The Guilt Laureate

Frank Kermode

  • The Double Tongue by William Golding
    Faber, 160 pp, £14.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 571 17526 0

A publisher’s note explains that when William Golding died he had written two drafts of this novel, and was about to begin a third. The signs are that this might have been longer than the second, but not substantially different. Some necessary editing has been done, on the basis of notes made by Golding in his journal, and there is a page of typescript missing in the middle of the book. It sounds as if the novel is in a form less close to the final than, say, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, but still close enough for readers to feel confident that they have before them what they need to make a reasonable guess at what Golding was up to; for they will assume that he was, as usual, up to something.

It should have proved possible to come up with a better title than The Double Tongue, something less suggestive of oral technique in the brass section, or the forked tongue that wicked white men were sometimes said to speak with. The allusion, however, is to the forked tongue of the Python which Apollo inherited when he killed the beast, and so to the phenomenon of oracular ambiguity. Macbeth, having at last rumbled his oracles, says they palter with him in a double sense, and early Christian writers believed something like this of the pagan oracles; to them the old gods and their communications were simply demonic. The pagans themselves were of course aware that oracles spoke ambiguously, though not, as a rule, with the object of harming the questioner.

The name, Pythia, was given to the priestesses chosen to relay the oracles of Apollo at Delphi. The Pythia sat on the sacred tripod, suffered violent quasi-rape by the god, and prophesied. As a matter of business she might be required not only to convey the messages she received in her trance but also to satisfy the requirements of important people who might have come a long way to benefit by the divine predictions and were willing to pay the agents well for the service.

Golding always thought strenuously and accurately about detail, but behind its screen he is often obscurely allusive. He is sometimes keen to create a subtext that turns out in the end to have concealed the main point of the narrative, hitherto no more than hinted at. Occasionally he took pride in making this point by a revelation on the very last page. In his earlier work this could take the form of a surprising allusion to some book in which he had found the seed of his fiction, and generally the effect was to reverse the assumptions of that source. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island is explicitly mentioned on the last page of Lord of the Flies. A story by ‘Taffrail’ called ‘Pincher Martin, O.D.’ makes possible the ingenious final sentence of Pincher Martin (Golding’s Martin, unlike his more honourable namesake, never even got his seaboots off before he drowned). H.G. Wells’s story ‘The Grisly Folk’, as well as The Outline of History as quoted in an epigraph, prompted the remarkable switch of perspective at the end of The Inheritors, by means of which, after for so long looking, hearing and feeling with the Neanderthals, we are suddenly obliged to see them from the point of view of their evil successors, us. End-games like this remind one that Golding was a good chess player.

These ingenuities and the terminal coups de théâtre they provide can be seen as hallmarks of the earlier Golding; the later novels also have elaborately contrived endings but this particular combination was not used again. Of course he often has some earlier book in mind, though without using it in quite this way, literally as a means to an end that snaps down satisfactorily on the narrative like a lid on a good wooden box. Not, that is, until now: for in this last novel we come on the last page to the shock of an ending very much in the old style.

The story is set in Greece at the end of the first century BC, and the beginning of the new era. Golding, a keen Classic, preferred Greek to Latin. He once asked me if I was keeping up my Greek, and when I confessed that I wasn’t, asked what I would do all day in retirement if I couldn’t read Homer. But he liked the tragedians even more than Homer, and Euripides above the others. One can see why The Bacchae appealed to him; he was obviously fascinated by ecstasies, whether in the individual or in the mass, and the plot of that play is quite like some of Golding’s, the rationalist bully Penteus standing little chance against the whole female population of Thebes on a Dionysiac rampage, and none at all against the god himself. However, this book, perhaps surprisingly the only one set in ancient Greece, is about the Delphic oracle, so the more appropriate play is the Ion.

It’s never quite clear where Golding stops being scholarly and where he is just, by intelligent speculation, making things up; if he could build a cathedral spire in his head he might not flinch from the Delphic oracle. But of course he had a lot of useful prior information, and probably did some reading as well, in such authorities as E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational and very likely in other learned sources. He would hardly need to take down his Bible and freshen his acquaintance with Acts, here his most surprising, most decisive source.

