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Lord of The FAILS: A Few Notes on William Golding

Ah, the Slate family of publications. Here I sit, sifting the Internet’s vast riches, wondering if I will find anything interestingly offensive (as opposed to “boringly offensive,” of which the Internet offers a great deal) today. And you are always there for me. With your many criminally silly headlines! Such as this one, on lady-Slate counterpart DoubleX:

The Author of “Lord of the Flies” Tried to Rape Someone When He Was 18. So What?

Buh wha HUH? WHOA!

Now: it is a fact that most writers don’t get to choose their own headlines. So we (probably) cannot blame Slate intern Kate Gittelson for this one! It is probably just one of Slate’s endless line of pre-fab “controversial” or “contrarian” traffic lures, along the lines of, “Sticking Quarters Up Your Nose: Not Such A Bad Idea After All,” “The Great White Shark: Actually Less Scary Than Bunnies,” or, most puzzlingly, “Publishing William Saletan’s Creepy Passive-Aggressive Rants About Women’s Reproductive Choices: An Excellent Decision!” And the overall quality of non-Saletan, non-Hitchens writing on Slate is usually really high, and Dana Stevens is there which is super, so, you know. Je vous pardonne, Slate.

Je even pardonne this one article, which, while silly (is it important that William Golding tried to rape someone? Or is it more important that Slate intern Kate Gittelson did not like his book? I’m going to go with Option A) is actually not alone in its silliness, or even the most extremely silly article on the subject. For, if the history of sexual misconduct allegations against prominent writer dudes (see: Derek Walcott, Harold Bloom, etc.) have taught us nothing else, they have taught us this: the important thing, when a famous intellectual or writer dude is accused of sexual misconduct, is never how the girl is doing. It’s never about her. It’s not even about the more interesting point at hand – the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and the ever-present question of what it means (because this is what always kills me) that a man who would commonly be acknowledged as “brilliant” can’t apparently wrap his brilliant brain around the fact that women are people who do not exist solely for the purpose of his sexual or sadistic gratification. Nope! It’s about whether or not this will hurt his reputation.

Of course. In one of the offending articles (which Gittelson links to) someone even pontificates on the merits of including it in the biography, worrying that including it will detract from critical appraisal of his work, as if the occurence of that attempted rape (and other problematic instances of treating women like doo-doo, such as dumping his fiance because she was “frigid,” like, geez, your TOTALLY VIOLENT AND REPREHENSIBLE UNDERSTANDING OF FEMALE SEXUALITY probably did not contribute to that at all, Will!) couldn’t shine any light on the work itself. Second, it theorizes that the attempted rape was actually totes consensual, somehow:

Is Golding’s attempted “rape” quite what we would understand by the term? Could it not, instead, be better described as a botched seduction scene?

Um, no. Actually, it could not. Let us understand here that any “seduction” that results in the lady saying no, and fighting the man off, at which point he continues to force himself on her, saying, at one point, “I’m not going to hurt you” (ha ha, KILL ME) is actually what we would understand as attempted rape: that is, an attempt to force sex on someone in the absence of consent. It is really fucking sad to have to type out that definition, actually! But, whatever! William Golding wrote books, and therefore we should bend over backwards and shove our heads up our own asses to avoid seeing him as a “rapist,” because that is somehow incompatible with evaluating him as an “author.”

Here’s my theory: the fact that Golding not only attempted the rape but wrote about it – using phrases like “[I] felt sure she wanted heavy sex, as this was visibly written on her pert, ripe and desirable mouth,” eroticizing the victim and projecting his desire on to her in an attempt to show that she deserved and secretly wanted it (“depraved by nature,” “beginning to burn” at thirteen, “sexy as an ape” by fourteen, sexually assaulted at fifteen) although her actual response to sex (“should I have all of that rammed up my guts?”) shows that she was not nearly the “depraved,” devouring sexual dynamo Golding apparently wanted to believe she was, or even very enthusiastic about sex – should, in fact, affect our evaluation of him as an author. It shows, for one thing, that he had a piss-poor apprehension of human character – as misogynists almost invariably do, being unable to actually apprehend the presence of an inner life (let alone the specificities of one) in half the human race. There’s a reason his only widely read novel has no women in it, and that’s because he couldn’t write well enough to include them.

