Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pincher Martin by William Golding

You are always changing. You may not realise it because it happens so slowly, but it is a truth, all the same. Who I was thirty years ago is not who I am today. I am no longer that person. In a sense, he no longer exists, other than in my memory; and even there he is not exactly as I was. He will be conflated with other mes, gathered together with memorial remnants from different periods of my life, fractured stages of my development. There is no way of recollecting exactly who I was or what I thought at any given time. No, once moments of existence are gone they can never be recovered. Time moves. Nothing stays. The only constant, as Heraclitus reminds us, is change.

I probably read Pincher Martin for the first time when I was fifteen or so. I read Lord of the Flies first, then The Inheritors, then Pincher Martin. Golding gave voice to the angst that was rising in my teenage mind. We were in a parlous state, humanity, and it was our own fault: hubris, violence, greed, ambition. Golding recorded our foibles with precision: the corrupted will to power, the solipsistic determination to shape the world according to our own needs, the casual disregard of others. He presented us with man the animal, howling its fury, barking towards its own destruction. In so doing he spoke to me – to the me that I was back then, the me that I remember but cannot - not truly - recall. Time moves. I re-read Pincher Martin now and Golding is saying something entirely different; or, at least, the me I am now is hearing something entirely different.

Golding’s belief, as explored throughout his fiction, is that man is a moral creature. He expounds on this in a lengthy interview with James R. Baker, in which he explains that a man who is in free fall ‘stumbles over his morals without knowing they are there. He exploits people and then finds that with this comes guilt.’ This matters because man is ‘a social being.’ I find nothing to argue with in this but, from here, he somehow manages to make the leap to suggest that this is evidence of original sin:

I've never been able to see how anybody can deny what stares us in the face – unless we control ourselves, we sin. Our nature is to want to grab something that belongs to somebody else, and we have either to be taught or teach ourselves that you've got to share, you can't grab the lot. And for God's sake, history is really no more than a chronicle of original sin, I would have thought.

That is a logical non-sequiteur. Certainly, there is a tendency in man to transgress against accepted morality – or, in Christian terms, to sin. But to say in the next breath that this is original sin is nonsense. Original sin refers not to the potential to transgress but to an innate weakness within humanity, a collective guilt, a general condition of sinfulness arising from that single moment of transgression in Eden, for which the whole of humanity, from Adam and Eve on into eternity, is held equally culpable. It presupposes that sin is inescapably present in each and every one of us. That is not at all the same thing as accepting that mankind has within him the capability of sin. Thus, while I could accept that history is a chronicle of sin (or moral transgression), I cannot accept that it is a history of original sin.

However, even although I disagree with Golding’s conception of original sin, I believe he does make an important distinction (in his interviews at least, if not necessarily in his fiction). When asked by Baker whether there is some sort of individual and collective primal arrogance in humanity, he demurs. ‘I think it’s a question of self-awareness, is it not?’ he replies. He remains pessimistic about the ability of mankind to learn to control its impulses, but does not completely completely dismiss the possibility. Although Golding is a frequent critic of rationalist optimism, there nonetheless remains a degree of hope in his world. The difficulty that is presented in his fiction, however, is that of how much self-awareness his characters are afforded. As we shall see, in Pincher Martin that is not very much.

It is Golding’s conception of life after death that I have most difficulty with. Pincher Martin is, as EC Bufkin describes it, a post mortem drama. The protagonist, Christopher Martin, drowns on page two and the remaining action, in which we are given to believe he survives and lands on a remote outcrop off the British Atlantic coast, is in fact his purgatorial struggle to accommodate his sins and accept God. He fails. He is left at the end with his hands clawed – pinched – in an attitude of defiant protection of his own self, his own psyche, and a denial of God. Golding’s explanation of the novel, in an interview with Archie Campbell, is that:

To achieve salvation, individuality – the persona – must be destroyed. But suppose the man is nothing but greed? His original spirit, God-given, the Scintillans Dei, is hopelessly obscured by his thirst for separate individual life. What can he do at death but refuse to be destroyed? Inhabit a world he invents from half-remembered scraps of physical life, a rock which is nothing but the memory of an aching toothache? To a man greedy for life, toothache is preferable to extinction, and that is the terrible secret of purgatory, it is all the world that the God-resisting soul cannot give up.

Thus, it is clear that we are dealing with transcendence. Christopher Martin is ruined by his own vanity and greed and hubris. Fair enough. I am not so starry-eyed a humanist as to pretend that such people do not exist and such ruination does not ensue. But what Golding does is to deny Martin any prospect of gnosis, spiritual or otherwise. His self-awareness is wholly compromised. Golding places him in a numinous world and suggests that, because of his failings, his purgatorial ruin is the inevitable result. This I cannot accept. Allied to the previous observation regarding Golding’s understanding of original sin, this begins to pick away, once more, at the conception of free will: as ever, of course, for the Christian writer free will is only ever a qualified state. And, similarly, poor, benighted man is never allowed the luxury of the last word. Golding’s numinous world is nothing but a chimera, a front with which to mask the impossibility of transcendence.

Golding clearly believed passionately in the noumenal. He talked of living in two worlds – the physical, which he describes as coherent, and the spiritual, which may be incoherent but is nonetheless a matter of experience. I have no difficulty with anyone believing such things – it is a matter of free choice – but in doing so, in Pincher Martin, Golding is leaving mankind in a state of limbo: for Christopher Martin, death is not death, because it is not allowed to be. Golding would argue that it is Martin who denies himself the possibility of death, but this is sophistic. A religious belief that allows such eternal torment is no belief at all: it is a capitulation to fear.

This is a pity because, in his fiction, Golding asks important questions. He once remarked: ‘Evil enters the world through humanity and through no other creature'. There is an uncomfortable degree of truth in that and it would serve humanists well to ponder the problem more deeply. Expanding on his theme, Golding concluded: ‘Good can look after itself. Evil is the problem'. But the trouble is, for writers like Golding or O’Connor or McCarthy, they ensure that whatever good can do, it assuredly cannot look after itself. The degree of pessimism in such writers is wearying. They may see life in eschatological terms, but on that journey they offer little or no prospect of change, no sense of development, discovery, in their own term, gnosis. But, as we know, time moves, nothing stays. Man always has the capacity to surprise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You draw an interesting case against Golding's "negative theology" though I'm not sure I agree with your reading of the end. The very final scene with God's terrible compassion slowly but surely targetting Pincher's "claws" rather left me with the uneasy sensation that Martin would not be allowed to damn himself even if he wished to. As Golding himself remarked in a later interviews, chances are that he will be dragged into heaven "howling and kicking".

But even if Martin's "eternal torment" is due to end, it still leaves us with this problematic portrayal of man's free will, even in death, being of little consequence when set against God's relentless will to lead his creatures where he will. A rather Claudelian thought, and expressed as ruthlessly. If all of Martin's choices, "bad" as they may have been, are to be erased along with his personality, self and very core so that what remains - his immortal soul, one must suppose - can be reintegrated nolens volens into the numinous, then I'm not sure Golding's God appeals very much to me either.

(Whatever our response to the book, perhaps you'll agree that the man has a devilish good writing. Though I prefer the Sea Trilogy myself.)