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The school’s large group lecture room looked anything but normal, as an oversized desk and armchair replaced its usual podium. Behind the desk, a large projection screen provided a simulated backdrop of a criminal court chamber. Even the room’s typical occupants seemed out of place with their surroundings. Instead of spreading themselves out among the many-tiered rows, high-school students, now posing as famous literary and historic figures, sat clustered behind their respective legal teams, waiting to take the stand for either the prosecution or the defense. Further back, among the upper tiers, another set of students assembled as jurists in one of the most significant trials they might ever be asked to weigh in on. For the next few days, they would be observing competing witnesses such as philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, political leaders, Machiavelli, Churchill and Hitler, and famed authors Aldous Huxley and William Golding debate human nature’s essence, in response to the latter’s indictment of humanity’s selfish, brutal nature, as portrayed in his novel, Lord of the Flies.
Life on Golding’s island, too, was anything but normal, as a group of British choirboys had been shot down from the sky and stranded there during a failed air attempt to rescue them from war-torn England during World War II. Left to fend for themselves, the prepubescent boys soon began establishing their own government and rules. It wasn’t long, however, before tribal behaviors overtook group governance and savagery overtook rationality. Golding’s own experiences teaching at an all-boy’s school, then serving as a paramedic during World War II, had contributed to the disdain for humanity evidenced among the fictional survivors. The novel so disturbed early readers that Golding felt compelled to explain his rationale for writing it. In Notes on Lord of the Flies, he justifies the novel’s dark portrayal of innocent schoolboys, the catastrophic consequences of their behaviors, and the ironic hypocrisy of their military rescue:
“The theme [he writes] 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, however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality, enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a manhunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?”
Who, indeed? Who would choose to imagine a world where civilized behavior is simply a veneer that protects the human eye from seeing what really lurks within the psyche? Most, like myself, would much prefer to believe in the human capacity for kindness and generosity, even when it’s less evident. In the year 2020, though, as humans confront an unknown, insidious threat to our existence unparalleled in modern times, we may have inadvertently stumbled upon the ideal opportunity to seriously consider, once again, what lies within our hearts.
“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”
(Lord of the Flies 559)
It’s been nearly seventy years since Golding so strikingly maligned human nature while responding to a publicity questionnaire from the novel’s American publishers, concurrent with the book’s distribution in 1954. Though in many ways we live in more progressive times, when we take into account the world’s persistent strife and pervasive inequality, it’s clear that we haven’t done enough to nullify Golding’s insistence that without governing rules, humans would be reduced to selfish, primitive behavior comparable to what he portrays on the island, where hoarding of resources is more important than preserving the environment that provides them; and where eventually, young boys hunt each other down with no remorse and kill their prey for the sheer sport of it. And as is the case whenever humans resort to primal instincts, at the root of it all is fear displaced as hatred – fear that we won’t have enough and fear that we are not enough.
“I’m scared of him,” said Piggy, “and that’s why I know him. If you’re scared of someone you hate him but you can’t stop thinking about him…” (94)
Granted, the quality of life today is more comfortable for many and our primitive drives manifest themselves more subtly. While it’s true that young children rarely play “Cowboys and Indians” anymore, they still find pleasure in war games by engaging more remotely and insidiously, as detached tacticians plotting on their computer screens, rather than ruthless savages firing rifles or flinging flaming arrows at human prey. And in a time where drones and artificial intelligence devices soon may take the place of fighter pilots and infantry, it’s easy to imagine that global warfare will become more detached and distanced, as well; tempting, then, to view Golding’s dystopian portrayal as an unrealistic extreme. Still, there’s that damn officer who rescues the boys at the novel’s conclusion! His presence defies such reasoning, despite his regalia, as he happens upon the survivors while en route to an air battle. And that’s precisely Golding’s point, I imagine.
