Monday, January 02, 2006

BOOK: William Golding, "Clonk Clonk"

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

[Continued from last week.]

<spoiler warning>

The second story, Clonk Clonk, takes place in Africa at some unspecified prehistoric time. The back cover of the book says ‘more than 70,000 years ago’, but the only time reference in the story is the mention that a nearby volcano erupted a hundred thousand years after the events of the story took place, and that ‘by that time there were plenty of people in other places’ (p. 114). Perhaps an upper limit could be obtained by the fact that the people in this story speak quite normally and fluently, an ability which evolved relatively recently during human evolution. The environment consists partly of open plains and partly of forests. The small tribe which we observe in this story appears to practice a fairly thorough division of labour based on sex: the men are mostly hunters and the women are mostly gatherers. One thing that struck me as curious is the fairly large gap between the two sexes — almost as if you were looking at two separate and distinct cultures. Perhaps it's got something to do with the long periods of separation while the hunters are away on their multi-day hunting expeditions. The men are referred to as ‘Leopard Men’, wear leopard skins and have a communal house called the Lodge of the Leopard Men.

On the whole, the women appear to be more practical and indeed sometimes seem to look somewhat patronizingly at the men, as at something to be humoured rather than taken quite seriously. For instance, Palm on p. 71 finds herself briefly wondering how a mountain sometimes seems to stare up and sometimes down, and then reproaches herself: “ ‘A mountain is a mountain! Palm, you think like a man!’ ” (Another example: on p. 90, Palm is looking for a while at the rising full moon, but then says to herself: “ ‘The Sky Woman is just the Sky Woman. That is all. To think anything else is to be young—is to think like a man—’ ”) And I'm not trying to say that this attitude is not justified; as far as contributing to the food supply of the community is concerned, the men seem to be far less successful than the women. Palm says on p. 67 “ ‘There is too much food. Not meat perhaps, but fish, eggs, roots, honey, leaves and buds—’ ”, from which I would guess that the men as hunters aren't doing their job, and it's the women as gatherers who bring in most of the food.

Palm, incidentally, is one of the leading characters of the story, a woman entering middle age (and becoming somewhat concerned about her biological clock, p. 70); she is also ‘She Who Names The Women’ (p. 70), i.e. selects a name for the new-borns. The men are away on a hunting trip, and Palm seems to have some designs involving drinking and their Lodge of the Leopard Men (p. 73), but at this point it isn't very clear what will come of it.

In the next section we get to follow the Leopard Men, and they sure are a curious bunch. They have colourful names such as Forest Fire, Furious Lion and Beautiful Bird, and any sufficiently interesting incident may prompt one to assume (as long as the Elder of Elders approves it) a new name connected to the incident (p. 76). Forest Fire spends two pages gathering some nice-looking red feathers from a nest and distributing them to his friends, which results in such ardent expressions of friendship and affection (p. 75) that we aren't at all surprised to find on p. 78 that a bit of homosexuality seems to be a widely practiced thing among these hunters. Overall they seem a jolly, carefree lot, and act as if they were hikers on a pleasure-trip rather than hunters on a serious effort to provide food for the tribe. A comment on their conversation (p. 77): “It was not speech that Palm or Minnow would have bothered to understand. They would have recognized, being women, that it was not useful speech. It was no more than an expression of an emotional state, so that in that sense, each Leopard Man was talking or singing to himself.” The next day, they reach the end of the forest and actually try to do a bit of hunting for antelopes on the open plain (pp. 80–3). Descending into a ravine, the hunters are engulfed by a mudslide, all except one, Chimp, who had been standing somewhat higher up the slope and was thus able to avoid the mess. Seeing his colleagues extricate themselves from the mud, he laughs at them so hard that they become angry at him and chase him away (pp. 87–8) (they seem to have been annoyed with him before this already; he had had trouble keeping up with them because of an injury, p. 78, and was a bit clumsy during the hunting, p. 83). Alone and worried, Chimp heads for home (p. 89).

Meanwhile back at the settlement, the full moon is rising and the women are getting ready to spend the night feasting and drinking (they are even brewing some kind of intoxicating drink especially for the occasion, p. 93). This seems to be a common practice when the moon is full (p. 99).

