Monday, January 09, 2006

BOOK: William Golding, "Envoy Extraordinary"

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

[Continued from last week and the week before.]

<spoiler warning>

The third story, Envoy Extraordinary, is in my opinion the most accessible and the most entertaining of the three. It is set in the ancient Roman times, at an unspecified period. The Emperor (whose name is not given) is an old man, and in the opening pages of the story we find him in conversation with his grandson Mamillius, who is not yet twenty years old (p. 144) but is already quite bored with life and the world (pp. 120, 122). The Emperor tries to show him that the world is bigger and more diverse than he thinks, and mentions the scant but fascinating information that is known to him about China (p. 120). We learn that the Emperor's position is somewhat weak; he has an heir-apparent, Posthumus, who is currently leading the army in Illyria but may come back to depose him at any moment should he think that the Emperor or Mamillius were likely to try taking a more active role in politics (p. 121).

Two visitors from Egypt are then announced: Phanocles, formerly a librarian at Alexandria (p. 124), with his sister Euphrosyne, who is apparently very beautiful but terribly shy and never says anything nor shows more than the upper half of her face (p. 126). Phanocles is a naturalist and an inventor; in the Emperor he finds a more patient and open-minded listener than in most other people (pp. 128–9). He presents his proposed design for a steamship, and persuades the Emperor to support him in actually building such a ship (pp. 131–3). The Emperor, a keen gourmet, is however even more delighted by another new use for steam: a pressure-cooker. Phanocles also mentions another revolutionary invention, an explosive; and says there is also a third thing which he will however unveil later (p. 134).

Phanocles takes up his work; a cannon is duly constructed to make use of the gunpowder he invented (p. 138), and work also progresses on his steamship, the Amphitrite (he has learnt about the need for a safety valve after a hilarious incident with a pressure-cooker, p. 142). Mamillus visits him to see how the work is going, and Phanocles points out another possible use of steam: on a nearby ship, a group of slaves is laboriously lifting a metallic ‘crab’ that is thrown in battles to damage or sink an enemy's ship (p. 140). How much more easily it could be lifted by the power of steam! However, moments afterwards, the crab falls onto Amphitrite, damaging it and narrowly missing Phanocles and Mamillus (p. 143). The incident is not cleared up immediately, as the slave who had cut the rope commits suicide, but it seems likely that it was an assassination attempt against Mamillus, organized by Posthumus who is probably unhappy to see that Mamillus and the Emperor are taking an interest in new military technology (p. 146). Soon afterwards the Emperor comes to the harbour, as he had been planning to come for a short test voyage aboard Amphitrite (p. 145). Before this can begin, however, Posthumus' ships appear in the harbour (p. 149), full of soldiers and of loot from Illyria (p. 151).

Posthumus himself disembarks soon afterwards; he had received news of the steamship and the cannon, and is sure that the Emperor and Mamillus were plotting against him; he is now quite ready to take matters into his own hands, and get rid of his supposed rival by force if necessary (pp. 152–3). Nor does he seem to fully grasp the potential of Phanocles' inventions (pp. 154–5). Posthumus leaves the Emperor, Mamillus and Phanocles under the guard of his soldiers while he himself runs back to the harbour where Amphitrite is running out of control and seems likely to explode (p. 156–7). The Emperor — still nominally the supreme commander of the army after all — wishes to formally inspect the soldiers, and orders them to stand at attention while bearing huge loads of loot and gear. The band begins to play, the Emperor walks slowly between their ranks, saying a few words to each soldier in turn; the blazing heat of the sun eventually begins to have its effects, and one by one they fall unconscious (p. 157–63). Eventually they are so incapacitated that Mamillus has the opportunity to sneak away and return with a group of guards loyal to the Emperor; they seize Posthumus as he returns (pp. 162–3).

