• Tag Archives allegory
  • Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s THE SPIRE (part 2)

    I began my previous post, “Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s The Spire (part 1)”, with a quick rundown of the pitfalls of allegory, how it can grab a narrative by its throat, twist it about, and force it to kiss its own rectitude, and how it can make for lifeless characters whose only function is to represent a particular moral principal.  Ever since publishing Lord of the Flies William Golding has regularly born the charge of failing to miss the banana peel at the edge of the allegorical pit. I then wrote about how The Spire (1964), his fifth published novel, is read by some as confirmation of this criticism (It is, after all, about building a “spire”, wink wink.), making his career, at least up to that point, a possible subject for an allegory about the “folly of good intentions”. Then I shared my own experience of actually reading it, how I had expected its flaws to skitter over the pages like medieval demons over the doorstep of a lost soul. But after two careful readings, I was unable to make any of the complaints adhere. Instead, I found it magnificent. Which means that if someone where to write an allegory about the virtue of “just appraisal” or “the giving of second chances”, the author might invent a character named “Snotnose, a reader with a blog”, and relate his comedown and subsequent redemption through a reading of Golding’s The Spire.

    Salisbury Cathedral, visible from Golding’s window at Bishop Wentworth’s School for Boys, where he taught from 1939 to 1961 (with five years off for wartime service in the Royal Navy), was the inspiration and model for the catheral in THE SPIRE. Salisbury Cathedral’s 404-foot spire is the tallest in Great Britain.

    One of the ways Golding uses, and then transcends, allegory is through his portrayal of his protagonist.  Jocelin is dean of a medieval English cathedral for which he believes God has commanded him to construct an impossibly tall spire. Like most who claim this kind of direct connection with God, he comes across as thoroughly glazed, eyes never dropping lower than the mid-distance. Lacking the gravitas of, say, Noah, he is dependent upon his position of authority to counter all challenges to this vision. His most vocal opponent is Roger Mason, his master builder, who recognizes the insanity of pressing onward and upward with the great stone phallus known to all, save Jocelin himself, as “Jocelin’s Folly”. Jocelin traps him with a narcissist’s acumen for detecting the weaknesses of those within his orbit. First, he cuts off the possibility of other, better, work for Roger and his men. Then, more deviously, he allows an affair to bloom between Roger and Goody Pangall, wife of an impotent and crippled verger. “She will keep him here,” he rationalizes.  The affair has the double function of allowing him to distance himself from from his own stifling and stifled sexual desire. He treats the liaison, ultimately a lethal one, with a kind of willed blindness, perhaps his most salient attribute. As building progresses, and the menace of disaster looms ever larger, Jocelin proves a virtuoso of the blind eye turned. The cost of building materials, the alienation of his clergy, his spiritual duties to his “flock”, the paganism of the workmen, the mental dissolution of Roger, his own misbegotten position, even a case of human sacrifice in which the victim is walled into the foundation of the cathedral (an event Golding conveys with masterful ambiguity), all of it goes unmarked by the obsessed dean.

    Golding uses his creation as would an allegorist, disallowing him that final measure of freedom, to fidget about and exhibit incongruities, that is the hallmark of  more lifelike fictional characters. A more flexible and far-ranging novelist, like Patrick White, creates characters who are buffeted by the winds of their own consciousnesses, apparently separate from the author’s, and who experience such vicissitudes of circumstance and event that they can’t help but respond with vicissitudes of their own, emerging as essentially dignified agents, however flawed, of their own lives. By contrast, one never senses that, in the process of writing this book, Golding ever woke up wondering what stunt that crazy Jocelin was going to pull next. Rather, he brings his character into sharp focus solely through the lens of his sin. Pride, the deadliest of the famous seven, is referenced into everything he does, says, or thinks.  But the sin itself, and any moralistic stance towards it, is not really Golding’s subject. More, it is the impetus to sin, and in The Spire the impetus is multiform, a miasma of sexual repression, physical disease, narcissistic scaffolding, spiritual fragility. Golding is willing to trade a measure of “realism” for a more concise and dramatically useful embodiment of these complex dynamics. Jocelin is guilty of pride, but is not Pride himself. He is more a figure from Greek myth than medieval allegory.