Whatever scholars may dig up (and scholars have more or less appropriated Golding since Lord of the Flies, after running its fantastic popular course, ended up in the classrooms of the world) he had almost to excess that qualification epic poets were once urged to acquire, and which modern novelists can to some extent ignore if they choose: the ability to see or to work out how complicated things work. Pincher Martin could hardly have been written by somebody who had not been a watchkeeping officer in a warship on North Atlantic convoy duty. This is not merely a matter of knowing about steering zigzag courses, about withdrawal from the convoy to break wireless silence, about the feel of the thing, the dark bridge and the small binnacle-light, and so on; but also of being able plausibly to invent the critical moment at which Martin’s intentions encounter an interfering external force he couldn’t possibly have taken into account. It may be remembered that, having been questioned by his captain on a recent lapse of attention (he deals with this, characteristically, by telling a plausible lie), Martin invents an emergency and gives the sudden, correct helm order for dealing with it, but too late to avoid the real torpedo that is already, unnoticed, on its way. This enables the author to elaborate one of his metaphysical or ethical cruces. Martin actually gave the order with the intention of murdering his friend Nathaniel, who liked to perch in a precarious position from which a violent change of course at high speed would dislodge him; had Martin given the order a few seconds earlier, as he might have done if he’d been attending to his business and spotted the approaching torpedo, he could have saved his ship and killed his friend in the most innocent-looking way. As it is, though in extremis and indeed beyond, he is able to deceive himself by claiming to have given the right order.

Golding knew this sort of thing at first hand; he was a seaman during the war and went on being one afterwards. In this new book we learn as it were incidentally that the javelins of Roman legionaries had points of soft iron, which would pierce flesh but bend on a shield, so that they couldn’t be thrown back. Golding wasn’t a Roman legionary but this is nevertheless the sort of thing he can be relied on to know. He was not a Neanderthal man, either, and yet in what may have been his most perfect book, The Inheritors, he seemed to know pretty well what it must have been like to be one, to be in all respects alien and vulnerable to homo sapiens, ‘not wicked enough to survive’. Having such a point to make entails knowing or imagining in detail how it can plausibly emerge.

Literary intellectuals, who as a rule know nothing in quite this way, have actually counted it against Golding that he did, and let it be known that he did; as if knowing such things must prevent him from knowing others they take to be of greater importance. He can thus be thought of as a sort of minor Wells, or perhaps a minor Kipling. But whatever else he believed – and he had strong, sad views on the world – Golding believed that he knew as well as anybody how the world worked, and also how its workings could best be represented in fiction.

When The Spire came out one’s first reaction was to be astonished that he seemed to have found out how such a spire could have been built; what the risks were (considering the lack of foundations); what would happen if the absurdly colossal burden of the spire should prove too much, and so on; all this must have been known, or at any rate the risks of partial knowledge on the part of the builder and of the novelist calculated, before the story of the spire, like the spire itself, could be constructed and supported. As a bookish person in an entirely different style of bookishness from his, and one who knows little about how anything works, including of course not only spires but the world, I reviewed the book on its appearance. Pondering the question where had he got all this information about medieval building techniques, I suggested some possible learned sources. Golding wrote cheerily to say that he had done no such reading; instead he had stood at the crossing asking himself how, if he had been charged with erecting the spire, presumably without modern building equipment, he would go about it. It all came out of his head, and inevitably out of his whole body, as in a sense it all came out of Jocelin’s.

The importance of all this is that the physical facts as reported conform neatly to the metaphysical agenda; they proceed from the same initial impetus. Consequently, one expects that Golding, arriving at last in Greece, after a bon voyage longer than that of Odysseus, will know, or seem to know, all about it – know what there is to be known about the oracle in its declining years – and also its place in world history. He will choose an improbable point of departure, as he generally does: the Pythia will tell her own life story. He will then think the story through (knowing its terminus) and while he will use his knowledge to prevent anachronism (except when it is judged desirable) he will do it on his own.

Socrates, in the Phaedrus, says that our greatest blessings come to us from madness, provided that the madness is of divine origin. One form of madness is prophetic, and issues from Apollo; another madness is of a ritual character and proceeds from Dionysus. The Pythia has little to do with the mad goings-on of the Bacchae; the god who enters her is Apollo. She is thus ‘possessed’ an ‘enthusiast’ – and, as Dodds puts it, the god uses her vocal organs as if they were his own. When she speaks she is hoarse, unlike a woman, unlike herself.