In the discussion that follows, it transpires that the assassination attempt with the crab had actually been directed at Phanocles, organized by rowers — slaves who, although they disliked their work, were horrified by the idea that it would be made redundant (pp. 165–6). As for Phanocles' other invention, the cannon, a nearby officer whose opinion they ask seems to be distinctly unhappy about the changes it seems likely to bring to warfare (pp. 167–8). This officer and Posthumus manage to escape, and the Emperor's downfall seems near-certain, but moments afterwards Posthumus is shot by the cannon — by Euphrosyne apparently (p. 171).

Now that Posthumus' soldiers are deprived of their leader, it will be possible to reassert the Emperor's authority, and Mamillus will become his heir (pp. 170, 174). The Emperor, who has by now realized that Euphrosyne's unwillingness to speak or show her face is not due to some sort of extreme shyness or modesty but to a physical defect — a harelip in fact — now announces his intention to marry her, to provide her with some security and peace (p. 172). As for the steamship and the cannon, he finds them amusing but does not think work on them should continue; the one invention by Phanocles that he really admires is the pressure-cooker (pp. 174–6). Phanocles mentions his idea for a device that would always point North (p. 176). But his third invention, which he mentioned at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a printing press (p. 177). The Emperor is intrigued by the idea but horrified at the prospect of the mass of bad writing that will deluge the world. To reward Phanocles for his invention of the pressure-cooker, he appoints him the Roman Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary — to China (p. 178).

</spoiler warning>

Of the three stories in this book, this one is definitely my favourite. It touches on a number of fascinating subjects, it isn't as hard to follow as the other two, and it even has a number of really funny passages.

The subject of connections between ancient Rome and China is most intriguing. I was vaguely aware that the Romans had sent an embassy to China at some point, but the Wikipedia page on Sino-Roman relations mentions several other embassies as well, including unsuccessful Chinese efforts to reach Rome. And, most tantalizingly: “In 116 the Roman Emperor Trajan advanced into Parthia to Ctesiphon and came within one day's march of the Chinese border garrisons, but direct contacts never took place.” Nevertheless, Roman geographers were clearly aware of the existence of China, and of its general whereabouts. Besides, there was trade: Rome imported a lot of Chinese silk, of course through middlemen rather than directly. But the idea that several of the famous Chinese discoveries, such as gunpowder, printing, and the compass, actually originated (several centuries before we really first see them mentioned in China) from a brilliant individual who came from the Roman world but left it because it was unable to grasp and accept his ideas — this is truly a charming, masterly stroke of historical what-iffery. There are so many things in us that respond with delight to this concept. We all love to admire the lonely, misunderstood inventor, producing wonderful things in his garret while his unappreciative contemporaries laugh at him; we all love to imagine how the course of history would have changed if this or that important discovery had been made somewhere else, and at an earlier date than it really was; we all love to imagine how it might have been if the great ancient civilizations had had more direct contacts with each other and had not been each merely an isolated island unto itself.

As for the discovery of the steam engine, it is often said that the ancient Greeks and Romans were not very far from discovering it, but didn't have enough motivation for this kind of research: since they had plenty of slaves to do all the hard work, they didn't feel the need to develop machinery (cf. p. 141). I wonder if this explanation is really quite satisfactory; at least from the point of view of the cut-throat capitalism of the present age, the fact that a machine could do the job more cheaply than a group of slaves would be a sufficient reason to develop the machine. Once you had a working steam engine that cost less to maintain than an equivalent group of slaves, it would pay itself off in a few years; and if you found that you have no further need for your slaves, you could still cut their throats and thus save on the upkeep (after all, if you didn't hesitate to exploit them, whip them, torture them, etc., why would you hesitate to kill them?). But perhaps the Roman slaveowners weren't used to thinking in such practical terms after all. Anyhow, if the Romans had invented the steam engine, the course of history might have been significantly altered after all. With the power of steam, Rome would have been in a better position to defend itself from barbarian invasions. Railroads might eventually have been built, greatly facilitating communications and trade. (Indeed it's my opinion that one of the main reasons for the decline of the Roman empire was that the country practically fell apart, as, given the poor communications (despite the many good roads that the Romans had built), it was too difficult to hold it together once trouble got under way on all sides at the same time.) And steam-powered ships could make long voyages much easier to accomplish, and might lead to an earlier discovery of America or an establishment of direct trade links with South and East Asia.

