The Savage Within

Not many who have read both The Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness would fail to link the two. Both novels draw a picture of what it would be like if civility were stripped away from human beings.  I finished reading the Lord of the Flies on a recent trip of Dallas, and upon staring across the page at the sadistic Roger, the pugnacious Jack and their descent to reptilian, amoral savagery, I remembered again and again the story of the fatal degeneration of Mr. Kurtz.

The situation is contrived to be extremely simple but it sets a perfect stage for Golding’s sinister allegory. A plane carrying young boys is wrecked on an island, only the boys survive, and are forced to fend for themselves – find food, build shelters and try to be rescued. At first they are content with fruit and the coconut milk, but the urge grows in some of them to kill for meat until there is a clash of ideas. There is one faction led by Ralph – a symbol of civilization and hard-won refinement – who wants above all to get a fire going so that the smoke would be noticed by a passing ship, and a faction led by Jack – a symbol of the primal instinct – who wants to lead a band of hunters that will thrive by killing animals and eating them. In this broil among equals, those younger or physically less endowed will be forced to choose sides. Further, since the human survival instinct is inseparably linked to the scent of fear, both factions live in constant dread of a malevolent island beast, building myths around it and propitiating it with an abandoned portion of their kill – a masterly parallel to the animal offerings that people have made to appease vengeful Gods.

In the telling, the story gave me quite a turn. I would sit on the hotel bed, the mind reeling in a cocktail of curiosity, alarm, and sleepless tiredness desperate to speak about the story to someone. I recall my remark, in a post about The Heart of Darkness, that Conrad’s prose did not inspire in me an urgency to read, and the growing sense of dread is held at bay by the option of setting the book aside for a while. Golding, on the other hand, marries the blinding clarity of an archeologist’s description with relentless urgency of the most affecting horror novels. Together, they cracked my protective shell of indifference, and I was compelled to read further and further, unable to give it a rest even as my mind was utterly fried. One partially comforting realization that accompanies a reading of The Heart of Darkness is that Marlowe, the narrator of the story and its moral antipode to Mr. Kurtz is known to have survived; after all, it is he who is narrating the story. You know that something will happen, but you know that Marlowe came out with his sanity relatively intact. With Flies, the narrator is Golding himself, and there is no indication anywhere in the novel that help will arrive from some place to save the boys from themselves.

To me, the most troubling portion of the book is the ordeal of Simon, a little boy who sits silently in a cave concealed behind a thicket of creeping vines and watches as Jack and his band of young fighters hunt a large sow, rejoice over the kill and – in a moment of inspired cruelty unimaginable in little boys but slowly taking root in the older adolescents – slice off its head and leave it on a stake as an offering for the imagined beast. After the hunters have left with their kill, Simon emerges from his hiding place and looks at the head, at the half-closed eyes with the wise smiling mouth now attracting flies from all directions. Here, having been witness to a murder for the first time, Simon understands “the infinite cynicism of adult life” and descends into a  hallucinatory fit. The ordeal of Simon becomes a literary pivot in the book. In the daze brought on by Simon’s fit, the severed head speaks to Simon and assumes the title of the Lord of the Flies. Butterflies used to flit near Simon’s hiding place, now there is only the oppressive buzzing of flies feasting on dead and decaying life. Elsewhere on the island, the factions of Ralph and Jack, held together thus far by a thinning thread of civility, will, once and for all, be rent asunder. What was earlier a barely unified struggle to thrive until an improbable rescue will morph into a battle between two tribes, one content with living within means while desperately trying to retain a fire signal, and the other wanting desperately to thrive by unleashing its new-found violence over the island.

It is a measure of Golding’s considerable skill that none of the symbolisms and allegorical relationships in his story scream too loudly of their presence. The conch, found by Ralph early in the story is an illustration of this. As long as a speaker holds this conch in his hands, he has the right to speak – a reminder of parliaments and social meetings, human constructs that allow civilized interchange of views. Later, in one of the story’s many dramatic and horrible sequences, the conch is smashed to a thousand pieces. The event is coincident with the death of Piggy – Ralph’s physically ineffectual but intelligent advisor – and symbolizes the end of democratic restraint. At that point in this microcosm of human existence, the right of the individual has ceased to exist, and law of the spear has gained ascendancy.

