constantly compare him. Conrad knew as much as Golding about the heart of darkness. But Golding has never really moved past a complex statement of the helpless and iniquitous nature of man. "We are neither the innocent nor the wicked. We are the guilty," he has written. "We fall down. We crawl on hands and knees. We weep and tear each other."
At the highest level, art and wisdom seem to demand something more. Perhaps it is an awareness that man, in all his cruelty and confusion, must nevertheless go on acting, as cheerfully and with as good grace as possible, as if the universe were not spectacular and indifferent but full of meaning. To do this requires encouragement rather than continual, debilitating consent to weakness. "Woe to the man," Conrad wrote in Victory, "whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and put its trust in life."