One thing that struck me as somewhat curious in this story is the attitude of the rowing slaves towards the steamship; they make several attempts to damage it and to assassinate its inventor, Phanocles. As one of them argues on p. 166, they were worried that after the discovery of steam, there would be no further need for rowers; he admits that as rowers they suffer a lot, and when asked why they oppose the steamship then, he quotes Achilles from the Odyssey (book 11): “ ‘I had rather be slave to a smallholder than rule in hell over all the ghosts of men.’ ” I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps he does expect that the rower-slaves, once they would be made redundant and useless by the steam engine, would be simply killed.

Even more debatable is the attitude of the officer on pp. 167–8 towards the invention of gunpowder. Everyone in that discussion realizes that warfare will be quite changed: the shiny metal armour will be quite useless and will be replaced by camouflage uniforms and crawling in the mud, amidst the din of terrible explosions. And although all this is surely quite horrible, yet I don't see why the old method of warfare, i.e. coming up close to your enemy and trying to stab him with your sword before he stabs you, is really that much better. Injuries are horrible no matter how you get them, but if you have the comparably good fortune of getting killed, isn't it better and more painless to be blasted away by a big explosion rather than being slowly hacked to pieces with a sword? And besides, progress in warfare has shown that there is no weapon that can not be opposed by some suitable counter-measure, as long as the enemy has enough resources at his disposal to develop such a counter-measure. So from that point of view, Rome should really have had no reason to reject the idea of gunpowder.

Both of these concerns — the rower's and the officer's — bring me back to one of my favourite rant topics, namely progress. Does not much of what passes for progress nowadays make our lives more miserable rather than better, and our world uglier rather than prettier? And much of it, although not exactly changes for the worse, are not really changes for the better either, and are thus essentially quite superfluous, a waste of our time and resources? I don't, incidentally, think that gunpowder and the steam engine fall into this class of useless discoveries and illusory progress. But much of our present-day ‘progress’ does strike me as being of that character. How many useless gadgets are invented every day, purporting to solve problems of whose existence we were blissfully unaware until then! No, I am firmly convinced that further technological progress cannot really solve, at least not for quite some time, any of the major fundamental problems of our time. Social and political changes, rather than technological ones, are necessary for that. We are overworked and miserable, our environment is getting ruined, and we live in increasingly crowded conditions where we cannot help treading on each other's toes all the time. But it is vain to expect technology to solve these problems: we must solve them by consuming less; also by producing less but distributing more carefully the things we do produce; also by reducing the world's population to some decent and reasonably sustainable level, no more than a thousand millions, preferrably by some painless method such as not having children. We may live better now than we did in Mamillus' time, but I doubt that we really live any better than we did twenty years ago. All the supposed progress of the last two or three decades has been largely an illusion. Of course it may be argued that I'm not fit to judge this since I'm not old enough to remember well what things were like twenty years ago. But I know for sure that I wasn't any happier ten years ago with a 14" monitor than I am now with a 21" one. Progress will never make us happy; we grow accustomed to it too soon, and trying to keep coming up with new technological advances won't do the trick.

