DARKNESS VISIBLE: William Golding’s Fiery Meditation

A question for you: If a book’s opening pages amaze you, and its closing pages bring you near tears, have you read a great book? The need to pose the question at all is probably its own answer. Nevertheless, Darkness Visible, William Golding’s troubling and troublesome novel, had me hashing out this question long after closing the back cover.

The title refers to Milton’s evocation of hell in Paradise Lost:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes.
(I. 61-67)

And so, before we even open the book we have some idea of that into which we are about to be plunged. When Darkness Visible came out in 1979, Golding had not published a novel in twelve years, and you can tell. The pages are heavy with density of meaning. The writing is gorgeous, in places baroquely claused, allusive. Golding begins with hell on earth, a furnace – 1940 London during a German Blitz – out of which walks a flaming child. Listen to his description of the moment the child is spotted by the fire crew peering into the blaze left by a bomb:

At the end of the street or where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world – at that point where the world had become an open stove – at a point where odd bits of brightness condensed to form a lamp-post still standing, a pillar box, some eccentrically shaped rubble – right there, where the flinty street was turned into light, something moved. (12)

That phrase, “no longer part of the habitable world”, is large, and apt, to the passage and the novel, for clearly, after his twelve-year silence, Golding had come to wonder what part of the spiritually decimated post-WWII post-Vietnam world, whose only hopeful generation was being conquered by and divided between the guru and the radical, remained habitable, “humanly speaking.” To explore  this problem, he adopted the convention of the double, two characters opposed, the guru and the radical, who, though they never meet, set in motion a philosophical weather system.

The first is Matty, the flaming child, whose stride out of the Blitz and onto the page loudly echos the most famous photographic image from the Vietnam War. Severely burned, he becomes, almost point by point, the “burning babe,” in Robert Southwell’s somewhat off-putting allegory of Christ.

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

In the character of Matty the saccharin is, thankfully, neutralized by his daunting literalness, which makes him at once a holy fool and destructive element. His face makes visible his character, and the darkness therein: the left side has been burned away to a bald white scar while the right remains intact. After his rescue, Matty (Matthew Septimus Windrove, as he has been named, though no one uses the middle name or can ever quite get a handle on the last) is taken to the mythical town of Greenfield where he is put in a school for foundlings. There he meets  the homosexul pedophile, Sebastian Pedigree. Mr. Pedigree, to deter rumors about his practice of giving the most beautiful boys private “tutelage”, bumps one, his beloved Henderson, for Matty, whose grotesque appearance disgusts him, but, he hopes, will quash suspicion. Matty is only able to take this turn in his favor at face value, and so believes Pedigree to be his “one true friend”, and pretty Henderson to be essentially bad because fallen from grace. When Henderson falls even further, from the lean stairs outside Pedigree’s window to his death, Matty is implicated because his gym shoe is found near the body. Accident, suicide, murder – Golding is admirably ambiguous on this point. In any case, both Pedigree and Matty are removed from the school in disgrace, but not before Pedigree spits out a curse on Matty, calling him “That horrible, ugly boy!” and telling him “It’s all your fault!”.

Matty spends the next years of his life attempting to atone for a sin he accepts without attempting to understand. He becomes a highly idiosyncratic Bible freak, expatriates to Australia where, among other things, he undergoes a “crucifarce” in which he is nearly emasculated by an Aborigine. He keeps a journal in which he records his conversations with two angelic presences, one dressed in red robes and hat, the other in blue, the first “more expensive” than the second, who tell him he is “very near the center of things.” He puts himself through a bizarrely convoluted cleansing ritual or baptism in a swamp near Darwin before repatriating to Greenfield, which he enters riding the bicycle equivalent of Monsieur Hulot’s automobile. He becomes a handyman at an exclusive boarding school, and emerges as a kind of prophet, at least in the minds of two rather mediocre men, a retired school teacher named Edwin Bell and a bookseller named Sim Goodchild.

Matty’s double is Sophy, the more deadly of two beautiful sociopathic twins. Early in our acquaintance with this character, one of Golding’s vilist, we see her as a small girl, throwing stones at dabchicks as they swim down a river. With awful precocity, she ascertains the exact arch and moment of release which will cause her stone to kill one of them. To her, the mere possibility of doing so makes it an imperative.

Then there was the longer pleasure, the achieved contemplation of the scrap of fluff turning gently as the stream bore it out of sight. (109)

Well then. She awakens to sexuality early, through her preternatural awareness of her feelings for her emotionally distant father (the twins’s mother left early on), and his relationships with a series of “aunties”. It is almost a matter of course that her eroticism turns violent. She has her first orgasm only when, during sex, she stabs her thuggish boyfriend, Roland, deep in his shoulder. She can’t fathom his fuss. A radio broadcast on the subject of entropy articulates for her the sense that “the whole universe is winding down.” She believes the only viable course of action is to help it along. While her sister, Toni, heads out for a career in international terrorism, Sophy remains in Greenfield where she uses sex as a magnet to bind a handful of dupes to her like iron filings, and, with them, hatches a terrorist plot of her own. This involves kidnapping the son of an oil sheik from the school where Matty is employed. As the operation commences, she imagines murdering the boy in such graphic detail, and in such an orgiastic swoon, that I had to read the passage twice to satisfy myself that the murder didn’t actually happen. The bomb the terrorists use to incite the chaos brings Matty full circle; as the kidnapping gets underway, Matty, immolating, pursues the kidnappers and thwarts the operation.