Chimp returns to the settlement in the middle of the night and finds the Lodge of the Leopard Men full of women, sitting roaring drunk around the fire and, o blasphemy, drinking out of the leopard skulls (p. 101) of which apparently there had been a large stock in the Lodge (p. 92). Chimp seems to be quite inexperienced with women (expecting teeth in their nether areas, p. 102), and is terrorized when they catch him, hold him down, force him to drink, and Palm starts giving him a handjob (p. 103). But the drink soon starts to have its effect, Chimp's fear goes away, he realizes that Palm is not at all bad looking, and ends up sleeping with her (pp. 104–5).

Their conversation next morning covers a number of curious points. Now that he is sober, Chimp realizes she is ”neither young nor beautiful” (p. 106). She, I don't understand why, regards him for a while with some kind of hatred (p. 106) and some impatience (p. 112). Nevertheless she suggests him to come live with her, which he happily accepts (p. 110). Chimp is apparently unaware of the fact that children are caused by sex (p. 110). Palm convinces him that everything he had witnessed at the Lodge of the Leopard Men the night before was more or less a dream, and at any rate shouldn't be told to the other Leopard Men (who wouldn't believe it anyway); p. 111. Meanwhile it turns out that the other men will shortly be returning from their hunting expedition, and the women are busy clearing away the traces of their feasting and drinking (p. 111).

The men return, carrying a leopard they have caught; Chimp rejoins them, as it turns out they are no longer mad at him. Palm praises them for their hunting success, and publicly acknowledges Chimp as her husband. She ends with this masterpiece of patronising sarcasm: “ ‘So go to your secret place, mighty Leopard Men. Take the awful strength of the leopard with you, while we women wonder, and cower; and humbly prepare you a feast of nourishing termite soup, and of dried fish, roots and fruit, and cool, clear water.’ ” (P. 114.)

</spoiler warning>

This is a fascinating and delightful story, but I have no idea what to make of this curious culture it describes, with its huge gap between men and women. This would be easier to understand if the story had been written by some man-hating feminist bent on proving that men are useless; but as I have no reason to suppose that Golding was a man-hating feminist, I don't think the explanation can be so simple. But the fact is that the men in this story are useless; happy-go-lucky and largely harmless, they talk more like poets than like hunters, and their hunting efforts seem to be mostly focused on useless prey such as leopards, whose skulls they obsessively accumulate in their communal house. Given all this, it is not surprising that the women look down at them. At the same time, I find this whole massive deception to be regrettable, and hard to excuse: I mean the fact that the men are left to imagine that their communal house is off-limits to women, and that the skulls of their leopards are kept there with much reverence, but the truth is that while the men are away hunting, the women spend whole nights carousing in the men's house, drinking out of the leopard skulls, etc. I can't help feeling that this kind of long-term, silent deception implies an attitude of contempt towards the men that are being deceived: as if they don't in the least deserve to be consulted in this matter, as if it's perfectly OK to not only disregard their opinions but even keep them in the dark of the fact that these opinions are being disregarded. As if it isn't a matter worth quarreling about: it's better to just keep the men in the dark and let them imagine that they are in control of the situation while the women do as they please behind their backs. How can this curious situation have come about? The men in this story don't seem to be some sort of grim-faced patriarchalists; it isn't obvious to me that the women wouldn't be able to, if they had wanted to, organize their own drinking parties without having to do it all behind the men's backs and involve all this massive deceit. Similarly, if the women's contempt for the men stems from the fact that the men have an unpractical nature and are useless as breadwinners, surely there should be a way to discuss these things and sort them out without having to adopt this permanent attitude of good-natured but patronizing contempt towards the men.

But perhaps the story is not really trying to say anything about the relations between men and women in real life. Perhaps it is just an exercise in imagination, an exploration of a what-if scenario that is not necessarily meant to be directly applicable to reality. One interesting subject that this story explores, for instance, is this: in the story, both the men and the women seem largely happy with the relations between the two sexes in their culture. (Of course, this is just a short story; it doesn't give out too much information; perhaps, if we learnt more about this tribe, we would find more discontent than meets the eye at first sight.) At the same time, these relations seem somewhat unfortunate to an observer from our world, because of all the deception and the patronizing contempt with which the women humour the men rather than trying to engage them in a debate and get them to improve their unsatisfactory behaviour and attitudes (e.g. their impracticalness and their uselessness at hunting). The interesting question here is: is it sufficient that both sides are relatively happy with the bargain, even though it involves a mild amount of contempt and deception on one side? Or should we, if we were able to give advice to this tribe, recommend their women to try to educate their men and bring them to a point where they will be able to regard them as their equals rather than as their inferiors, as little better than children?