And that novel? Aside from being larded with cliches, it just shows that he wasn’t very smart about the subject: which is, according to every class in which I’ve ever been forced to read it, Human Brutality and Human Nature. First, you can’t really write about human brutality unless you involve women as well as men, so male brutality is really the subject about which we should be talking. Second, he didn’t even get that much. Because the whole Lord of the Flies experience is meant to bring us to some Moment that your English teacher is really enthusiastic about, the Moment where you realize that, hey, we are all actually monsters and civilization constrains us! Um, no, actually: depending on who we are, civilization encourages, permits and protects us in committing monstrosities. Evil doesn’t only surface on some abandoned desert island, it is within us and all around us and enculturation does not restrain it, it shapes it, it shows us how to victimize and who to victimize and in many cases (rape being the prime example) even restrains the victims from naming or resisting or seeking retribution for the crimes committed against them. That is why rape happens primarily to women, it’s why men whose sexual assaults are publicized are always treated as the victims, and it’s why even “brilliant” men don’t always get that sexual assault is wrong: culture creates evil, determines the shape evil will take, and instills in all of us the blindness to evil that is necessary to evil’s continued existence. Maybe Golding was trying to get to this, but instead of dealing with it, he put Evil out in some uncharted wilderness, apart from the civilized world. A responsible author wouldn’t have let us distance it that way, wouldn’t have let us infer that evil is the result of innocence or isolation or an insufficient number of fast food restaurants. He would have shown us that it is right here. Or at least, it was right there in William Golding.

26 Comments

  1. Katherine wrote:

    While I agree with your point about Golding’s evident misogyny probably affecting and impairing his writing (writing is kind of inherently ideological, and it would be surprising if his distorted, vile views of women didn’t inflect his work), I would dispute your characterisation of the view of evil presented by ‘Lord of the Flies’. I don’t think Golding necessarily thought society constrained evil (or at least, I don’t think that’s the only possible reading of ‘Lord of the Flies’, though I know it’s a common one).

    The whole point of the ending of the novel when they are ‘rescued’ by the naval captain (contrary to being just the clumsy deus ex machina many people argue it to be) was to imply that ‘civilisation’ was no better than Jack and his minions, and probably even worse, at least in the magnitude and monstrous efficiency of its violence. While Ralph is haunted by the implications of a ‘stick sharpened at both ends’, the spectre of the atomic bomb recurs throughout the novel, and the boat that picks them up is engaged in a ‘hunt’ of its own for an enemy vessel. Even more significantly, their plane didn’t just crash at the beginning, it was *shot down*. Golding wrote the novel specifically to refute what he saw as the racism of Ballantyne’s ‘Coral Island’, which he thought depicted evil as an external force embodied by savage, racialised Others.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Katherine wrote:

    I just realised my earlier comment sounded like further apologism on Golding’s behalf, which is not what I intended at all; I completely agree with your comments about how people (reprehensibly) fall over backwards trying to excuse the precious, precious writers’ real-life misogyny/racism/homophobia and see it as something completely isolated from, and irrelevant to, their work. I also agree that ‘Lord of the Flies’ can only be seen as incomplete due to its utter exclusion of female characters.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Laura wrote:

    Brilliant analysis. This reminds me of the whole Isaac Brock controversy – he’s a famous guy who makes music that a lot of people (including me!) love, so how could he possibly be capable of such a violent act? Granted, no one loves Lord of the Flies, but still…

    And that whole description of Dora’s mouth? Creepy beyond belief. I feel like I need to go take a 30-minute shower now. Euurgh.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  4. admin wrote:

    @Katherine: Valid point! (And: this is Sady, by the way.) Yet I think the structure of the text sort of defeats that point, even if unintentionally, by placing so much emphasis on the uncharted desert isle and the (presumed to be) unsocialized children, and the brutality of which they prove themselves capable. I actually think the whole presentation of the children as unsocialized, or as somehow “going feral” on the island, posits evil as something Intrinsic To Human Nature, and is unconvincing on that account, seeing as how you really can’t consider any humans as bereft of enculturation. And what kids who were young enough to be genuinely unsocialized would do on that island is scream a lot and die, not create some kind of contrived Microcosm of Human Interaction, as Golding imagines. The whole book is contrived as hell, both in the artificiality of its set-up, its attempts to suggest some kind of Fundamental Human Nature (which we can’t know, as we can none of us be divorced entirely from culture, and Golding can only address Fundamental Adolescent White Male British Nature at best, given the selection of Humans with which he presents us) and its Innocence/Corruption, Wild/Culture, Brutality/Civility dichotomies – which, even if he is trying to confuse those dichotomies, he only ends up reinforcing them. Golding is a man drawing a very interesting diagram which he then fucks up by trying to present to us as fiction, which is why the book reads as artificially and didactically as it does. Also, I think his diagram is wrong.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Nina wrote:

