Saturday, September 27, 2008

truer than fiction

It's been observed many times by many people that nothing ruins a book quite like being told you have to read it.

There is, however, one book that stands out as an exception to this rule. Not even English class at John Paul College could dim the torch of this book as its light flickered through the dreary annals of required reading. That book was William Golding's "Lord of the Flies."

It's a short book, probably not even 200 pages, but I remember being fascinated by the stark realism that permeated the book. As the story begins, a group of boys has been stranded on an island with no adults. The boys, three of whom are named after major characters in "Coral Island," plan to establish a utopian society on this island while they wait for adults to come and rescue them. There's fresh water to drink, there are pigs they can kill for meat, and fruit they can eat, and one of the boys has Coke bottle glasses they can use to start fires when they need to.

But there are signs early on that their society will be less utopian than they intend. Without the restraining influence of adults, the boys' behavior becomes wilder, more dangerous, and angrier. Soon there is Betrayal. Torture. Murder. The boys soon split into two tribes, and under the sway of their leader, the tribe of choirboys launches a war of extinction against the other.

Eric Ziolkowski, my religion professor freshman year of college, cited "Lord of the Flies" as an example of the Christian doctrine that human nature is depraved. With a chuckle he described the book's view as pessimistic, and got a huge laugh. From what I could tell, I was the only one in the class to think Golding's depiction of human nature was pretty accurate.

It would be nice to think that violence and hatred -- and their close cousin, callous indifference -- don't come naturally to us, that, as Lieutenant Joe declaims in "South Pacific," such values have to be carefully instilled. It would be nice to believe in the noble savage, ruined by corrupt civilization. Life has taught me otherwise. It is not society that is corrupt but we ourselves. Society, if anything, acts as a deterrent. The evidence lies no farther away than the nearest school.

I've often suspected that people who talk about socialization as a benefit of public education either didn't attend a public school, or were part of the group that made it hell for the rest of us. In my recollection, at least, it was no picnic. It was in sixth grade that one of my classmates decided it would be funny to put pins into the cap of his pen and stab people in the rear end with them between classes, when teachers couldn't see what he was doing. Another schoolmate, when he was 17, picked up two 12-year-old girls at the mall, and took them both back to his home where he raped and murdered them both. It wasn't just where I grew up, either. A few years ago, a senior in Norde Bastille beat a freshman so badly the younger student had to be taken to the hospital, all because he had moved the senior's book bag out of the way so he could seat down and eat lunch. If it was anything like the fights they used to have in my high school, teachers had to force their way through a crowd of spectators packed shoulder to shoulder at least six people deep.

Nobody has to teach children to hog all the best toys and refuse to share. That's just natural and -- God help us -- even logical. It makes sense. At least to some degree, we have to be selfish in order to survive. But human nature goes deeper than that. No one needs to teach us how to be petty, cruel and vicious either. Every child wants to be well liked, but for some reason most children also want to decrease the popularity, esteem and success of others.

When we enter preschool or kindergarten, I doubt very many of us are reminded by our parents to call another child a "poo-poo head." We just do it. The school bully who shakes down smaller kids for their lunch money isn't strapped for cash. He's doing it because he enjoys the rush he gets from causing fear and humiliation.

And that's what is so engaging and so chilling about "The Lord of the Flies." We live it. It doesn't matter if you're in church, Sunday school, or at a soccer game. Children are never more than a few minutes from anarchy and savagery. All that holds them in check is the presence of a mature adult to remind them how they should behave. Let the adult leave the room for a minute, and the savagery emerges. Sometimes it's only spitballs and cruel names, but sometimes it's much more. And sometimes, it doesn't even matter if the adult has left the room.

You're not going to find "Lord of the Flies" kept in a genre any more specific than fiction, or (more deservedly) literature, but the truth is that it's horror through and through. Literary convention may have persuaded us that a book must use preternatural monsters to externalize the human condition, but those boys show a true face of humanity, unpleasant as it is. The phrase "man's inhumanity to man" is a strange one, as "inhumanity" seems to be one of the hallmarks of humanity.

A week after we marked the seventh anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers, Jon Stewart made a sobering point on The Daily Show about 9-11 and all the battles that have been waged because of it. "Nineteen people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough to make the world safe enough that nineteen people wouldn't want to do harm to us."

Obviously, we can't. We won't stop violence by answering it with more violence, but we also won't stop it by ignoring it. The truth is, we simply won't stop it, period. All it takes for violence to occur is a single man with a gun, or even a kid with a baseball bat.

And that is a level of horror that fiction can never reach.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

This post was re-written from a similar post by The Brucker. Anyone who reads it should feel free to re-write it again, and keep the meme going.

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