Monday, December 26, 2005

BOOK: William Golding, "The Scorpion God"

William Golding: The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1973. 0571102328. 178 pp.

Well, there may be something to all this Nobel prize business after all. I haven't read terribly many Nobel laureates so far — inevitably, almost all of them are 20th-century authors and I tend to avoid 20th-century authors because the risk that I will find it impossible to understand them or indeed make heads or tails of what they write is too great. But with Nobel laureates, my experiences have in fact been surprisingly positive: I've read something by three of them so far, and enjoyed the books immensely in all three cases — first Ivo Andrić (The Bridge on the Drina), then Naguib Mahfouz (Cairo Trilogy), and now Golding. Well, that's not entirely accurate; I've also read The Loss of El Dorado by V. S. Naipaul, who is also a Nobel laureate, and I found it quite boring. But it's a work of nonfiction so maybe it shouldn't count for the purposes of this statistic :-).

This book contains three novellas (or perhaps short novels), all taking place in some more or less distant historic period. All three are very enjoyable reading. On almost every page there was something clever, something original, creative, something that made me keep thinking again and again ‘you can see right away that this was written by a Nobel laureate, not by some hack who churns out one cheap mass-market-paperback historic novel after another, year after year, with most of them remaindered by the publisher within a few years, and forgotten by the public even before that’.

My main complaint about the three stories is that there are too many ‘riddles’ in them — things that aren't explained clearly, or not at all; things that the author deliberately leaves vague and doesn't explain, as if hoping that this will make the story more charming or interesting to the reader. Perhaps some readers enjoy it, but I don't like being baffled and confused by too many unexplained or inexplicable things in a story. It turns reading into hard work rather than a pleasure. I felt there was too much of that in the first two stories especially, i.e. in The Scorpion God and Clonk Clonk. In the third story, Envoy Extraordinary, there was less of that, and (unlike in the first two) everything that may have been unclear at first is explained sooner or later. Judging from the colophon, Envoy Extraordinary was first published in 1956, while the other two stories were first published in 1971, so perhaps the author's style has simply changed and become more obscure in the intervening fifteen years.

But I shouldn't complain too much. All three stories were pleasant to read anyway; I soon got used to the fact that not everything is going to be explained and that some passages can be simply enjoyed without being understood. The writing is nice and the author is very good at painting a scene with words so as to bring out images in your mind.

The rest of this post will be about The Scorpion God, and I'll write my impressions of the other two stories in two subsequent posts.

<spoiler warning>

The first story, The Scorpion God, is set in pre-dynastic Egypt, at the court of one of “half a dozen petty chieftains that line this river” (p. 59). The ruler, Great House, is believed by everyone including himself to be a god and to be responsible for such important things as keeping the sky up and ensuring that the Nile flood rises to a suitable height, neither too much nor too low (p. 13), and indeed in the opening scenes we see him involved in a curious ritual to this purpose: he runs through the countryside in full regalia under the blazing sun (remember that the Nile flood starts in June), accompanied and encouraged by his Liar. If the flood is too low: “ ‘When I was not much older than you, it happened and the God of that time took poison.’ ” (P. 13.) (A simple nilometer is also described on p. 13.) On this occasion, Great House fails to finish his run; it isn't clear whether he falls from exhaustion or because a blind man tripped him with his stick (p. 18, 26).

The king is a widower (p. 18), but he has a daughter, Pretty Flower, who is very pretty indeed and spends the better part of two pages looking at herself in a mirror and applying all the makeup that money and bronze-age technology can buy (pp. 22–23). A banquet follows that night; Great House drinks immense amounts of beer (p. 25) and is amused by the ‘lies’ told by his Liar. It is clear to us that the Liar must have seen much of the world, and that his ‘lies’ are all in fact truth, but to his listeners they are the most ridiculous and blatant lies imaginable: such things as the existence of pale-skinned people, or the concept of freezing, of ‘the white dust which is water’ (pp. 26–7). The courtiers, incidentally, are complete and utter sycophants; when the king drinks, they all drink; when he begins to play checkers, everyone's talk turns to checkers; etc. (p. 30).

Pretty Flower performs an erotic dance in front of her father and all the other guests (pp. 29–30). P. 31 is not entirely clear to me but it would seem that at this point the king is expected to have sex with her there and then, but for some reason cannot bring himself to try it (much to the dismay of everyone including her; the cry ‘Oh the shame, the burning shame of it!’ on p. 36 is hers, I guess).