“Which is better – to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”
A great clamor rose among the savages… (202–3)
As the globe turns its attention to the year 2020, we would like to think of ourselves as both rational and civilized, but we’ve yet to put this theory to the ultimate test. Now, just three months into the new decade, we find ourselves in the midst of an invisible enemy that is ruthlessly annihilating over two million people across the globe. It eviscerates global economies. It jeopardizes our citizens, from our most vulnerable to our most valiant. It wreaks havoc on households, as basic resources, from bathroom tissue to bread, become scarce, even inaccessible. It encourages hoarding among those who are able and inflicts desperation among those who are not. As we confront the greatest challenge of our progressive times, a global pandemic fueled by inequality, festered in intolerance, and flourishing despite compassionate acts of courage, we would be wise to consider what we want our future on this planet to look like, lest we become desperate and fearful enough to contribute to the annihilation of many for the benefit of a few.
“Maybe,” he said hesitantly, “maybe there is a beast.”
“What I mean is… maybe it’s only us” (89)
And if we do carefully examine our motivations during this critical period of human development, what will we discover? We need turn on the news, where wartime rationales and accompanying metaphors abound, even as nature, an insidious and pervasive enemy, relentlessly stalks us with stealth epidemiological tactics that we’ve yet to fathom, much less overcome. How fitting that the name of the virus that is destroying life as we know it; that has caused mandated isolation in some locations and “stay at home” advisories in others; that has wiped out over two million of our global brothers and sisters and relentlessly continues to do so; that has pitted scientists against politicians when vying for pragmatic solutions, and most significantly, that has totally abolished our preconceived notions of “normal,” is named corona.
Astronomers define the word as the gaseous envelope of the sun and stars that is usually hidden by the bright light of the sun’s surface, so much so that it takes a total solar eclipse to reveal the pearly glow surrounding the darkened disk of the moon. As for the virus, it has darkened our physical worlds because of its exclusionary impact and dimmed our hopes by illuminating our human frailties, most especially, our limited capacities to embrace one another, despite them.
“They looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate” (55)
The sun and the moon. Hobbes and Rousseau. Churchill and Hitler. Love and Hate. Just as volatility invisible to the human eye envelopes the sun, so too does what we consider “normal” human behavior mask more overtly primal human volatility. In both cases, whether we observe or acknowledge their existence, unpredictable agents lie hidden beyond the surface. In the case of human nature, though obscured by the blinding light of productivity, sociability and civility, our more erratic, explosive natures are not atypical or abnormal at all; they are merely ritualized by cultural conditioning, and therefore, normalized. Why then, do so many of us wait with anxious anticipation for a return to these previous conditions, even as we pause to contemplate the current state of our collective wellbeing? Perhaps, instead of rushing to resume our “normal” activities, we’d be better served to carefully examine both the benefits and the costs that accompany this current, horrific, unmasking of what we naïvely refer to as civilized behavior.
“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy” (202)
Eclipsed: The poignant truth that at this stage of our global evolution, humans, at their core, are neither innocent nor wise, though we have the capacity to be both. Consider what the pandemic reveals regarding whom we most value in our culture – the wealthy, the privileged, the powerful. Consider, too, the sad reality that up until this critical juncture, we’ve least appreciated those among us whom we’ve most needed. Today, we regularly meet on balconies and at windows to cheer the health care workers, first responders and public servants who risk their lives so that those afflicted with the virus have a chance to survive, or those who need vital protection or transportation can avail themselves of it. Prior to this point, though, we’ve been patronizing, oblivious, and at times, disdainful of the services these same workers provide.
And our educators? We’ve maligned them in recent years for supposedly underperforming when preparing our children to achieve on standardized tests. Too often, though, we’ve held little regard for the many variables beyond their control that prevent them from doing so, the most challenging being racial bias and economic disparity. During this current crisis, the same economic disparity accounts for inconsistencies in access to educational programming, food supplies and treatment and testing. Hopefully, the present pause will lay bare these challenges and will encourage generosity and gratitude, instead of judgment.
