Higher Living Reflections

The Beast Within

I believe man suffers from an appalling ignorance of his own nature. – William Golding

I call these tracts Higher Living Reflections. What, though, does living higher entail? It includes elevating one’s self, rising above base proclivities, a challenging endeavor often fraught with obstacles. The concept is ancient. Buddhists call them desires, which cause suffering. Christians call them the Seven Deadly Sins, which bring about eternal suffering in the world beyond our ken.

Rising above is not just a spiritual quest; it is also an earthly one. Becoming a better human by… Checking one’s passions. Being more gracious and kinder. Saying thank you and please. Covering one’s cough or sneeze. Respecting others’ spaces and sacred places. Not slurping soup or stuffing one’s mouth with unwashed hands. Not speaking slovenly but articulating clearly. Growing one’s vocabulary. Reading challenging works so to sharpen critical thinking skills and the ability to comprehend and convey complex thoughts. Entertaining ambiguity, appreciating nuance and irony, divining symbolism, and fostering one’s innate curiosity.

All those enrich one’s life experiences and help dignify the human experience by demonstrating that our branch of humans – Homo Sapiens – while still part of the animal kingdom are intrinsically above it. Spiritual beings having a human experience.

During the Sack of the Capitol, animalistic groupthink took hold and a fevered frenzy ensued. Scenes from Lord of the Flies come to mind…the hunt, the chilling chant, “Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Spill her blood!” The sound of the fury.

After butchering the sow, the boys place its head atop a spike. It becomes their idol, symbolizing the Beast. For the reader, it symbolizes and speaks to the beast within the human psyche. Later, the boys hunt down Ralph, who represents civilization and the rule of law. They intend to behead him and place his head on a pike.

A crucial distinction between the accounts is that in the novel the boys are adolescents, thus developmentally immature. In our time, it was adults, ostensibly psychologically and emotionally mature, gone rogue. William Golding’s point actuated.

It is telling that Golding named the character who represents rational intelligence “Piggy.” He is pudgy, has asthma, and is nearsighted, which make him vulnerable. Piggy’s nearsightedness indicates his intellect, though strong, is limited. He is incapable of seeing what is beneath or beyond that which he can discern. Intellect lacking insight or wisdom.

Simon personifies wisdom and innate goodness. Like Samuel in Bless Me, Ultima, Simon is a Christ figure, destined to be scorned, mutilated, and sacrificed. He is unafraid of the dark forest for he innately understands he is as much a part of nature as every other creature. As things begin to fall apart, Simon intuits, “Maybe there is a beast…What I mean is, maybe it’s only us.”

In a vision, the Lord of the Flies confirms it. “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with a parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

Golding did not write Lord of the Flies in a vacuum. Nor is it an abstract, creative, philosophical tale drawn from his imagination. The story arose from his utter revulsion at the horrors he witnessed during World War II.

By ripping the façade from human nature, Golding forces the reader to come to grips with an essential truth: Intelligent and “good” people can swoon before and fall under the spell of a charismatic, psychopathic leader who taps into their hidden fears, that which Carl Jung calls the Shadow. Feeling a sense of validation and empowerment, they can go on and commit atrocities unimaginable. Their Beast within.

I used to teach Lord of the Flies. I now realize that I had appreciated the profundity of Golding’s tale merely intellectually, academically. Now, it is hauntingly playing out in real time here at home. America’s Beast Within.

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  • Becky Cook
    January 26, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    Thanks, Jerry for connecting two tragic tales… one I read decades ago as a high school assignment and one we all just lived through… in real time on TV (or computer screen). When the worst of us is given space, permission and encouragement, horrific things can happen.

  • Donna
    January 26, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    You make some really good points, timely and thoughtful. I like that you begin with the positive, the more civil and kind elements of our nature. I find that people who have experienced extreme trauma look to these qualities to heal. I’m thinking of a friend who lost a son in a car accident that she witnessed. Going back to work, ordinary civility and the “kindness of strangers” helped her. I’m reading a book called The Vanquished detailing the aftermath of WWI, difficult reading showing the side of human nature reflected in Lord of the Flies. The continued popularity of Lord of the Flies is testament to the recognition of this side of human nature.