    God, I love you. :)

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Tawny wrote:

    OMG, I am passing out at the sheer brilliance of your point about evil in culture. I can’t even contain myself, I am facebook IMing the majority of the last paragraph at everyone I know who can comprehend it. AAAAUGH SO GOOD.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  7. Ashley wrote:

    I got chills when I read the last paragraph of this post. Dead. On. The reason the kids are mean to Piggy has everything to do with what Piggy and Piggy’s body signify (something contemptible, subhuman), and that signification is entirely a product of culture.

    Also civilization = woman in most of these novels, which ultimately just says that women have no true nature, only artifice. Only men have access to that true wildness, and it is women who constrain them.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  8. orlando wrote:

    OMG, Ashley, I just realised that Golding is actually the cup-is-half-empty Rousseau.

    A writer’s personal misogyny is always relevant to critiques of their writing, and Harold Bloom is the best example of why. His argument that Shakespeaere invented our modern conception of what it is to be human is based almost entirely on Falstaff and Lear. ie. “Human” to Bloom means “spoiled, old, white man”.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  9. meloukhia wrote:

    At least the Salon headline didn’t go with “have sex with” instead of “rape,” which would have really put the icing on the cake. I do find it fascinating, though, that a lot of biogs on rapist authors somehow manage to reframe the rape as a “seduction,” if it’s mentioned at all. I wonder if sometimes that stems from embarrassment on the part of the biographer, rather than concern about the writer’s reputation; the biographer doesn’t want people think less of him/her for writing a biography of a rapist, so decides to hide the rape or draw a veil of euphemism over it?

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  10. Totally, totally stunning. So glad you pointed out that the book, where goldman dealt with the evil people are capable of by moving it to a remote island, lets groups with privileges ignore the evil they perpetuate here and now. Again: a woohoo, spot-on post!

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  11. yinyang wrote:

    Damn, you write a mean last sentence.

    (Although I still love Lord of the Flies, but for the ridiculous violence between all those boys rather than any great literary value.)

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  12. The Lord of the Flies was on my year 12 booklist for English Literature studies.
    I’m so glad I dropped out.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  13. Shoshana wrote:

    I haven’t posted here before, but I’ve been reading the blog for a while. I love your analysis of evil in culture, Sady!

    My first instinct, reading those articles, is that Golding was trying to excuse his own bad behavior, his own cruelty toward women and for that matter kids (deliberately pitting students against each other in a violent way? hello? wtf?), by claiming that evil is just part of Human Nature. It was a way of refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Even the way he talks about being “appalled” at his own monstrousness is a way of claiming that he has no control over it. I call bullshit.

    Also, that book is so boring. If you want to preach, write a fucking sermon.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  14. Ashley wrote:

    Part of this whole “defensiveness about teh rapist authors” stuff, I suspect, is still wrapped up in the Arnoldian/Formalist idea that literature was supposed to be the new Bible in a post-Christian world (so many things wrong with that idea, I don’t even know where to start). In other words, if the luminaries who were supposed to be our moral and aesthetic guides in an age without institutional religion turn out to be total assholes, then where are we as a civilization? So, it’s both “William Golding: Flawed (because he mighta raped somebody) But Still Brilliant and Qualified to Tell Us Who We Are and How We Ought to Live” and “William Golding: Probably An Asshole, Humanity Fucked.” If we admit that our brilliant men and transcendent artists were, in fact, products of privilege and a culture that tolerated their various forms of violence, then we have to consider that there may be no luminaries to look to.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Chai Latte wrote:

    Y’know, I always hated that novel. Had to read it in my junior year of high school–just one in a series of five incredibly depressing books we had to read that year. Took me a full decade to recover from that.

