Thursday, December 25, 2008

Unseasonal Greetings

As John has pointed out, we have been ill. Ill in a big way. In fact, I haven't been as ill as I have been for the last four days since 1996. And though I'm much better today than I was on Tuesday, I'm still not one hundred percent shipshape, so forgive if I'm rambling. It might be the fever ....

At least our illness has meant that this year we've had the best ever excuse for our typical Christmas avoidance scheme. "Sorry, I couldn't get into the Christmas spirit -- had to writhe in my bed drenched in a cold sweat, fighting off hideous ghosts hailing from various personal, professional as well as entirely fictional contexts".

So, this hasn't been exactly an active time. During our rare lucid spells we managed to watch a few DVDs, one of them being -- nice Christmassy "peace on earth" touch, that -- Lindsay Anderson's If .... Here are the final minutes of the film, in case you haven't seen it:

Well, after being unsettled by that hefty dose of the good old ultraviolence I hallucinated how I sometimes irritate students in their oral exams by asking whether the descent into violence on the part of the boys stranded on an uninhabited island in Lord of the Flies (a book many of them have read in school, which is why it inevitably pops up in their lists of exam topics) might in any way be related to the purportedly civilised background from which these characters hail.

This background emerges sketchily on the fringes of the plot, for instance in the odd deus-ex-machina appearance of a British officer at the end of the novel who gets all policeman-of-the-worldy at the sight of the boys' carnage ("I should have thought that a pack of British boys -- you're all British aren't you? -- would have been able to put up a better show than that -- I mean -- "). This final scene echoes the way the boys' (public) school uniforms are used to invoke a lost world of stability, security and order in the first chapter -- a world threatened by the larger, unidentified conflict from which the boys flee (only to end up on the island where things -- i.e. they -- get nasty) and its obscene apotheosis, the atom bomb. At the end of Golding's novel, order is restored and the feral boys willingly, nay: gladly, submit to the uniformed figure of authority come to rescue them.

However -- and this is where Golding meets Anderson -- what happens on the island between the boys collapses the neat separation of order and destruction, friend and foe on which the novel appears to be based: really, their gruesomely destructive actions are the continuation of the more "sophisticated" external carnage by somewhat cruder means.

If ... is based on exactly the same analogy between the brutality of the world at large -- synecdochally represented by the disciplinary regime of the public school in which the film is set -- and the violent microcosm that develops in its midst both as a result of that regime and by way of the character Travis's revenge against it. While Lord of the Flies is far less overtly anti-authoritarian, the novel nevertheless makes the disturbing point that relationships between human beings are forever overshadowed by our ingrained capacity for violence, which may be harnessed into a semblance of civilisation, but can never be fully overcome.

Anyway, students tend to get annoyed at my question about Lord of the Flies. Well, I guess they are the Harry Potter generation who have been indoctrinated with an idealising notion of "school" in general -- and public school (in the British sense) in particular: a mythical caring coterie of kind and loyal comrades (a far cry from the plebeian/philistine backgrounds of some of the characters), fully equipped with transmogrifying sweets, cuddly mandrakes and wood-panelled halls, where "evil" exists in physical and hence easily identifiable and vanquishable form.

It's a pity -- though maybe not entirely incomprehensible -- that they prefer the emotionally attractive (and, need it be stated explicitly, commercially valuable) perspective and impose it upon more complex texts that challenge our/their overblown notions of humanity's civilising potential.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If... . Wonderful film. Its a bit like social realism for me, though. The school in it is a bit too close for comfort. But, as a proof of the deep truth of homeopathy, they used to show it to us once a year, on speech day morning if my memory serves me correctly. Only for Fourth Form (ie third year - 15year olds) and above, of course. That kept us quiet for another year. All that said, I always preferred O, Lucky Man. Either way, Lindsay Anderson was a genius.