Another interesting subject addressed by this story is the nature of science and the character of scientists. Phanocles' ideas are of the sort that you would hardly expect to find before the seventeenth century, perhaps before the eighteenth. His world is a reasonable, predictable place; indeed “ ‘[t]he universe is a machine’ ” (p. 129). This strikes Mamillus as a very dull universe, but Phanocles answers with the passionate zeal of a true scientist: “ ‘My life is passed in a condition of ravished astonishment.’ ” This is in a way enviable and admirable; but at the same time I cannot help agreeing with the Emperor that there is also something selfish (p. 173) and hubristic (p. 128) about Phanocles and his science. He pursues his inventions because he is interested in them, but he gives little thought to the impact of his work on other people (“ ‘You are alone in your universe with natural law and people are an interruption, an intrusion’ ”, says the Emperor on p. 173). This story is in fact atypical in the sense that the politician rejects the scientist's discoveries with their potential military applications; in reality, of course, the story is usually different: a scientist of much ability and passion for his work, but relatively little concern about its impact on the rest of the world, would be welcomed as the perfect helper by an ambitious government keen to exploit his work to increase its own power. After all, this is how the atom bomb had come to be invented just a few years before Envoy Extraordinary was written. The mechanistic view of someone like Phanocles is a great basis for discovering natural laws but a terrible basis for planning a policy. If everything is an object and a mechanism, then people are objects too, just a bit more complicated than some other objects. How can a person with such a world-view (and I know this world-view quite well, since I subscribe to it myself) be prevented from perpetrating horrors? I see no other means than by ensuring that each such individual is weak and is aware that others will retaliate if he attempts to treat them as objects. But when such an individual finds himself in a position of power, the results can be terrible.

A related aspect of the relations between science and society at large, also explored by this story, is the possibility of deliberate rejection of some scientific advance, or of refusal to pursue a particular avenue of research. This is what the Emperor does in this story: he deliberately decides that the Roman world will be better off without steam engines and gunpowder and printing, and therefore sends Phanocles away and doesn't make use of his inventions. I am sympathetic to the Emperor's point of view here, for I often feel that many technological inventions cause more problems than they solve, and that the world would be better without them. But in the long term, it's difficult to block the progress of science and technology, as well as dangerous if you have less scrupulous competitors. For example, I am glad that efforts are presently being made to block the progress of genetic engineering, especially regarding the manipulation of crops, livestock, and human embryos, but I'm afraid that in the long term unscrupulous parties will find ways to proceed with this research and we'll have to live with its consequences no matter how much we tried to prevent them from coming about. Several other examples of conscious decisions not to pursue or adopt a certain technology are known from history. The Amish are a well known example, and they illustrate that a tightly-knit group willing to remain largely isolated from the outside world can actually manage to avoid going with the flow of technological progress if it really wants to. If I remember correctly, Jared Diamond argues in his Guns, Germs, and Steel that one of the reasons why economic and technological progress came earlier and faster in the old world than in the new was the fact that in the old world there was a larger number of competing civilizations; if one of them discovered something, others soon learnt of it and did not have to invent it by themselves, and on the other hand if one of them spurned some advance, it would sooner or latter be defeated by its more advanced neighbours. Similar reasons may have contributed to the fact that the industrial revolution started in Europe rather than in the Far East: a European country at the time would simply not be able to afford to retreat into isolation and ignore the progress of technology the way China or Japan might have done, for its neighbours would soon be at its throat. Eventually, of course, the perils of ignoring the progress of technology caught up with China and Japan as well, making China easy prey for the western imperialists, as Japan might also have become if it hadn't caught up with the west in the second half of the 19th century. The moral of this story, I guess, is that technology can only be successfully spurned if the whole world agrees to do it; or at least so much of the world that the remaining parts, the ones that are willing to proceed with some particular technological advance, are weak and harmless. But alas, it would be hard to get the whole world to agree on anything, much less on ignoring tehcnological progress; most people are too enamoured of it.

Mamillus' ennui is an interesting thing; something I can quite sympathise with. He says on p. 120 (echoed by the Emperor on p. 125) that “ ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ ” — this, of course, is a biblical reference (Ecclesiastes 1.9), but there aren't any other references to Christianity whatsoever in this story, so I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Perhaps the author introduced it on purpose; after all, this story is full of toying with historical fact, things being moved to a different time or place, and links imagined where none had in fact existed. Anyhow, Mamillus continues with: “ ‘Everything has been invented, everything has been written. Time has had a stop.’ ” This feeling strikes a chord with me, because I am often inclined to feel the same way myself. But it also forces me to wonder — admittedly, in view of all the wonderful things that have been written and invented between Mamillus' age and our own, his claim that everything had been written and invented by then does strike one as just a wee bit premature. And so, if somebody a hundred or a thousand years from now looks back at the 20th or the 21st century, won't my belief that everything worthwhile has been written and invented by now seem equally absurd to them as Mamillus' belief seems to me? Perhaps the problem is that the things written and invented nowadays include such an overwhelmingly large proportion of pure, absolute, utterly worthless junk that it's quite difficult to keep in mind that there also exist some valuable things hidden amidst all this junk.

