The Beastie Within

In the back of my mind, I hear the opening credits of Survivor with the plaintive and haunting cry of a conch summoning the castaways to Tribal Council. After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I will never hear that little bit of reality television the same way again

One great thing about #theLIST is that it has brought me face-to-face with my own deepest emotions. I am going to make a giant leap in mental association and assert that this very reason is why each of these books made #theLIST. Staggering works of heartbreaking genius have been my fare and Lord of the Flies is heartbreaking.

Golding has challenged my view of children by marooning them on an island and letting them, in the immortal words of Jeff Probst, establish a new society. The setting is World War II and the children are the British children who have been taught to “do the right as we see the right”. It does not matter what the war. It does not matter what the nationality of the children. It matters only that “the right” quickly gives way to the myriad of beasties that lurk in the hearts of men.

Children, freed of the restraints of “grown-ups” begin by establishing an imitation of the order that they had enjoyed under adult rule. The conch – the symbol of power – is used to call assemblies where children decided important matters. However, soon they learn that deciding something is entirely different than carrying through the idea. Ralph clings to the rules and ranks of the other world, working quickly to be elected “chief”, recognizing that, if he does not act quickly, the other strong leader, Jack, will usurp his honors. He labors to create a civilized environment, complete with signal fire to facilitate rescue.

Golding does not give timelines except there is a vague mentioning of the passing of seasons and hair growing longer. Clothes fall into disrepair or are discarded. Bit by bit, the beastie that lives in the creepers or falls from the sky begins to live in the nightmares and day-terrors of the Littl’uns. The tribe divides into hunters and gatherers – Jack is the hunter, seeking the elusive pig for meat, while Ralph and Piggy and the little ones are gatherers, living on scavenged fruit, coaxing fire with Piggy’s specs, and struggling to maintain shelter and order.

Hunters hunt. That is what they do. And as they hunt, the last vestiges of civilization fall from them. Ralph and Piggy cling to the conch and the smoke, barely hanging on to their last alliance with Samneric, a set of twins who somehow merged into one name. As the hunters kill a pig and leave an offering for the beastie, they feed the beastie within themselves. They feast – not only on meat but also on power. The power of life and death is heady and they fan the flames of power within their own breasts until they hear nothing else. Painted in red and white clay, with their hair hanging down, they no longer fear the beast. Rather, they are the beast.

And in the midst of it all, Percival incessantly recites his address as if that one magic piece of information will help him hang on to his identity. His recitation is replaced with the hunter’s chant. Simon assumes a new identity and has critical information, but the beastie has already possessed the hearts and minds to such a powerful effect that no one hears or cares. The dance of the hunt must be satisfied.

Golding inexorably leads us down a path to an unwelcome knowledge – that we all have a beastie. If the beastie is fed, it demands and consumes, just as the island is consumed with the flames. Having never much believed in the goodness of Man, I am generally not surprised at his foibles. But I have believed in children, and my faith is shaken to its core.

A man has two wolves within him, one who is vengeful and mean and one who is gentle and noble. Which will win?

The one he feeds.

I must tend closer to the garden of my soul. Lord of the Flies reminds me which wolf to feed.

8/10 hearts. I am ineffably saddened and unsurprised, which makes it more sad in the end. The conch sounds plaintively in my heart.

A Firestorm for the Frozen Soul

When I made #theLIST, I pulled random works of supposed genius out of a hat and made it my business to read them. As an English major and classic book junkie, I had seriously neglected the science fiction genre, with the exception of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne Classics Illustrated, read when I was 12.

Nothing in my high school or college career even mentioned Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury classic that needs no illustration whatsoever.

I have to say, first and foremost, that I was drawn in immediately by Bradbury’s rich language. It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. That is the second line. By then, I was hooked. The apocalyptic vision of a hose streaming kerosene to cause fires – burning books – draws forth a vision of a page dropped into a fire – it blackens and thins and finally collapses in a heap of ash.

Guy Montag lives in a world that has collapsed in a heap of ash. In his world, faster is better and suicide is painless. Humanity is disconnected. Walls are televisions and television is falsely interactive. Entertainment is the morphine for the emptiness of everyday life, where people are disconnected with one another on the most basic of levels. They tolerate each other but there are no deep feelings. Amusement parks offer violence at the speed of light and respect for life seems to be at a nadir. Suicide by sleeping pills is so common that there are reanimation technicians with two machines – one to pump the stomach and one to change the blood. No need for a doctor. It’s kind of like a quick lube for rusted souls.

Guy’s wife has a rusted soul.

Be that as it may, Guy becomes aware that there is an undercurrent both in his own soul and in his city – the ripple of discontent that comes from wanting human interaction, not mindless entertainment. Clarisse – the marvelously mad voice of sanity – clues him in on why houses no longer have porches – to prevent people from gathering to talk – really talk – about life and death and dandelions. Those that hoard books have their books burned. Those that gather and talk disappear.

And Guy comes alive when he witnesses a real death – reincarnation-less death. He snaps out of his denial and pushes himself off the cliff of comfort into the abyss of thirst. He is thirsty for knowledge but lacks faith in his ability to understand. Sadly, his boss and the Mechanical Hound more than understand his awakening. Between the two, the Mechanical Hound is more menacing.

I am drawn into the action as I watch in true horror and awe as Guy Montag stumbles from death to life. I have come to appreciate Ray Bradbury’s visionary roadmap that has led us, almost without deviation, to the world we live in today. With the foreshadowing of wall-to-wall entertainment, the disconnecting with nature and people through devotion to technology, and the need for faster, more violent entertainment, Bradbury shows us how easily a people can be led to ignore war and political corruption by a society that dangles high speed life-and-death entertainment on all four walls. Once the disconnect is complete, only a non-symbolic firestorm can put a stop to the freezing of our souls. However, Bradbury has not left me sad or disheartened. I have been set aflame.

10/10 hearts. I am wonderstruck. I want to run in the sunshine and see if dandelions stain my chin. That’s saying something.