Before settling onto the sacred tripod and prophesying she bathes in Castalia and drinks from a sacred spring. A Pythia may hold a branch of laurel, sacred to Apollo, or she may inhale the fumes of burnt laurel leaves, or even chew them. This last expedient was judged dangerous, for the laurel was held to be very poisonous; but Dodds says that ‘Professor Oester-reich once chewed a large quantity of laurel leaves in the interests of science, and was disappointed to find himself no more inspired than usual.’ But laurel, or its fumes, work for the Pythia. Plutarch records that her responses were unpredictably various, that sometimes things went wrong; she might, instead of prophesying, scream, collapse or run away, causing terror among the onlookers. His remarks are remembered in this book.

Lacking any convincing explanation of the Pythia’s inspiration, some scholars have treated the whole show as a fraud, the answers written in advance with material derived from what Dodds calls ‘an excellent intelligence service’ run by her priests or managers. They would also, if necessary, relay the prophecy in hexameters. Dodds himself thought the truth was that the oracle depended on both the Pythia’s genuinely mediumistic performance and the manipulations of her staff. He stresses the durability of the oracle, pointing out that faith in it survived a number of discreditable episodes, and waned only when ‘other forms of religious reassurance’ became available.

This position provides something like the groundwork of Golding’s novel. His Pythia, writing in old age, tells how, as a young girl, she showed signs of having paranormal powers, however trivial their early manifestations. They seem to be associated with the menarche. It is not known how the Pythias were chosen, but it could be that such pubescent powers were taken into account. Plutarch says that one Pythia, in his admittedly late day, was the respectable daughter of a poor farmer. This Pythia is also a farmer’s daughter, but her father is rich, as well as cold and unsympathetic. He lives near Delphi and has benefited from the ‘appropriation’ of some of the riches of the oracle. The girl has been taught to read and loves Homer, but is so plain that suitors could be attracted only by the offer of a large dowry, begrudged by her father. A visit from the chief priest of the shrine ensures that this dowry, and the girl, go to Delphi, where she becomes a trainee Pythia, second in succession to the tripod, wielding the sacred besom we have seen in the hands of Euripides Ion. The priest is called Ionides – a name which relates him to that earlier tale of oracular deceptions and accommodations (‘he wasn’t my ancestor but he filled the same position as I do here’). He is even able to show his Pythia the prompt copy of the ancient play in the Delphic library, calling it ‘a cruel story’; and later she attends a performance. He is keen that she should use the poetry library as a means to train herself to speak in hexameters. Ionides also arranges lessons in how to make her voice carry. She continues her education by learning the cursive script.

Ionides is another in the procession of Golding’s gay men, a civilised Athenian, totally without belief in the oracle he tends, but with a keen interest in its present and future profits. He has one disinterested aim: to exploit the oracle in a bid to free Greece from the Roman yoke, an enterprise known in advance to be hopeless. He has developed a messenger pigeon service which covers most of the Eastern Mediterranean – the intelligence service mentioned by Dodds – and is anxious to encourage tourism. He conceals his nationalistic ambitions but otherwise is candid though respectful in his dealings with his Pythia. On formal occasions, sometimes with irony, he addresses her as Young Lady; more privately he uses her original name, Arieka. These distinctions are important; Ionides is her savvy instructor but also, when she is in formal or prophetic mode, her servant.

What is about to happen is a confrontation, not at all unusual in this author, between religion and rationalism. The deaths of both first and second Pythias ensure Arieka’s sudden promotion. Unlike lonides (or Ion, as he is often called) she believes in the gods, though she fears that they have turned their backs on her. She is a more intelligent, less weird devotee than Matty in Darkness Visible, an ordinarily gifted young woman, but, especially when menstruating, sensitive to the numen of the oracle. And the numen persists in spite of the fraud and commercialism condoned by lonides, even when he is cheating by giving prepared, politically adapted answers. But although he doesn’t believe that the god speaks through the Pythia lonides cannot finally gainsay the evidence. There has to be this sort of climax: the godhead enters into the female prophet and the sceptic has somehow to deal with the irrefutable fact of the holy.

So, amid all the cynicisms and deceptions of ‘modern’ corruption, ‘there was something connected with the hidden centre of existence that lay there and sometimes spoke.’ The new Pythia gives a startling performance. Later the act grows more routine, though still on occasion inspired: ‘perhaps the truth of life and living lies in the strange things women do and say when they are hysterical.’ She remembers the cry of the raped Creusa in Euripides’ Ion: ‘O my soul, how can I keep silence?’ Meanwhile Ionides is being educated out of total cynicism: ‘we must not take our modern wisdom for granted as the final thing.’