The Head Man, who is a sort of king's advisor or high-priest, warns him that he seems to be losing his grip: first his fall in the morning, and now this (p. 33). A seemingly innocent exchange follows on the subject of ‘what does any man need except women and beer’. “ ‘His potter,’ said the Head Man. ‘His musicians. His baker, his brewer, his jeweller——’/ Great House tweaked the Liar's ear./ ‘And his Liar.’ ” (P. 33.) This is one of those delightfully clever things that make this book such a great read. This conversation looks quite innocent until you realize, a few pages later, that the king was going to commit suicide and the Head Man was in his mind already preparing the list of people who must be killed and buried together with the king to accompany him in his afterlife. Or at least I didn't realize this until then; but it seems to be clear to the Liar from the first moment (‘You fools! Can't you use models?’ he screams, p. 34).

The king calmly takes poison (p. 34), the musicians and the guests leave the banquet one by one, and the king is carried away on his couch (p. 35). The water of the Nile keeps rising, but it is hoped that the king's death will prevent it from becoming too high (p. 37). We witness the king's funeral on pp. 37–41; the servants who will accompany him in the afterlife do so willingly, except for the Liar: the Head Man asks him why he refuses eternal life, and he answers shockingly but quite reasonably: “ ‘Because this one is good enough!’ ” He is sent away to the pit, a kind of subterranean prison-cell (p. 40.)

The king should now be succeeded by his son, the Prince, an eleven-year-old boy who stubbornly refuses this role, wishing to have nothing to do with being a god, holding the sky up, or with “ ‘bouncing up and down on my sister’ ” (pp. 13–14, 43). He visits the pit where the Liar has been thrown, and the Liar persuades him to try finding a rope and helping him out, whereupon they would both escape Egypt (pp. 45–48).

Meanwhile the Head Man is talking to Pretty Flower; they are both concerned that the Nile is still rising, probably because of the late pharaoh's displeasure. The Head Man fancies himself quite a rationalist and, hilariously employing a socratic question-and-answer method that would make even Sherlock Holmes blush (p. 50), reaches the conclusion that the reason for all the trouble is that the princess had been having sex with someone who was not her close relative (p. 55), i.e. the Liar (p. 21). She admits this and is quite devastated with contrition and shame of having done such a monstrous, wicked thing (p. 52), for having “ ‘shattered the laws of nature’ ” (p. 52). The Prince then enters, asking for rope (as he was unable to find any by himself; p. 53); realizing what he wants it for, the Head Man has the Liar brought from the pit (p. 54). The Head Man is sure that the king wants to have the Liar with him (and that the Nile will keep rising until his wish is met), and now tries to tempt the Liar to let himself be buried, promising him not only eternal life but an elite burial spot right next to the king himself (p. 58). (Curiously, the Head Man is trying to persuade the Liar, not force him; he'd be willing to use force only as a last resort; p. 55.) The Head Man thinks of the Liar as a kind of madman, a delusional person, but on pp. 59–60 we see that the Liar is in fact the only reasonable person of the whole lot; he desperately tries to persuade the princess to take power into her own hands and disregard some of the sillier traditions (“ ‘Your brother is—what is he—ten? [. . .] Do you want to marry him?’ ”). Finally the Head Man tries to have him killed, but he escapes. I'm not quite sure what to make of the ending; the Princess seems to become somewhat more self-assured in the last paragraph, but it isn't clear to me whether this means that the Liar's words are going to have any effect after all (p. 62).

</spoiler warning>

I would say that the main theme of this story is the relativity of such things as customs and beliefs. Things which seem the uttermost absurdities to us are here genuinely and sincerely believed by these early Egyptians. The king seriously believes that his job is to take care of the flood and of keeping the sky up, and failing in this, spends his last evening cheerfully drinking and playing board games, and then drinks his poison calmly. The notion that one may wish to have sex with somebody other than a close relative is regarded as an unbelievable, monstrous impossibility (pp. 28, 55) — it is for them a taboo of the same sort that incest is with most people nowadays. I'm intrigued by the Head Man's comment on p. 55: “ ‘In all of us there is a deep, unspoken, morbid desire to make love with a, a—you understand what I mean. Not related to you by blood. An outlander with his own fantasies. [. . .] Do you suppose, my dear, there are real places where people marry across the natural borders of consanguinity?’ ” This seems to imply that the Head Man thought incest the natural state of things, not only for the royal family but for everyone. But surely this cannot have been the case in any real historic society. Surely no society with such an attitude could escape slow degeneration. In fact I vaguely remember reading that many ‘primitive’ societies went to great lengths to ensure that people did not marry close relatives, e.g. by dividing the society into several groups and forbidding marriages within a group.