The accumulation of pages, up to this point, had left the book’s importance, and Golding’s urgency, thoroughly overdetermined, and I was looking forward to being done with it. So much so that I was entirely unprepared to find the novel’s beating heart, right there in the last four pages. Matty, as it turned out, was not finished with his task on Earth. Pedigree was still out there, all those years later, old, disintegrating, and still grievously in thrall to his addiction to “the sons of the morning”. We see him, lonely and broken, in the park with its public restroom where he habitually operated. He positions himself on a bench near the gravel playground. He has with him his lure of choice, a big many-colored ball. Just as he is preparing to use it Matty appears to him, transfigured. The tables are turned, and Pedigree finds himself the object of an unwanted advance. A tussle ensues, more awesome than any of the preceding conflagrations, for Pedigree’s soul. It is a paradox that here, at the end, when the story becomes most blatantly metaphysical, it also becomes most believable.

Darkness Visible groans and buckles under converging pressures: Vertically, it staggers under its freight of symbolism. Horizontally, it is stretched by the tortured exigencies of plot.

Take Matty, by comparison the more approachable of the two protagonists. He is an amalgam of metaphors. In addition to being Golding’s most transparent Christ, there is his name, Matthew Septimus. Looking up Matthew 7 in the Bible, one finds Christ’s warning against false prophets. Though he be Christ, he is one of these too. Then there is his face, split between the hideously wasted left and the healthy right. In the bicameral brain, the left hemisphere controls speech and sequential reason, the right is inarticulate but feels, has visions, making him a fool-proof fool to play against Sophy’s extreme rational materialist. A. S. Byatt, who loved the book, can’t get enough of this game:

If the beautiful twins are the fallen Whore, Matty, piebald, mutilated, is the incarnate Second Coming, the figure in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, the alchemical conjunction of opposites in one body and thus the Philosopher’s Stone – which was often pictured as a naked child and referred to as the orphan. He is also Horus, Horapollo, one-eyed God of Light, who was imagined as a naked boy with one bald side to his head and one “lock of youth” over his temple. Horus is also falcon-headed, and it is as a great golden bird that Matty finally appears to Mr. Pedigree at the end of the novel, flaming, feathered, golden, loving and terrible. That is why I also believe that the name which came into the hospital superintendent’s mind, the name no one speaks, was Windhover – Hopkins’s Falcon, the Christ whose blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion…. If Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Golding has said that he believes man is “the local contradiction to this rule,” that in him “the cosmos is organising energy back to the sunlight level.” Matty is the contradictory burning bush that is not consumed.

Matty, it seems, is a veritable kitchen sink of symbols an and allusions. He is everything, it seems, except an actual human being, about whom one can feel a shred of empathy. To me, he comes across as a Joan d’Arc cum Don Quioxte without the romance of either.

In spite of a lot being said about her, including how her pointy breasts rise in her father’s presence, Sophy is even more reduced. With Matty we can at least feel pity. With Sophy, only revulsion. Everything about her pertains to her nihilism. She is more a type of sin than a person. Her belief in the ennobling power of gratuitous acts of violence makes her a cousin to Gide’s Lafcadio, albeit drained of all wit or charm.

Golding clearly wanted much for this novel, so much, in fact, that its complexity comes perilously close to mere complication. For example, before the kidnapping, Matty holds a kind of seance with Bell and Goodchild, his devotees. I won’t go into how it comes to be held in the room in which Sophy and Toni grew up. Bernard F. Dick, in his excellent study of William Golding, tries to rescue the book from charges that it strains credulity past bearing, and nearly succeeds. If Darkness Visible

is judged solely on a narrative basis, it would be like subjecting Twelfth Night or The Tempest to the standards of literary realism. Although Golding’s novels abound in realistic detail, they are not realistic novels; one does not “believe” in a Golding novel the way one believes in, say, Madame Bovary.

For Golding, it seems, his plot was but a point of departure, a hook on which to hang his meditation on the late 20th century world, the nature of evil, anomie, the divorce of heart from mind. Very well. I can accept this. But this means that, for all of Darkness Visible‘s undeniable riches, its narrative, that for which, when it comes down to it, we read novels, is subsumed under its own meanings. His characters become illustrations of arguments rather than agents of the actions, or even thoughts, Golding provides for them. Which is what makes Pedigree’s final moments so shattering. Faced with the awful prospect of redemption, he at once longs for its release and recoils from it in terror. After 260 pages, Golding at last exhausted his topic, and could afford this moment of true, human drama, of which our recognition is immediate and total. And it is worth all the rest combined.


One Response to DARKNESS VISIBLE: William Golding’s Fiery Meditation

  1. Avatar Jessadriel
    Jessadriel says:

    “Matty, it seems, is a veritable kitchen sink of symbols an and allusions. He is everything, it seems, except an actual human being, about whom one can feel a shred of empathy.”

    I felt a lot of empathy for him. He’s one of the great autistic characters of literature, and his silent, tenacious struggle to live in the neurotypical world that rejects him is heart-breakingly human. The part where he writes in his journal about thinking of his wooden-covered Bible floating out to sea – where he dearly wishes he had a kind wife and some little children – where he has “a great and live memory” of the taste of hot tea with milk – his odd little ‘economy’ of having three black socks, so he can wash one every night – so many different passages all reveal Mattie the man, not just a collection of symbols.