    “BOTCHED SEDUCTION”. Nooo…a botched seduction is when you accidentally knock over the romantic candles and set the carpet on fire. That would be a botched seduction. Or when you find out the hard way that one of you is allergic to latex. (I’m having a lot of fun with this….=D)

    Just…dude, no. What next? Do we have to put together a full Broadway musical on the meaning of consent?

    …actually, I’d totally go see that.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  16. Helen wrote:

    I was going to disagree with the premise of LOTF but Katherine has made the same point exactly. The boys are a microcosm of the horror that is going on outside the island.

    But good point about the novel not containing any women, because he couldn’t write them convincingly.

    Nice new blog! Blogroll update done.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 3:36 am | Permalink
  17. tinfoil hattie wrote:

    Sometimes you are so breathtakingly brilliant I feel like bowing.

    Thank you for this piece.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  18. Moira wrote:

    If I was a zombie I would totally save your brain-meats for last, as they are so tasty.

    Um. That sounded like a compliment in my head. And yeah, these days I’ve mostly given up on Slate except for Dahlia Lithwick, who remains eight kinds of awesome.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  19. j0lt wrote:

    Fanfabulous.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  20. snobographer wrote:

    When Norman Mailer died I had the hardest time getting people to see my point that he really could have been nothing but a shitty writer due to his contempt for half of humanity. I recently also read an old post by NineDeuce on Rage Against the Manchine eviscerating Philip ‘Face Fucker’ Roth’s overratedness. I recall he’s another one of your faves, Sady.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  21. orlando wrote:

    Waiting for Godot still takes the prize for the piece of literature regarding which it most annoys me when people say “it contains the whole of humanity/human experience”. Bleughthhpppt.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  22. tinfoil hattie wrote:

    When Norman Mailer died I had the hardest time getting people to see my point that he really could have been nothing but a shitty writer due to his contempt for half of humanity

    Also Hemingway.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  23. savedbythebellhooks wrote:

    @ Sady and Katherine.

    1. No arguments on the Golding-is-a-mysogynist-and-all-around-creeperson front. For you forget: there is a female character on the island in LOTF. The pig! That they rape with a stick before killing and eating it!

    2. I totally agree with you on this point: “Golding can only address Fundamental Adolescent White Male British Nature.” But I would argue that this is all LOTF really sets out to address. Golding drops these boys on an island armed with nothing BUT their socialization into the Adolescent White Male British Single-Sex Public School culture, and it is this brutal, violent culture which brings about their destruction. The most “evil” boy on the island was the most socially successful back in jolly old England—Jack is the leader of the choir and head boy, remember? And it is when Jack successfully recreates British-boys-school culture on the island that they all descend into brutality/murder/pig-rape, because it is this culture that makes them prey on the weakest among them and worship physical strength over all else and cowtow to whoever has the biggest sharp stick. And which is why the first people they kill are those who threaten this order by doing sissy, girly things like nurturing younger boys (Piggy) and liking nature (Simon).

    Which is why Golding has the English naval officer dude show up and say he thinks “English boys” ought to have done better. Because it is precisely their socialization into English masculinity that has made them kill each other and rape pigs and set the whole island on fire. It’s actually sort of clunky and heavy-handed, as irony goes, but it’s still pretty damn effective if you’re fifteen years old.

    Leastways that’s the way I taught it. Because English teachers get to do that shit, yo. Especially when they’ve got to teach what they find in the book room, you know?

    3. Darkness Visible is dogshit. Mostly because of its horrible, horrible female characters. Just wanted to put that out there.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  24. savedbythebellhooks wrote:

    I do actually know how to spell “misogynist.” Yikes.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  25. savedbythebellhooks wrote:

    ALSO just to be clear, this reading of the novel does NOT excuse Golding for being an attempted rapist and an asshole. The Patriarchy Made Me Do It is just as lame an excuse as The Inherently Evil Nature of Humanity Made Me Do It. Especially for a guy who was smart enough to see his culture for what it was, or at least smart enough to write a book that would let others see this.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  26. Gnatalby wrote:

    I realize this is the smallest possible complaint to have about Golding but… “sexy as an ape?”

    Um. How sexy is that really? I’ve never been at the primate house at the Detroit Zoo thinking, “It’s getting hot in herre.”

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

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