Inevitably, I think of parallel situations in my own life when I have seen the savage emerge. Often, in the heat of a quarrel or in the depths of anger, depression or inebriation,  something slips out of us – vengeful, malicious, and chauvinistic. At our stage in the evolution of human society, it seems fortunate that having encountered our internal savage, our sense of guilt and civility can (usually) beat him back into submission. For the imagined Beast is not external, it lies caged within us all – Ged’s Shadow, Simon’s Lord of the Flies, Papachi’s Moth. They are all, really, the same thing – our own private savage, our sharply honed instinct to fly from danger, an unquenchable will, crystallized long and hard, in the genes of our wild ancestors to survive via sudden escape or sudden violence. Through education or indoctrination, we have kept the savage at bay and have become increasingly good at it, but so long as there is violence in the world – whether physical or emotional – we know that the savage still lives,  smirking knowingly at us across the millennia.

4 thoughts on “The Savage Within”

  1. I read this in grade school, and it’s stuck with me since. Many of those themes abound, albeit in different forms, and I find myself seeking them out. There is some fascination with the algorithm of morality, and one way to go about its exploration is to variously strip away facets of contemporary society. I’m not saying that was Golding’s particular point; but it is one of the reasons the story very much endures in my memory.

    Since then, I’ve embraced a lot of similar kinds of things, and especially moreso in the past five years, as I found my moral compass without a pole (though it was a little subtler than that). This is what I find most compelling about–I know, I know–the zombie horror subgenre, or the post-apocalyptic tropes in general. Judging from the history of obsession, to the reached of antiquity, with the end-of-days, I’m not alone.

  2. Ravi, it is indeed a dark book. I don’t think that the message necessarily is scary but there is definitely a warning in it for us.

    Daniel, thanks for the link to erraticwisdom. It’s a wonderful blog and I think I shall visit it often. You are exactly right about how Golding “engineers” a situation in which he can proceed to peel away the layers of social tolerance. I fell to thinking whether it is morality as we know it, that keeps us from behaving like wild animals and then concluded that, by doing so, I might be giving wild animals short shrift here. If I read correctly, this is also conveyed by the erraticwisdom post and your comment on it: When we consider morality, how do we know that it is different from our “animal” nature, other than by comparing it with what we observe in the wild? Do we know for certain that, within a certain animal species, a concept analogous to human morality does not exist even in a primitive form?

    On a seemingly tangential, but quite related note, I have recently been observing parent birds feeding their young. Scientists say that the chicks “imprint” on this behavior of their parents and use it later in life. This leads me ask: How much of human parental love is imprinted and how much of it is the morality-inspired desire to take care of a helpless being and grow it up into a good person? I am reluctant to romanticize and say that hawks and cranes have a sense of morality as acute as our own, but it is tempting to think that way.

  3. I’ve written and rewritten this comment, because I lack the facility to articulate what I want to say, and in fact have not completely developed the framework I want to describe. Simply put, I don’t see morality as anything other than an adaptive trait that arises from the need to survive in a community. I think our behaviors, our cognition, our “instincts” (a concept I think as dated as the “aether” from which light was once thought to instantly form), derive from biochemistry, our neural chemistry and makeup, and so from our genes. Our behaviors are evolved characteristics, including the kind of interaction we grossly call “morality.”

    I say “life as we know it” includes some kind of “motive energy” (borrowed from Rand) and a ruleset with which we apply it to our survival, the latter being those evolved behavior and cognition characteristics. Survival underwrites all our activities, human or not, in that case. And I see out of this that any kind of “moral fiber” is as intrinsic to nematodes and fish and orangutans as to humans, if at all. If we could see a creature as emergent from the application of that motive energy to a developing system of rules, and could somehow separate one from the other, I think we’d have a different perspective than is the norm. That the murderers and pacifists among humans and other species share similar motive energies, and apply them similarly fastidiously and wholesomely; but that they have very different rulesets/worldviews for their application. In this regard, we might not see Jeffrey Dahmer as evil, but merely as someone whose worldview included justification for his acts, undertaken with as full a sense of decency as was compatible with that worldview. The horror some of us feel arises primarily in the alienness, the otherness, of this worldview; and only then do we find his acts immoral. Would it have been the same if the social consensus was to act as he did, and one man had chosen not to? Would that have been evil?

    I think we see similarities in behavior across species, but can easily be impressed by the apparent complexity of our own. This is where we seem to get tripped up and assume we have somehow achieved some state of being beyond other animals’ province. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest our behavior has the greatest variety and complexity, but I think complexity is all we can hang our hats on. Perhaps the romanticization is in our collective human self-aggrandizement, and not in the acknowledgement of the capacity for morality among cranes and hawks; or even, in fact, in the embracing of this idea of “morality” in the first place.

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