Men at Sea

Robert Taubman

  • Rites of Passage by William Golding
    Faber, 278 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11639 6

William Golding’s working material, the stuff he lights upon and makes his novels out of – and which he regularly proceeds to subvert or transform to his purpose, introducing levels of meaning unsuspected in the raw stuff – never ceases to retain its importance for these novels. Coral Island, we all know, provided the working material for Lord of the Flies; and if Mr Golding’s purpose was to subvert a favourite myth about English boyhood, he nevertheless chose a worthy myth – one we can still half assent to while half persuaded by the black, reductive alternative. Frank Kermode, while studying the mythopoeic patterns of The Spire, is surely right about the importance for that novel of a particular place, Salisbury, and a particular trade: ‘I don’t know exactly where he got the facts about the mason’s craft, however, and I should like to.’ It is Trollope – substantial, circumstantial Trollope – who counters the symbolism and the hurtful recollections of the transient 1930s in The Pyramid.

In their complex final form Mr Golding’s novels invite speculation, and receive it. ‘When speculation has done its worst,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘two and two still make four.’ It’s a virtue of the novels that they remind us of this too. The new novel Rites of Passage, in any case, has none of the intimidating difficulties of its predecessor. Its primary material, as it were, is very nearly the substance and whole of it. This is the journal of young Edmund Talbot on the first part of a voyage to Australia in the early 19th century: that is all, apart from a letter from the Reverend Robert James Colley to his sister, purloined by Talbot and pasted into the journal. Only the title of the novel suggests anything different. ‘Rites of passage’ is a term out of 20th-century anthropology and sits oddly here, warning that Mr Golding means more than meets the eye. But the eye young Talbot writes for is his godfather’s:

Your lordship would indeed have been convinced of my worth had you heard the invocations over me, as if I were a convict in irons rather than a young gentleman going to assist the governor in the administration of one of His Majesty’s colonies! I felt much the better for my parents’ evident feelings – and I felt the better for my own feelings too! Your godson is a good enough fellow at bottom. Recovery took him all the way down the drive, past the lodge and as far as the first turning by the mill!

The confidence of worth, the display of decent feeling, establish on the first page the congenial tone of the journal. One might think it a somewhat 18th-century tone for the date, which is some years after the death of Nelson. Talbot has no shame, only candour and poise, in retailing to his godfather his comedy-seduction of the nearest pretty girl on board. He can be freely contemptuous of ‘the whole paraphernalia of Established Religion’, confident that his lordship would agree. But rather than making him out a rake and an atheist, these only look like class credentials, attitudes the aristocracy had preserved from the previous century. He is a conventional young man, just as the scenes – the fond farewell of parents, the seduction, the funeral at sea – or the generalisations – ‘like most handsome and passionate women she is a fool’ – are conventional enough in this sort of narrative. Mr Golding dramatises the convention with superb skill, and with a persuasive love of its ways and vocabulary, such as the technical terms of seamanship (what Talbot calls ‘the strange but wholly expressive Tarpaulin language’). The reader gets only a few hints that all this is dramatisation rather than a genuine journal of the time. One of these is that Talbot constantly identifies in others a tendency to play-act:

Confound the fool of a woman! As I look back, it seems to me that what I shall ever remember is not the somewhat feverish and too brief pleasure of my entertainment but the occasional and astonishing recourse to the Stage which she employed whenever her feelings were more than usually roused – or perhaps when they were more than usually definable! Could an actress convey an emotion that is indefinable? And would she not therefore welcome with gratitude a situation where the emotion was direct and precise? And does this not account for stagey behaviour?

Talbot, we find, is capable both of intelligent observation and of learning from it. Far from being merely rake or atheist – the practising atheist of the time, incidentally, is caricatured in another passenger – Talbot’s 18th-century affinities are rather with the honnête homme of the Enlightenment: no enthusiast or revolutionary, but no fool; inclined to tradition but open to experience. He observes wryly some of the habits of his own class: ‘The tall young officer crowed in the way these fellows suppose to be laughing.’ And he learns to observe himself too. He is astonished when the first lieutenant tells him:

‘I have performed the naval operation known as “coming aft through the hawsehole”... I was promoted from the lower deck, or, as you would say, from among the common sailors.’

   ‘Well, Summers,’ I said, ‘Allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to.’

He later sees this as an insufferable remark – and suffers for it. Not enough, however, to soften his attitude to the parson Colley, who has similarly attempted a change of station in life, but less successfully. The play of snobbery and moral nuance here might recall Jane Austen – were it not for the impending tragedy of Colley. Talbot has occasion both to ridicule and enlarge his own conceptions of hierarchy at the ritual of ‘shooting the sun’ – the officers with ‘the brass triangles held to their faces’ and the lower deck all attention:

There was a moving and endearing pathos about their attention, as in a dog that watches a conversation it cannot possibly understand. I am not, as your lordship must be aware, a friend to those who approve the outrageous follies of democracy in this and the last century. But at the moment when I saw a number of our sailors in a posture of such intense regard I came as near as ever I have done to seeing such concepts as ‘duty’, ‘privilege’ and ‘authority’ in a new light. They moved out of books, out of the schoolroom and university into the broader scenes of daily life.