When the whole shrine is falling into ruin, and repairs are under consideration, lonides takes the Pythia to Athens to raise money. Stopping at Corinth on their way they encounter ‘a rowdy element’ which can nevertheless be called ‘the salt of the earth’. This is the first move in Golding’s end-game. In Athens they do badly at fund-raising, but on the way home they stop again at Corinth and get a major donation. Their pleasure in this windfall is dimmed by well-informed threats from the Roman Propraetor, Lucius Galba, who knows all about Ionides’ ‘intelligence service’. And then the gods definitively turn their backs. Henceforth the oracles are dumb; a new age begins; a shame culture yields to a guilt culture. The next phase in the history of holiness is commemorated in the last sentence of the book.

This ingenious tale has all the qualities for which Golding has been admired and condemned. He is the laureate of a guilt culture. All the troubles of Sammy Mountjoy in Free Fall stem from his seduction and desertion of Beatrice. All the desperate posthumous inventions of Pincher Martin stem from his callous adulteries and his intention to murder. As Jocelin demonstrates in The Spire, the most heroic achievements of the spirit are built on a foundation of human filth. Homo sapiens is born to guilt as the sparks fly upwards; man is always fallen man. In Darkness Visible, Golding’s most obscure and impassioned novel, the twin girls are variously dedicated to evil, which as usual includes sexual evil; the hideous millennialist Matty, who emerges from the blitz and in the end departs into apocalyptic fire, is excluded from sex and is an almost inhuman representative of the holy. Saints, Golding once remarked, are ‘the most interesting thing in the world’. ‘I don’t mean very good people,’ he went on, ‘I mean people round whom miracles happen.’ Here and there, perhaps in reality, perhaps only in art, there are irruptions of the holy, and strange, more or less weird agents of holiness: Simon in the first novel, Nathaniel in Free Fall, Matty above all. They may suffer and live apart but they can affect the indifferent and even the condemned, such characters as the child abuser Mr Pedigree in Darkness Visible, and the painter Mountjoy in Free Fall.

These epiphanies happen, regardless of cruelty, of commerce, of politics, of ordinariness. To make them happen requires both a grasp on fact and a dangerous rhetorical effort. Rereading Golding’s novels one is repeatedly struck by the violence of that effort, its defiance of comfortable and conventional literary opinion. Yet for moments at least it seems amazing that work of such force and integrity can be so slightly regarded. Perhaps, as people say, the Nobel Prize is a kiss of death. Perhaps the ambition of these books seems to put them a bit over the top, a bit out of their time. It may be that Lord of the Flies, the novel everybody knows, came to seem too easy, and by contrast the rest of the work too hard or too hectic (though that could hardly be said of The Pyramid or The Paper Men or the long-maturing trilogy that began with Rites of Passage). Or possibly Golding’s fate has been to become the property of aspiring academics, who have teased out allegories, and pestered the amiable author with questionnaires. Their books, however virtuous in intent or accomplished in performance, stand in a battered row on library shelves, unable to avoid looking second-rate, and communicating some of that sadness to their subject.

But it may be that the worst of our impediments is a general unwillingness or incapacity to think about guilt or indeed shame except in terms that minimise individual responsibility. And as for holiness, well, the sight of Matty transfigured, all golden, as he appears to Mr Pedigree, is certainly over the top as far as we are concerned; it belongs, if anywhere, to another epoch or another culture. Dostoevsky is also over the top, but interestingly, safely, crazily exotic. Graham Greene could do saints as well as sinners, and even include miracles, for example in The End of the Affair, but he keeps reasonably cool, Catholic and sad about it. Golding had Quakerism in his background, and occasionally he makes us think of the prophet Naylor running naked through the streets of Bristol: embarrassing, even though nowadays we don’t think such conduct deserves the punishment of protracted torture. We can more easily accept Ionides than the growling Pythia, drunk on the fumes of burning laurel, possessed by the god, as she herself remarks, through her other mouth. We have lost the idea of the holy, or retain only the idea that it happens, it at all, somewhere else. So for some or all of these perfectly understandable reasons we are uneasy when this bold writer declares himself. Ionides, whom in so many ways we resemble, nevertheless knew better: he did not believe in the holy, did not believe that the Pythia was inspired, but honoured her all the same.