LORD OF THE FLIES, 2016
I first read Lord of the Flies by William Golding in high school. I still have the worn paperback; its pages are so discolored with age they’re almost sepia-toned, but my notes, written in my looped ninth-grade penmanship, are readable. On the last page of the book, I wrote ‘Lord of the Flies is more than an allegory. The main characters do more than represent Man. They are Man.’ I remember the class discussions following the reading assignment, the essays we wrote exploring the dark side of human nature, the violence that is burrowed inside all of us which, once unleashed, may not ever be safely bottled up and put away again.
In the novel, a group of British schoolboys, who have been put on a plane after a nuclear war, crash-land on a deserted island where they are forced to construct their own version of society. At first, they adhere to rules and order. But gradually and inevitably they descend into chaos and violence. The scene where they stab to death a sow is a scene of such blood-lust, such revelry in the unabashed cruelty and barbarism of their act, it’s hard to read again as an adult without cringing. They sever the pig’s head, impale it on a stick and put it in the sand where it drips blood and draws swarms of flies. It is this sight that Simon — the moral and spiritual center of the book — believes speaks to him. In a hallucinatory state he “hears” the head say to him: “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill. You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?”
Simon staggers back to the rest of the boys, wanting to tell them of his revelation, but they are now in a frenzied dance, starved for more blood-letting. They mistake him for the Beast they want to kill, and they murder him. Later, they kill Piggy also. Two boys are dead, the rest have unzipped the darkness inside them and let it loose into the world.
With the increasing violence, both rhetorically and physically, in this election year, I’ve been thinking about Lord of the Flies recently. We began with some semblance of order, some adherence to the rules of conduct that have always guided candidates who are running for president. There were 17 Republican candidates — remember that? It seems like a decade ago. There was order at the start. But just as happened in Golding’s novel, it began disintegrating; it didn’t take long for 17 adults to start lobbing scathingly cruel words at each other as if they were grenades. Until recently, with the field now considerably narrowed and Donald Trump cutting a wide swath through the country, it was only at Trump rallies where violence erupted…predictably, actually. Not anymore. At the Nevada convention this month Bernie Sanders’ supporters hurled chairs, issued death threats, screamed and booed people who were trying to speak. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Here’s the thing about violence: it’s contagious. Did we really think that this gleeful eruption into barbaric behavior would stay contained in rallies for Donald Trump? It doesn’t work like that. William Golding said this about Lord of the Flies: “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system…”
No matter who wins the election, no matter who is sworn in as our next President, we have strayed so far past any kind of adherence to dignity and respect for one another we are a different society than we were a year ago. No candidate can fix that. No president can fix that. Only a groundswell movement of people who say collectively, This is not who we want to be as Americans, can fix it. And maybe some tears might help. At the end of Lord of the Flies “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”
What’s fallen through the air for us in this election year — what seems to have died — is the reason we have elections in the first place: to choose someone who will nurture, nourish and mirror what is the best in us.