    Mythic though he may be, Golding is too sophisticated a writer to allow a single reading of Jocelin. On the one hand, he is a narcissistic demon, oblivious to the lives he destroys. Golding’s rendering of him as such is subtle. To the criticism, mentioned in the previous post, that Golding has “seriously underwritten” his novel, showing characters and their settings in mere outline, I rejoin that he has, with a remarkably steady hand, drawn his readers into his protagonist’s consciousness. The Spire is what Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) describes as a third-person narrator-agent novel, a third person novel whose central character so influences the action that he functions nearly as a first-person voice. Through the sparsity of the setting, and those outlines and gestures which pass for people, we see the world as Jocelin sees it. That is, we see the attenuation of all that does not immediately come to bare on his God-haunted vision.

    On the other hand, Jocelin is the portrait of an artist. He confronts the modern Western reader with one of our culture’s most cherished archetypes: the Visionary. We are gluttons for stories about the artist-hero who, against all odds and opposition, and unlike most of us, remains true to his or her vision, seeing it through to its triumphant completion. (No matter how clear-eyed our world view, there is always a little Ayn Rand lurking behind a polyp in our soul.) While Jocelin brings destruction, not least of all to himself, he is also the agent of creation. His sin may be pride, but his virtue is a kind of simplicity, a singleness of purpose that any true artist must exhibit. Whatever is demonic in him, his faith is genuine, and it is It is not, I think, a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, having undergone a highly ambivalent redemption in which he is, paradoxically, shorn of this very faith, together with his “vision”, Jocelin dies, but —his spire still stands.

    I hope Golding sent at least an expensive bouquet of flowers to whoever talked him out of his original title, An Erection at Barcester, for he would have done his own vision a grave disservice.

    “Round about the year 1200, Bishop Poore was standing on a hill overlooking the confluence of the local rivers, according to legend, when the mother of Jesus appeared to him, told him to shoot an arrow and build her a church where the arrow fell. The arrow flew more than a mile and fell in the middle of a swamp. There, with complete indifference to such things as health, foundations, access and general practicability, the cathedral was built. Eighty years later, with a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child’s play, the builders erected the highest spire in the country on top of it, thousands of tons of lead and iron and wood and stone. Yet the whole building still stands. It leans. It totters. It bends. But it still stands…a perpetual delight, a perpetual wonder.” —William Golding, “An Affection for Cathedrals”

  • Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s “THE SPIRE” (part 1)

    Allegory, the use of symbolic figures or actions to convey abstract, often moral, principles or ideas, can, in the hands of a skillful writer, add a layer of meaning to a narrative. But, how skilled that writer must be lest characters shed flesh and blood and become mere signifiers, “Truth” or “Avarice” in all but name. How subtle, lest every action, every gesture become a schoolyard tattler pointing a righteous finger at its own meaning.  When allegory infects a narrative’s structure, it becomes as false and awkward as “asset enhancing” underwear, worn to trick the eye into thinking there is something there when there isn’t. The Victorian bustle is perhaps the most famous example, worn by women of all shapes and sizes as an “allegory” of their own sexual identity. William Golding has often been faulted for being an allegorist, a designer of literary bustles.

    “Le Stryge”, Charles Meryon’s 1853 etching of one of Violloet-Le-Duc’s gargoyles perched on a balustrade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which Golding acknowledged as one of the inspirations for the “ravonlike” egoism of Dean Jocelin.

    One need read no further than the title of The Spire to suspect confirmation of this criticism.  If the novel turned out to be about nothing other than what the cover claims, then we could already assume the author has used his Everyman quill to give us a good medieval talking to. At its most mundane, a spire is an allegorical piece of architecture. Even without invoking Freud, it is a symbolic declaration of power, void of function apart from its meaning. And when the bespired  building is a Christian cathedral, the allegorical gruel thickens. The general upward thrust of the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, and of their spires in particular, was intended to lift the people’s eyes upward, releasing their attention from the ground where they labored, and into which their lives were headed, and to remind them of the direction their souls would take at the end of a life of obedience to the church. The higher the spire, the wealthier the diocese, or the more wealthy it was perceived to be, and therefore, the more favored by God.

    And then, so sorry, there is Freud.

