By Karen Schechner and Gregory Wright
APRIL 19, 1999:
William Golding, Nobel Prize winner and author of Lord of the Flies, originally published Darkness Visible in 1979. Recently reprinted in paperback, it's worth noting.
As in Lord of the Flies, Golding's two fascinating primary characters are deeply enigmatic and act as each other's moral antithesis. Matty Windrove is a quasi-schizophrenic, Christ-like figure (Golding blurs the line between mentally ill and visionary) who as a boy miraculously emerged from wreckage and fire during the bombing of London. Wholly obsessed with his self-perceived difference, his life becomes a selfless spiritual quest that evolves from "Who am I?" to "What am I?" to "What am I for?" Sophy Stanhope, however, develops from a precocious moral relativist at age 11 to a sexual tyrant and sociopath as an adult. Spurning anything remotely virtuous, she devotes her life to gratifying her needs as a sadistic, hard-core stimulation junkie.
The cogency of the novel rests on Golding's well-wrought case for empathy necessitating morality. So Golding presents Matty's immense capacity to feel as the route that leads to his otherworldly understanding of people and his aversion to causing anyone emotional or physical harm. And Sophy's detachment from others leads to her spiritual bankruptcy because of her inability to care about anything but creating ever-increasing stimuli in a world that she's numb to.
The story itself follows Matty and Sophy from their equally bizarre and loveless childhood to their even more freakish adult lives. Matty's quest takes him all over England and to Australia's outback where he suffers a surreal near-crucifixion by an "Abo" (Aboriginal). His search for meaning is constant and fierce, eventually leading him to consort with austere and demanding spirits that may be symptoms of schizophrenia or voices of Providence.
In Darkness Visible the realization of difference or individuality catalyzes the moral question of whether to follow selfish impulse or attempt to divine a higher purpose. What's chilling is that the choices and circumstances that bring Matty and Sophy to their individual ethical codes are so intimately and creepily limned that during their final heady showdown it's almost as though their struggle is waged within the reader rather than on the page. Their moral opposition becomes a profound battle of good versus evil reminiscent of the classic closing scene in Lord of the Flies. Golding creates a horrifying thriller out of a twisted morality tale, leaving us feeling spent and relieved like a good cathartic novel should.
I'll freely admit to being one of a generation pleasantly smitten by Annie Dillard's masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published a quarter of a century ago. This extended essay on nature and life was, in its time, an invigorating breath of fresh air whose breezes helped usher in a new genre of reflective works that proved a welcome antidote to the acid polemics of the '60s.
I've also been smitten with For the Time Being, Dillard's most recent work. Only this time, it smote me directly in the groin.
To be sure, Dillard is an acutely perceptive intellectual, a renaissance master of observation and of phrasings worthy of celebrating a Grecian urn. In the current volume, she deals with such disparate subjects as China, sand, Hasidism, clouds and genocide, and attempts to craft these observations into some sort of whole. Although many of its pieces are themselves beautifully wrought, I experienced enormous difficulty in trying to glue them into an urn-like vessel. The result seems a mere collection of shards.
The author's central tenet, if one can be divined, seems to be that nothing has changed over millennia of human and natural history. The horrifying atrocities of tyrants and the tragedy of malformed infants are treated with the same glib detachment as the creation of sand or cloud formations. All very fascinating--all, in Dillard's treatment, metaphorically yawned at. Alas, those yawns proved highly contagious.
In order to fuel my interest in the book, I found myself approaching it as I might a mystery novel, though I'll admit I couldn't quite muster the page-turning relish of such a diversion. My efforts at detection were aimed at figuring out how this stuff might fit together as a cogent whole. Call me a failed gumshoe.
For the Time Being contains vivid prose, verging often on poetry. It contains breathtaking bits of wisdom and displays its author's mastery of an impressive range of knowledge. It is also utterly lacking in both passion and true purpose.
Dillard provides a fascinating quote from Joseph Stalin: "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic." With the seeming million thoughts represented in For the Time Being, we needn't mourn Dillard's tragic death as one of our leading and most brilliant essayists. Let's just count the book as a statistic, and leave it at that.
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