Another interesting question in relation to this story is to what extent can similar phenomena be found in real life. If we compare the relations between the sexes in real life and in this story, is the story more like a caricature (showing true characterstics but emphasizing them out of proportion) or more like an inversion, showing things the opposite of what they are in reality? For example, in this story the women are practical while the men are largely useless daydreamers. What about real life? Can we say that one sex is more practical than the other? There seem to be plenty of stereotypes going in both directions. On the one hand, it is sometimes said that women are more practical than men, because men are more likely to find themselves preoccupied with (or at least interested in) impractical things where most of them don't really have the power to achieve anything definite (things such as philosophy, politics, idealism, ideology, etc.), while women are more likely to focus on practical things in their own lives and in the lives of their family and community (things like raising a family, maintaining a household, and earning a living). On the other hand, it is sometimes said that men are more practical than women, because they go out into the world, compete against the others, build houses, run the economy, fight wars and don't dream about romantic things such as princes on white horses. But I think that the most reasonable conclusion should be that real-life human beings are much more diverse and complex and are not really amenable to the sort of easy stereotyping that we see in this story. I like to consider myself an equal-opportunity misanthrope, and to say that there exist such significant differences between the sexes seems to me to run against common sense.

Incidentally, another interesting topic in this story is that of naming. All the names used in the book have a clear meaning, and usually seem to be derived directly from some anecdote that actually happened to the person in question. Furthermore one may easily assume a new name if some new interesting thing happens to one. I find this idea interesting and somehow touching. At the same time I wonder what were the naming practices of real prehistoric societies. For example, nowadays we rarely change our names, at least first names (and it is really only the first name, rather than the surname, that is really quite one's own). Additionally, nowadays we don't understand the meaning of most of our names, which is hardly surprising because most of them originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago and have in many cases reached us only after being borrowed from one language to another several times, and undergoing modifications and corruptions all the time. Even when the original meaning of a name is known, it is rarely evident to us (unless we've read about it in some book); and for many of the names, the meaning is unknown, and more and more names are being made up for the sake of their acoustic quality only, with no pretense to meaning whatsoever. Hardly ever is the name chosen with a view to any relation between its meaning and the life of the person being named. I wonder what are the actual naming practices of ‘primitive’ peoples. Do they as a rule use names whose meaning they recognize? And is this meaning supposed to have something to do with the life of the bearer of the name? Or does it also happen to them, as it did to us, that a name remains in use for centuries until its original meaning becomes quite obscure and forgotten (or even that a name is borrowed from one tribe to the next, whose language gives them no clue as to the name's meaning, etc.)?

3 Comments:

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Congratulations on making #18.

Thanks for the idea (Hours of Idleness), but I'm not sure I'll use it. Changing the name would mean losing the tiny bit of recognition and I'm not sure I'd like that...

On the other hand next week I'll be sure that the very unimaginative name is the sole reason that my blog doesn't get more noticed. :)

Thursday, January 05, 2006 3:25:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for the congratulations, I was completely surprised to find myself at #18, especially since, having installed SiteMeter on this blog a few months ago, I know how few visits it really receives -- around 10 per day on average (and that includes all the random people coming here via the search engines), with 15-20 on a few very good days. Anyway, it's nice to see that some people come and visit this blog, even though I suspect that few of them finish reading my long and tedious posts :)

As for changing the name of your blog, I think your present name is not bad either and I don't see any pressing need to change it (it certainly doesn't strike me as particularly unimaginative, but then I've always felt that imaginativeness and originality are greatly overrated nowadays). I just made that suggestion because you mentioned that you were dissatisfied with the current name.

Thursday, January 05, 2006 7:46:00 PM  
Blogger Nadezhda said...

Your posts are not tedious, they're just very long. But I know how that feels - I am not gifted with brevity, either.

I decide to write just a short post, something that should take me about 10 minutes and end up writing an hour and more. :)

Friday, January 06, 2006 12:32:00 PM  

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