    I read The Spire (1964), William Golding’s fifth published novel, the first time at least, with an ear out for what could be problematic. So primed, the problematic obliged. Jocelin, Golding’s protagonist, is the quintessential out-of-touch clergyman with, oh dear, a divine vision. He believes God has ordered him to build a four hundred foot spire on the cathedral of which he is dean. Can you say, “Pride”? Only, guess what, the building has foundations barely sufficient to support itself as it is, spireless. A spire, we are told, must “go down as far as it goes up,” surely the moral of something or another. The master builder, Roger Mason (Can’t fault the name. People in the middle ages were often identified by their trades), digs a deep pit at the church’s crossing to prove to Jocelin the lack of adequate foundations. Not only is his point made, but, it turns out, the earth creeps; the church – wait for it – has been built on shifting sands. Already there is enough portent here to tempt even the greatest writer’s heavy hand. But then, how about those four pillars on which the weight of the tower will rest. They are far too narrow. Joceline attributes all arguments against building the spire to Roger’s lack of faith and forces his vision towards completion. As it rises, ludicrous, priapic, and the pressure on the pillars increases, they being to “sing”, emitting a high pitched “eee”. And then they begin to bend, as solid stone should never do. As it turns out, their apparent solidity is the common illusion of ashlar stone, that is, a veneer of  squared, “dressed” stone fronting rubble. To top it all off, so to speak, the obsessed Dean is observed at one point holding the model of the spire close,  and stroking it. Oh, honestly!

    Another common criticism of Golding is that he is ill-adept at depicting complex adult human relationships. The Spire could be read as corroborating evidence. The characters who flicker in and out of Joceline’s line of vision are composed of outlines, gestures. Father Anselm, Joceline’s tight-lipped confessor, is little more than a posture. Goody Pangall, wife of the crippled and impotent cathedral servant, and the object of Joceline’s insufficiently sublimated lust, is finally reduced to a tuft of red hair. The setting, too, is narrow, almost amputated. There is, we deduce, a town, with townspeople, but when rains threaten to wash the town away, the sense of emergency seems purely theoretical, and a reader may even be a bit surprised that there is a place in the world Golding has evoked for rain to fall, apart from the roof of the nave. Event is similarly sparse in its rendering. Golding offers barely a hint of the religious activity native to any active cathedral. As the spire rises, we are shown dust, snapshots of progress, but no sweat, a minimum of muscular exertion. All this haunting lacuna prompted one critic to describe the book as “seriously underwritten.”

    So, if one is predisposed to dismiss this novel, one need not look far for reason. I found myself unable to do so.

    Within the first dozen pages, I believed I had the novel pegged. The consistently taut and beautiful prose notwithstanding, I knew where this story was going and could see no prospect for surprise. Yet, following the trail of those fascinatingly poised and pointed sentences, I kept on, and found that, page by page, the narrative never went where I thought it would, at least not quite, and in the end, not at all. So that months later, needing a brief respite from The Brother’s Karamozov, I opened The Spire again, this time setting aside my reservations and allowing for one of two possibilities:

    A. that I might have bad taste and be easily manipulated by heavy handed symbolism and shameless allegory, or

    B. that Golding, whatever his limitations, might just have known what he was doing after all.

    I read with growing fascination as Dean Jocelin’s mania transformed him from a blind narcissist into a gargoyle (quite literally; a craftsman, dumb and smiling, carves his beaky visage to be placed on each of the four corners of the tower), which, in the end, cracks open to reveal a deeply flawed and broken human being. I tried rolling my eyes a little when the rains brought forth the smell of corruption from the open earth at the crossing where the tombs of long forgotten bishops had been disturbed, but found it somehow unsatisfying, as if caught in my own caginess rather than Golding’s. The singing pillars, in spite of their admittedly underlined reference to the fall awaiting the sin of Pride, nonetheless evoked a very real and hypnotic sense of menace. The play of Light (sun bursting through the stained glass windows) and Dark (the pit, human sacrifice) blurred in the cathedral’s dust-laden atmosphere.

    In the end, it turned out that I had read, for a second time but as if for the first, a complex novel, not at all “underwritten”, whose final ambiguity enables it to transcend the sum of its frequently allegorical parts. Unlike with a bald faced allegory, such as Lord of the Flies, I emerged from The Spire unsure what to think, wondering just what had happened here, but having been deeply moved.

    I don’t frequently reread books.  In my next post I will say more about why, this time, I am glad I did.

    Have you read The Spire? Any other of Golding’s novels? I would love to hear your thoughts.