Incidentally, to return to the subject of Mamillus' ennui (he is quite a well-read young man, and has some inclinations to be a poet): he also inverts the well-known sentence of Pliny on p. 122, saying: “ ‘There is nothing new, even out of Africa.’ ” As for Mamillus' poetic ambitions, they provide material for one of the most hilarious passages in the story, namely when Posthumus describes what his spies have reported him (pp. 153–4): “ ‘He is corresponding with the Emperor and others in code under cover of writing poetry [. . .] It has not yet been found possible to break this code. [. . .] it proved to be composed of quotations fom Moschus, Erinna, Mimnermus, and sources not yet identified. Research is proceeding.’ ” This brings poor Mamillus to tears. But I think that the value of originality, in poetry as well as in other fields, is much exaggerated.

There are several other funny passages in the story. On p. 142, there is a conversation between Phanocles and Mamillus in the course of which we first learn that an experiment with the pressure-cooker must have gone awry; then we hear than a “mammoth” (an elephant?) was involved; and finally that the Emperor is still “sorry about the three cooks and the north wing of the villa”! :-)

The Emperor is quite keen on gastronomy, and has curious opinions about it. For him, it seems to be mostly about the pleasrue of reliving, in his old years, memories of pleasant things he has tasted in his youth: “ ‘Gastronomy is not the pleasure of youth but the evocation of it.’ ” (P. 119.) “ ‘I have always been a primitive where meat is concerned. Elephant's foot and mammoth, your rarities, spices, unguents, they are unworthy and vulgar. [. . .] To taste meat in its exquisite simplicity would be a return to those experiences of youth that time has blunted. There should be a wood fire, a healthy tiredness in the limbs, and if possible a sense of peril.’ ” (P. 132.) As another example, the Emperor reminisces about one of the experiences of his youth on p. 175, describing it with much passion and buildup of pressure, and ending with: “ ‘Now—! A convulsion of two bodies, sense of terror, of rape—she flies in the air and I grab with lion's claws. She is out, she is mine—my first trout.’ ” I think it's a nice contribution to the genre of stories with a surprise ending where you're made to think it's about sex all the time until the end when it turns out to be something quite innocent. This poem is another nice example, as is this one. But there are also some that don't have such an innocent ending, of course.

(I'm not quite sure what to make of the mammoth reference mentioned above, though. I reappears on p. 142. It can't really be mammoth meat, although there do exist occasional claims that people ate the meat of frozen mammoth carcasses found in Siberia. See e.g. this article in the Skeptical Inquirer (2002, no. 4), which says that most of the meat had rotten before freezing, and was inedible: “What really appears to have happened [. . .] is that one of them made a heroic attempt to take a bite out of the 40,000 year old meat but was unable to keep it down, in spite of a generous use of spices.” Anyway, I think it's a great pity that the mammoths, as well as several other large ice-ace species, went extinct. It would be splendid if genetic engineering would be able to ‘revive’ them some day; it would be so much better if they spent their efforts at some inspiring task such as this and not only at producing monstrous genetically modified vegetables for the benefit of the multinational agribusinesses...)

The story has an interesting structure: it is divided into four sections, the last one being titled “L'Envoy” and much shorter than the previous three. This is doubly appropriate, since this fourth section does end with Phanocles' appointment as envoy, but it also means that the whole story immitates the structure of a ballade.