Another interesting thing is that we see how people can be trapped within the narrow confines of their beliefs and experience, which they are unable to transcend. The Head Man is, by the standards of his society, a highly educated person, and considers himself a rationalist (p. 50), but the idea that the world may be large and contain other countries besides the area with which he is personally familiar is to him an absurdity (p. 55). Similarly, the concept of freezing cold and of snow is met with bafflement and complete disbelief (pp. 26–7). The Liar, who more or less alone among the characters of this story exhibits common sense by our present-day standard and who alone acts in a way that we would nowadays call reasonable, is thought a madman or a liar by his contemporaries. But from our point of view it is they that act like madmen, trapped by their absurd and bizarre traditions and religious beliefs; they reminded me of zombies; some aspects of their reason may work normally but underneath it all you always hit the utterly flawed foundations of their world-view which make almost all of their conclusions and their actions completely ridiculous. This reminds me of the cranky theory of the bicameral mind, suggested by Julian Jaynes, namely that people in the prehistoric and early historic periods didn't have quite all the connections in their brains that we have nowadays, and consequently didn't consider some of their thoughts and inclinations as having originated within their own consciousness; instead they believed these things to be coming from some external entities, e.g. from gods. In this story, almost everyone except the Liar seems to have a disconnect of this sort, as if somebody had captured half their brain and filled it with numerous misguided but unshakeably firm convictions. But the Liar is perhaps not the only exception; the Prince, in a way, is another exception; he is a child and yet has in a way more common sense than most of the grown-up characters. I guess this rather speaks against the bicameral hypothesis than for it: the Prince, being a child, is still reasonable; only through further acculturation will he acquire all the absurdities that we see fully developed in the princess and in the Head Man. Thus a person's mind is not born with all these flaws, but receives them only later from the social and cultural environment.

But anyway, I guess the moral of all this must be as in Burns's lines: ‘O would some Power the giftie give us/ To see ourselves as others see us’! These ancient Egyptians all thought themselves quite normal, but to us they seem bizarre, absurd, silly, or at least hopelessly wrong. They have the same opinion of things that seem reasonable to us (and to the Liar). Where is there a firm spot to stand on amidst this relativism? Sure, we may think that our beliefs are reasonable and justified by observation and by good arguments; we may think that our beliefs are right and those of the ancient Egyptians are wrong; but the problem is that the Egyptians in this story thought exactly the same of their own beliefs — they also thought, just like us, that experience and reason firmly support their beliefs. How many of the things that seem reasonable and true to us nowadays will appear outlandish and wrong to our descendants a few centuries from now? How many of the customs that seem natural to us, how many of the traditions that we nowadays revere, will inspire the future generations with disbelief, perhaps with disgust?

Well, at least we may try not to be like Head Man: proud of his reason but with a closed mind, completely convinced that he is right, unwilling to even consider the possibility that he might be wrong and that it might be good to change his beliefs in the light of new information. Indeed his mention of ‘[a]n outlander with his own fantasies’ (see the quote from p. 55 above) suggests that he is as much worried by the possibility of a ‘mental miscegenation’, a mixing of your thoughts with those of a stranger, as he is by the physical fact of having sex with a stranger. The Head Man is perhaps a forerunner of that stasis, that fixity, that lack of development of which the ancient Egyptian civilization is often accused. His dogmatic cast of mind is perhaps to be expected in a high priest. But there is a fair bit of the Head Man in all of us; it's a fact of human nature that having to change our beliefs is uncomfortable to us.


Blogger Nadezhda said...

It's great to see you back!

I want you to know that I linked you from my blog, because - well - I think you deserve it!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks, it's great to get comments like this one! :)

Also thank you for linking to me. I noticed your blog among the referral URLs in my logs. I reciprocated, though I'm afraid you won't get much traffic from me :)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 1:59:00 PM  
Blogger Nadezhda said...

I think you won't get much traffic from me, either, but it's worth the risk, right? ;)

Thanks for linking back and I hope you're having nice holidays.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 2:41:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Nice enough, though they'd be even nicer if I didn't have to shovel snow each day :) I hope yours are fine too, and that you'll manage to avoid any further traffic accidents.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 11:48:00 PM  
Blogger Nadezhda said...

Let's hope that with this one I've filled the quota for the next few years.

Thursday, December 29, 2005 10:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Joshua V said...

lol thank you so much this saved me from not passing my senior year...i picked this book up thinkning it would be really cool but it was kinda boring in the beginning so i never acuatlly picked it up and read then i found out book reports were due the next class so yea this saved me
thanks for this

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 11:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Pro said...

Thank you so much for your summary of this short story, I am currently working on a project concerning William Golding, and I had just finished this short story, but was a little confused by a few sections in the reading. But, thankfully, your comments and retelling of the short novel really helped me to better understand what I had just read. Thank You :)

Monday, December 08, 2008 4:32:00 AM  
Blogger Phillip Vietri said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Monday, May 05, 2014 7:29:00 PM  
Blogger Adnan Najeeb said...

Thank you very much for the good summary. I read the story earlier this evening, and I wanted to go through it quickly (which you provided, excellently), before reading it again.

I really loved the story, and its insights and descriptive genius!

Sunday, July 31, 2016 11:39:00 PM  

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