That is the encouraging thing about Talbot’s development on the voyage as an honnête homme: schoolroom concepts move out into daily life. He is to reflect very similarly, later, on a more difficult word. ‘Justice’. ‘There’s a large and schoolbook word to run directly on like a rock in mid-ocean!’

Good material such as this has no need of explanations: yet, as in all Golding novels, explanations are due. There have to be explanations because there are mysteries. Talbot’s journal is increasingly concerned with a mystery – that of the behaviour and death of the parson Colley – which involves Talbot and which he’s still puzzling over on the last page. But besides that there are mysteries addressed directly to the reader: mysteries not meant to be solved. The reader may well find allegory of this kind a bit of a disappointment. Talbot, for instance, alludes to the name of the ship while never actually revealing it: ‘I looked over her monstrous figurehead, emblem of her name and which our people as is their custom have turned colloquially into an obscenity with which I will not trouble your lordship.’ An allegorist like Melville surely does better by coming out with his meaning when he lets Billy Budd come out with his cry: ‘And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man!’ The hinting title of the novel and the hinting absence of a name for the ship seem to be moves in a game being played with the reader – and played over the heads of the characters in the novel, which isn’t good for their credibility. But it’s a weakness of allegory that it may produce very little meaning at a disproportionate cost to life and credibility. ‘God, what a world of conflict, of birth, death, procreation, betrothals, marriages for all I know, there is to be found in this extraordinary ship!’ – so Talbot suggests, but the passengers hardly live up to it. They strike me as a thin lot, just because their roles are so schematic: the militant freethinker, the daughter of a late canon of Exeter Cathedral, the army officer, the artist. And something worse than thinness, a moral insensitivity, may be felt when such a character is literally sacrificed to his role. Talbot’s cabin servant disappears towards the end, lost overboard, to a general lack of concern. From the first he had been Talbot’s ‘staff and guide’, one recalls, and presumably he has accomplished his mission on another level of meaning – played his part in the initiation rites, let’s say. Perhaps he returns to the underworld. I couldn’t help sparing him more of a thought than Talbot does.

But the parson Colley is a more serious case of a character sacrificed to his role – an extreme and horrifying case, lying at the heart of Mr Golding’s mystery story, and horrifying in a way that makes me distrust this story for the manipulation it practises. Colley is a low-comedy figure set up only to be knocked down: ‘Imagine if you can a pale and drawn countenance to which nature has afforded no gift beyond the casual assemblage of features; a countenance moreover to which she has given little in the way of flesh but been prodigal of bone.’

His various humiliations have all to do with rituals (or rites) which he fails to observe or to understand: rituals of social class, of the quarterdeck and Standing Orders, of ‘crossing the line’ at the Equator. All we see – all Talbot sees – of the climax of the comedy – transformed almost to high comedy by being played offstage – is Colley disappearing on a mission to the crew’s quarters in full canonicals, and coming out disgustingly drunk. What happened? Before this can be revealed, the unexpected moral shock occurs, the shock of unrecognition that Mr Golding uses to shift our ideas from one plane to another. Colley goes to his cabin and dies without a word – wills himself to death. In his journal Talbot notes: ‘In the not too ample volume of man’s knowledge of Man, let this sentence be inserted. Men can die of shame.’ This is the full point of Talbot’s education, or what we must see as his rite of passage. It involves admitting his own failure in loving kindness towards Colley. He concludes, in a fair imitation of the Psalmist, on a note of mourning for ‘all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon’.

Colley’s particular tragedy was – Talbot has thought all along – a class thing: the isolated case of a man out of his proper station, unable to cope with the rituals: unused to taking his drink either like a gentleman or like a seaman. In fact, as we learn, it was also a sex thing: but as Talbot finally gathers what happened in the fo’castle between Colley and Billy Rogers – the role of the Handsome Sailor in Billy Budd is ingeniously subverted in this Billy – Talbot isn’t particularly disconcerted. For neither the class thing nor sex thing nor indeed Colley’s own Christianity will quite do to account for a man dying of shame. It is a rite from another culture altogether, and Talbot with his decency, and the sailors like Billy Rogers, who has ‘knowed most things in his time’, cannot be expected to understand it. ‘I have known it happen among savage peoples.’ the first lieutenant says. ‘They are able to lie down and die.’

But what is there to justify Talbot’s desperate conclusion about ‘all men at sea’? The book as a whole is genial and humane; it has no truck with ‘all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.’ The only monster here is Colley himself, whom Mr Golding has put outside the common run of humanity by making of him a mere vehicle for humiliation. In his last novel, Darkness Visible, Mr Golding had a homosexual, Mr Pedigree, whom he seemed to me only to humiliate as a character the more he encumbered him with compassion. Colley is a plainer case, being simply removed from comprehension – funny at one moment to those around him, awesome at another. His suffering has no meaning for them; it belongs to one of Mr Golding’s other levels of meaning. But I found all this – so adroitly managed in the flowing, impeccable narrative – much less than satisfying. I could only see it as another game with the reader. It’s not a fair or illuminating way of saying what shame is, or how a man might actually suffer to the point of dying of it. The only deep human feelings ever engaged in this novel are thus reduced to what Talbot would call a Mumbo Jumbo. Mr Golding’s concern with different levels of meaning has sometimes led, in the past, to mystification and implausibility. In the clearer air and quizzical mood of the present novel, what it leads to is trivialisation.