Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Beelzebub

Beelzebub, The Beast, William Golding, Fear

BEELZEBUB

Noun. Old English.
[Late Latin Beëlzebub (Vulgate), translating (i) Hebrew ba'al zebub Lord of the Flies,
 a Philistine god (2 Kings 1:2) and (ii) Greek Beelzeboul (Matthew 12:24)]

The Devil; a devil.

Before I read William Golding's Lord of the Flies in my early teens, I had a rather fatalistic view on the subject of good and evil. I believed I was a good person, that I always would be a good person, and that somehow this was predetermined and unalterable. Evil existed, of course (or my definition of evil) - there were bad people that did bad things and bad things happened to good people, but this was all due to external forces that I had no control over and certainly no part of.

The book's implication is that evil resides in all of us. Rather than being a latent potential, it would seem that it's a tendency, a proclivity, down which we naturally incline when societal and moral safeguards are stripped away. This notion was deeply disturbing to me and I simultaneously felt vulnerable and empowered: vulnerable from the shattering of a lazy presumption that I was inherently good, and empowered by the realisation that I would be wholly responsible for the life course I chose.

The Beelzebub of the book - The Beast, as the boys call it, or The Lord of the Flies - is nothing more in its physical manifestation than a pig's head on a stick. When invested with the boys' fears, however, this utterly impotent object grows in power and is able to take hold of them. It's a power that few, if any, are able to resist (I remember the stinging realisation that Ralph - even valiant and noble Ralph - was susceptible to the power of The Beast once he had allowed his fears to take root). When multiplied across the microcosm of the island, full of scared, hungry and abandoned children, this power became a terrible and transformative force, causing these formerly 'civilised' and doubtless 'good' children to commit the most brutal and violent acts.

The lessons of Golding's words are as valuable now as when he wrote them in 1954. Just like the little boys on the island that were scared of snakes and beasts and noises in the night, we are all vulnerable to being dominated by fear. Such fear can cause us to step over someone that's fallen in the street because we're afraid of looking foolish, or tacitly tolerate creeping racist attitudes in those around us because we're afraid of speaking out. When multiplied to the level of a nation state, these fears can allow otherwise 'civilised' and 'good' people to engage in the most horrific acts of barbarity, cruelty and even genocide. Perhaps Golding's greatest gift to his readers, however, is not his warning about the nature of The Beast, but rather in divesting us of the burden of assuming that we are inherently good and beyond its grasp.

6 comments:

  1. William Golding was once a teacher at the Grammar School I attended in Kent, England although he taught long before I was there. As a result we had to gorge on The Lord of the Flies, as did all students subsequent to Golding's time.
    The actor who played the boy in the TV series 'My Family and other Animals' also attended the school, with similar consequences for thousands of students to come.
    I was utterly mesmerised by The Lord of the Flies, principally due to my theatrically enthusiastic 7 foot giant of an English teacher, the deputy headmaster, Dr. Webb.
    The first time he entered our riotous classroom, he made a powerful impression, kicking open the door violently, instantly achieving silence, pausing to peer at us with piercing eyes beneath a domed head flanked with wild, wispy long hair. Ducking through the flimsy door, and slamming it destructively behind him, eyes still fixed on us nervous 13 year olds whose only exit was now alarmingly blocked, he marched with flirtatious deliberation toward the blackboard, in a dusty traditional tweed jacket and trousers which entirely failed to reach down to his socks.
    He then leaned against the blackboard, removed one stick of chalk from the small cardboard box using a calloused, hairy forefinger and thumb, brought it up to his lips, and took a long, loud, luxurious drag from it.
    The confused, open-mouthed atmosphere was interrupted by a window across the classroom blowing open in the wind. With annoyance, Dr. Webb put down his chalky cigarette, picked up the blackboard duster, and hurled it with ill-judged accuracy at the offending window. The chalk duster, airborne for the first time in its dull, stuffy existence, sailed happily through the glass and into the bushes outside.
    Within two minutes of meeting our new English teacher, he had broken a door and its frame, smashed an old window, and smoked a stick of chalk.
    You can imagine how my memories of Ralph, the Beast, and the Conch, might differ from yours somewhat. I wasn't that studious in English classes prior to Dr.Webb, so I'm very thankful that he imbued in me the same appreciation that you obviously have for Golding's novel.

    -clueless. (apologies for the long reply)

    (Dr. Webb also turned up to the school's Non-school-uniform Day for charity in drag, complete with lipstick, dress and size 12 high heels.)

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    1. OK. I've made a discovery. It isn't just fear that fuels the beast. Jealousy does too. This is the worst type of jealousy - Grammar School and you-had-a-better-English-teacher-than-me jealousy. I'm now sharpening a stick at both ends.

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  2. So many of us live in fear today. It seems to permeate the air sometimes. Things are not the way they were when I was young.

    In high school I took an English class, focusing upon the classics. The Lord of the Flies made me cry. Though brilliantly written, this book and several others we were made to read, seemed utterly filled hopeless darkness. My personality is somewhat sunny (even though I am old now). Back then, I was a happy go lucky teenager who loved everyone--a true sanguine.

    Perhaps it could be said reading this book caused a naive young girl to see the evil which can result from fear. However, even to this day I cannot pick that book up in my hands. To my eyes, there is a circle of sticky red darkness surrounding it.

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    1. Yes, it is a powerful book. I was conscious when I was writing this post how strange even thinking about it makes me feel. However, ultimately, I don't see it as an utterly hopeless book. Several characters, despite flaws, such as Simon, Piggy and Ralph, show that by facing fears and taking responsibility, all is not hopeless.

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  3. I was shocked by this book, too.

    My reaction was to dislike the story rather than the world.

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    1. I understand that, Sally. It's a brutal story. It doesn't make me dislike the world however; rather, it made me more conscious of the responsibility I have, that we all have, for our own actions. The ending in which, after everything that's happened on the island, Ralph stands up to the naval officer and identifies himself as the leader, it really, really moved me.

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