And what of our most vulnerable? Even now, some in power consider it to be a viable solution to risk the safety and health of our most defenseless – our elderly, infirmed and poor, so that more privileged lives can return to “normal.” What is this normalcy they are referring to? The accessibility to fine dining, sporting events, entertainment venues and sunny seaside resorts? At what cost? The cost of human lives deemed less critical, less valuable, less useful, in terms of economic currency, than their own? Who has access to the antibody tests? To medical care, should they develop complications from the virus? Who will feed our hungry children if a household’s sole provider becomes ill and is unable to work, but has no health insurance or viable income source beyond a now defunct paycheck? Perhaps it takes perilous times such as these to compel us to realize that the world is, indeed, interconnected and that our continued evolution entails that we expand our notions of “home” to include those most in jeopardy, even while protecting ourselves from further harm?
“There ought to be some mode of life where all love is good, where one love can’t compete with another but adds to it” (The Spire 18)
Why not trust that love has the capacity to be exponential? And why not embrace the many unanticipated gifts that Corona offers, most especially, the possibility that what makes us human is neither our savagery nor our civility, but rather, our capacity to understand that we’ve confused one for the other, when they are really one and the same? How do we come to terms with this unsettling truth? Perhaps we begin with the simplest of actions, retreat. Ironically, as a verb, to retreat means “to recoil,” but as a noun, it means “a haven.” And now? We’re experiencing the pain and pleasure of recoiling from this deadly disease by retreating to whatever havens we call “home,” even while these very homes isolate us from the greater community. The exponential gift in this isolation is that many of us are spending more time with our children and loved ones, confined to limited spaces and reliant on one another for comfort and security, and by doing so, we’re also providing our natural environment a gracious pause, one in which it has been able to refresh itself, uninterrupted by human disregard.
And though most of us don’t reside on a tropical island, replete with wild boars and edible plants, many have been able to sustain an uninterrupted food supply, while actually thinking more carefully about what we need, as opposed to what we desire. Doing so entails careful reflection and honest self-assessment, which in turn, cultivates our capacity to understand the inner workings of our hearts and souls. Corona has enabled us to do so by affording us the most essential gift of all: time.
“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet” (Lord of the Flies 101)
The human inclination toward improvising, then ritualizing, has brought us to this point, but it doesn’t have to leave us here. Too many of us, prior to the pandemic, found comfort in routines that became our way of coping with the frenetic pace that consumed our lives. Without them, we’ve awakened to an all-consuming exhaustion as we desperately attempt to re-establish long-held norms and it’s tempting to recoil in fear of the unpredictable unknown that lies ahead. What if, instead, we allow ourselves to embrace ambiguity, rather than certitude, especially since the certitude we’ve relied on is merely a chimera, a feeble attempt to establish human viability in a material world? We can begin this process by relinquishing the outer trappings that have become less important, the latest cars, smart phones, video games and fashion trends. Once we’re able to see past these, our interior landscapes might garner much needed personal attention as we weed out tired mechanisms for coping with modern life and reassess what matters most when all else is eclipsed. What we may discover is that, at our core, each of us has the capacity to erupt with indignation, regardless of whether we have just cause to do so, but we also have the capacity to harness this same energy toward shining the light of dignity for all.
“There aren’t any grownups. We shall have to look after ourselves” (33)
Perhaps we’re not so lost, after all. Perhaps all that has been missing up until this point, are the tools with which to measure our maturity as a species. As is the case with the young boys stranded on their island, perhaps, we too, are on the cusp of adolescence, often unable to manage our impulsivity and self-absorption. What is adolescence, after all, but a period of both volatility and rationality during which we have the opportunity to cultivate discernment, wisdom and empathy? Though many of us already claim ownership of these characteristics, we now face the ultimate test, the total eclipse of the surface behaviors we refer to as “normality.” Perhaps it is in darkness that we will be able to shed light not only on who we are, but on who we are capable of becoming.
“There have been so many interpretations of the story that I’m not going to choose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story, if you want one, is your own…” (Lord of the Flies, Afterword).
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Faber and Faber, 1954.
—. Notes on Lord of the Flies, 1954.
—. The Spire. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964.