The author is very good at describing situations where several things are going on at the same time, and his narrative jumps between them so as to make them quite interwoven and the reader is really observing them all simultaneously. The best example is on pp. 157–63: the Emperor is inspecting the soldiers, the band is playing in the background, his lengthy speech goes on and on, the soldiers are falling unconscious one after another, and meanwhile there is all this confusion going in in the harbour, the Amphitrite spinning out of control, fire spreading to the city. It was a nice idea to use the indentation of the paragraphs to signify this jumping back and forth between the two strands of narrative.


  • After this positive experience with Golding, it might not be a bad idea after all to read his best-known work, The Lord of the Flies. For some reason, I never felt any curiosity or attraction towards this book, even though I knew nothing definite about it. I don't see any clear reason for my antipathy, unless it is because the concept was also mentioned in a boring existentialist drama by Sartre that I read at some point (I forget the title but it was probably The Flies; Jove is mentioned as ‘The Lord of Flies and Death’ or something like that), and so the concept of a lord of the flies may have become associated with dulness in my subconsciousness.
  • The theme of incest in The Scorpion God reminded me of a paper with the fabulously bizarre title of UFOs and Royal Incest, by a certain Dr. MacDowell. I heard it mentioned some time ago on the Hall of Maat forum. Of course I have no realistic hope of finding such an obscure publication. But the very idea of such a paper is hilarious.
  • On a more serious note, it might be interesting to learn a bit more about pre-dynastic Egypt. But then, more likely than not, this would be yet another of those topics that look interesting at a distance but then turn out to be humdrum and boring as soon as you dive into details. Archaeologists, as always, would go on and on endlessly about pots and knives and whetstones and fibulae and god knows what other irrelevant everyday objects, while being able to tell almost nothing about the civic, social, spiritual, etc. developments of that period. Of course one cannot blame them for that — after all, they've got nothing but material sources to work with. Thus we have no choice but to resort to fiction if we wish to imagine that period.
  • The theme of relations between the two sexes in Clonk Clonk reminded me that it might be interesting to read some book about anthropology, to see what sort of differences between the roles of men and women really existed among various ‘primitive’ cultures. But I don't know any suitable titles. The only one that comes to mind is (oh boy, can I ever see the Google queries coming after this one) Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages. I don't think it's really quite about the subject I mentioned, but anyway, how can you resist reading a book with such a delightfully bizare title?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read with interest your comments on Envoy Extraordinary, after reading the story for the second time and Googling to find the origin of the slave's quotation (Achilles). I find the story hilarious, and I think it would make a very funny film. But I wanted to point out to you that Posthumus isn't shot by the cannon, by Euphrosyne - she removes the "butterfly" from the weapon - some sort of delaying mechanism - which causes the "shell" to explode on firing, rather than after travelling to it's target. Or so I read the events.

I love the farcical nature of the Amphitrite whirling around the harbour, chasing the other ships and gradually setting fire to them and in time the entire town, while the Emperor calmly (and cunningly) inspects the troops. I like his line to the first soldier "Where did you get that scar? A jab with a spear? A bottle, eh?" There's a wealth of unstated military humour in that.

Good luck to you.

Thursday, November 09, 2006 1:04:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Or so I read the events.

I guess you're right. I found that passage pretty unclear, especially the role of the "butterfly". Your interpretation certainly makes more sense than mine.

while the Emperor calmly (and cunningly) inspects the troops.

I agree, that's probably my favourite part of the story. :)

Thanks for the comment, and good luck to you too!

Thursday, November 09, 2006 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Adnan Najeeb said...

Your reviews of the three novellas are amazing. I read all three novellas this week, but felt my understanding hazy and foggy. I still enjoyed them very much, as his cunning use of language, and his simply complex sentences were a pleasure to read through, and gradually decipher. I thank you a bundle for your amazing going-throughs of the story, and commentary, and it really does my heart good to see people putting out their beautiful, structured, and revised opinions in the internet for free. Thank you. ^^

Sunday, August 14, 2016 12:09:00 AM  

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