William Golding’s 1954 novel The Lord of the Flies–which I just reread–depicts boys stranded without adults on a tropical island. The boys prove far less marked by civilization than the prototypical fictional strandee Robinson Crusoe, and far less skilled at organizing than the denizens of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945).
The novel studies an interesting proposition: human nature in the state of nature—how does it look under stress? Not good, unfortunately—no better than the current spectacle of infighting inside the Beltway, with adults who should know better thrashing around like boys who understand neither themselves nor the place where they find themselves.
After the plane crash, it’s obvious what is needed: shelter, food, security, and a way to signal for help from any passing ship.
But it doesn’t work out that way. The two most natural leaders, Ralph the rational and Jack the hunter, soon hate each other. Piggy the intelligent is marginalized. The older ones stop caring for the little ones. The boys break into tribes, one moving back to prehistory, the other struggling to retain the veneer of how they grew up.
The systems set up by that mini-society’s founders stop working: the signal fire is not maintained, not enough shelters are built, the orderly process of speaking at meetings breaks down, and random human wastes foul the waters. Self-destructive impulses take over.
And then there is fear: fear of the dark, of shapes in the treetops, of the water, of a mysterious beast. In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that strange cults, violence, and unreasoning enmity take over?
On our own near-island, the needs are clear too, but a falling away from the original organizing principles, dueling leaders, hostile ideologies, and fear of the unknown seem stronger than human reason. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR said, but he forgot to add: “and ourselves.”
Eventually, after at least three deaths and much despair, not to mention horrendous discomforts, the warring and now near-savage boys are rescued from the state of nature and their own nature by outside forces, in the person of a naval officer who steps ashore just in time to save Ralph from suffering the fate of the explorer Captain Cook, who was killed on the shore (and according at least to some sources partially eaten) in the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii.
As the officer says: “I should have thought that a pack of British boys … would have been able to put up a better show that that.”
One would think we could do better too. And if there are any outside forces to help us, they better step forward ASAP.
I often think of Jared Diamond’s 2005 treatise Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. “Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues” (Wikipedia).
In one prime example, since we’re on a Pacific island theme, Easter Island was once heavily forested, but its inhabitants developed habits that ultimately destroyed all trees and the civilization itself.
A 9/5/12 article, “The Sixth Extinction Menaces the Very Foundations of Culture” by Jonathan Jones, Guardian UK, makes the same point, about the impact of humans on nature today.
Although we often hear quoted the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s dictum (in a volume quaintly titled Reason in Common Sense) that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” American history does not show any particular propensity to learn from others’ experience.
Still, perhaps making The Lord of the Flies required reading in Washington would have a beneficial effect.
Winston Churchill said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” But there really isn’t a whole lot of time for us, or the world, to keep trying other possibilities, before The Lord of the Flies (or Animal Farm, or 1984) becomes all too real.