Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Spire by William Golding

William Golding’s The Spire begins dramatically: “He was laughing, chin up, and shaking his head. God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass...” This explosion is not literal, then, but effected by a burst of light shining through the cathedral window. All the same, the idea of a godly explosion portends what is to come, and what unfolds in the novel is the inevitable destruction of a mind consumed by God and all his certainties without any concomitant mechanism for exploring God and his mysteries.

There is, in Christian theology, and in particular in Roman Catholic theology, an essential binary of faith and reason. However, this is not a binary opposition: rather, both are essential to a true religious sensibility and it can never be an either/or principle. Faith is about maintaining belief, reason about questioning the suppositions behind that belief. St Augustine referred to credo ut intelligam – I believe that I may understand – while Peter Abelard, a rationalist before his time, suggested instead intelligo ut credam – I understand that I may believe. Abelard also used a form of the Socratic dialogue to pursue arguments, with his sic et non – yes and no. For Abelard, reason took precedence, but faith was nonetheless essential. Augustine, too, saw the power of reason. Indeed, the quote I just mentioned more rightly continues thus (although one seldom sees it in this form): "I believe that I may understand; and I understand, the better to believe". With this, Augustine is establishing a clear relationship between these two poles of understanding. Nonetheless, he cannot accept that reason, alone, can bring harmony with God. “If you comprehend it, it is not God,” he says. Thus, faith and reason must co-exist. Pope John-Paul II explained this when he noted:

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth--in a word, to know Himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
His successor, Pope Benedict, also considered the duality of faith and reason to be central to the human experience, suggesting their relationship was “a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of all men."

Although I'm a non-believer, I can nonetheless accept Benedict’s contention here. Faith, however, undoubtedly was a key component of William Golding’s make up and the duality of faith and reason runs unmistakably through this, his sixth novel. The Spire takes a real building – the 404-foot spire of Salisbury Cathedral – but invents the man who created it – the fictional Dean Jocelin and the course of events that comprised its troubled construction. Thus, it is both true and not true, and we can both believe and disbelieve it. As we shall see, this duality is central to the novel.

Jocelin believes absolutely. The spire is being added to a cathedral which is built on insufficient – even, perhaps, almost non-existent – foundations, and Jocelin’s principal builder, Roger Mason, repeatedly warns him it is unsustainable. Indeed, Mason is so concerned he asks to be released from his agreement to build the spire but Jocelin refuses. It is a matter of faith. Jocelin believes he has been chosen by God and this is the act he has been chosen to complete. His belief is total, unswerving. It cannot be questioned, it cannot be tested. Ultimately, it overtakes all reason and he loses his sanity. As a result everything collapses around him – as, of course, symbolically we expect the spire must at the end. Obsessed by his mission, Jocelin neglects his duties. The cathedral falls into disrepair, even disuse, as services are removed elsewhere because of the noise and disruption. Around him, his relationships wither. Ultimately, a Church commission arrives to quiz him on his actions and he is found wanting and is stripped of his office. By now, too, he has succumbed to “consumption of the back and spine”, or tuberculosis, and by the novel’s end he is a much diminished man. Still, it seems, his obsession remains. His faith is total. Reason is not privileged. But by any measure – whether Roman Catholic or secular – his life ends in failure.

Roger Mason, meanwhile, is a man of reason who lacks faith. Early in their project, Jocelin would call out to his master builder, “What! Still no faith my son?” to which Mason would offer no reply. And so we can see that this duality between the two men truly is a binary opposition, as forces in conflict, and not, as the Catholic faith would contend, in harmony. The result is tragedy.

Is The Spire theerefore simply a debate about the nature – and need – for both faith and reason? It is undoubtedly that, and it debates those questions superbly. But it is more than that. Golding, of course, although he was much concerned with theological questions, resided among humanity, and he knew humanity, knew its strengths and great weaknesses. Thus, while the theological aspect of The Spire is undoubtedly central, profane themes run through the novel, too. There is adultery, perhaps even murder. There is a strong – and dangerous – strand of paganism running alongside the pious engineering for God. There are the manifold foibles of humanity.

And, for all his blind faith in his project, Jocelin is as flawed a human being as any of us. In particular, he is beset by sexual desire, most notably for Goody Pangall, the wife of the crippled and much maligned cathedral worker, Pangall. Jocelin is greatly distraught when he discovers Goody, whom he has idolised as a child of God, is having an affair with Roger Mason. Mason, meanwhile, overcome by his own problems, not least the impossibility of building the spire, succumbs to alcohol and ends the novel a drunken, suicidal wretch. The novel, then, is a combination of sacred and profane, known and unknown, true and untrue, good and bad. And all of this is premised on the twin facts of faith and reason.

There is and there must always be a mystery in human existence. This is not merely a matter of theology, although it is undoubtedly that. It is also an inescapable truth that we do not and cannot know what happens in Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”, the realm of the beyond, what is the true nature of death. Those who have only faith and who never seek to question that faith miss something essential in their lives. It is, after all, the nature of human beings to question things; it is how we progress as a species. And equally, people of a religious temperament would suggest, those who live by rationality alone miss something of the numinous beauty of existence. I would certainly agree that there is a mystery, but I do not privilege it in the way Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to do. In The Spire, there is no mystery for Jocelin, only the certainty of his endeavour. For the reader, however, there is mystery and ambiguity aplenty, as Golding seeks to confront us with the uncertainty of existence. His characteristic stream-of-consciousness style renders meaning opaque: thus, is Jocelin’s angel a real manifestation of his piety or a symptom of his tubercolosis? We do not definitively find out. Does the spire fall? We do not find out. Mystery. Mystery surrounds us because we cannot know everything. This is a useful corrective, perhaps, for hubristic notions of man’s superiority, although such notions are greatly overplayed in my estimation. And it may be that Golding, sceptic though he was, agrees. The greatest mystery, in the end, may not be the sacred one, but the profane.

I suggest this may be the case because, ultimately, the greatest mystery in The Spire is revealed to be Joceln’s own motivations. Throughout the novel we have been assured the building of the spire is a tribute to his faith and to the glory of God. In his final delirium, though, we understand that his motivations were more secular, a response to the sexual urges he has tried, with decreasing levels of success, to repress. Or do we? Or is this, too, a mis-speaking? We do not know. Mystery remains, as it must.

Golding himself accepts that point. Speaking of this novel, he suggests: “The writer is aware of that whole spectrum [of possible meanings or interpretations], but he doesn’t choose between them. What does the right choice matter, so long as the spectrum is there?”

The Spire is an astonishing novel. This review comes nowhere close to mining the seam of symbolism which it contains. It is a novel that needs to be read and re-read and possibly re-re-read in quick succession in order to begin to comprehend the nuances of meaning it contains. It is a work of utter genius.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Loved this novel, superb write-up.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Vanessa, nice to hear from you, hope you're well.

It's a stunning piece of writing. I didn't get into writing craft in the review, but as an example of craftsmanship it's hard to beat. His way with description is astonishing. He brings things to life.

Essentially, not a great deal happens, and most of what does is relatively predictable. And yet there is tension all the way through. It never drags.

Near the end there's a description of the approach to death which is just astounding. Obviously, it's fanciful because we don't know what happens at that moment, but it feels so real and possible, and it is so finely wrought, it takes your breath away.

I'm really enjoying reading Golding again after all these years. I read a lot when I was a teenager and that's probably too young for Golding, Lord of the Flies excepted.

thanks again


Jim H. said...

Never been disappointed by Golding, even after having been forcefed the iconic, Hobbesian dystopic "Flies" in high school. Thanks for pointing me to this.