Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"The Double Tongue" by William Golding

The terrible ending of The Inheritors, “that beautifully imagined, poetic fable” where Lok, the last surviving Neanderthal Man, dies of grief, are among the most profoundly moving lines William Golding has ever written.

Golding died in the fall of 1993 and at the memorial service held for the deceased author at Salisbury Cathedral, Ted Hughes, the famous English poet, read Lok’s passage, “in an unforgettable way” to a grief-stricken audience, “the raw, colossal syllables booming and echoing around the cathedral’s freezing columns.”

This passage was well chosen, for Golding too, was one of a kind: a complex man, a very talented writer, courageous in his choice of topics and cleverly original in their elaboration. His disappearance left an irretrievable emptiness in the British literary scene.

A first and second draft of one last book was discovered on his desk. His family and his publisher, Faber & Faber, braving the frowns of the literary critics, decided to publish the first draft in its unfinished shape. They picked the title The Double Tongue from among several possibilities Golding himself had considered, dedicated it to the people at Faber, especially to Charles Monteith, lifelong friend and editor, and presented the hardcover edition to the public in the summer of 1995.

“One of the perks - or plagues - of being a Nobel Prize winner is that your heirs get to publish whatever they find on your desk” said David Mc Cullough, in what must have been the lowest level of critical wit and understanding the New York Times ever reached, for if you expect the unfinished book to be a hastily assembled draft of a text, written by a muttering and slobbering octogenarian, you are in for a surprise.

Despite, or thanks to the novel being “just” a mere first draft, the general reader for once is allowed a troubling insight into Golding’s creative process and therefore has to listen more carefully to the fading voice. For this original and intelligent novel might well be considered the old writer’s testament. It discloses, combative and ironic as ever, Golding’s final statement on a number of issues that concerned him throughout his career.

The moment of inspiration for The Double Tongue is precisely recorded. Probably triggered by his reading and pondering over the texts of Plutarch and Euripides, his journal mentions that he jotted down a splendid set of ideas on 14 January 1993. A first draft was already finished before the end of February and it is this version that was published and presented to the public. A second draft was worked on from March to June, but Golding seems to have only adjusted the historical period. Julius Caesar mentioned in the first draft, Sulla in the second. All the basic issues are already well elaborated in the first draft, and remain unchanged in the second. Still Golding thought a third draft might well be needed. Normally he would write three or four versions of a book before considering publishing. The first draft of The Double Tongue seems to indicate that Golding, after a surge of inspiration, would have the book as “good as finished” and all the subsequent versions adding nothing more than thin layers of varnish. If this is indeed so, I have the impression that the writing of drafts was just another symptom of the writer’s notorious lack of confidence in front of his critics and no more than an excuse to delay the submission of the manuscript.

The Double Tongue has as a setting the sacred site of Delphi. We are in the first century BC and the once famous oracle is on the decline. The Roman occupier is steadily but still respectfully tightening his grip on the Greek Province. Arieka, the eighty year old prophetess of the Oracle, known as the Pythia, is the narrator and she remembers her life.

She remembers how she grew up as a young girl in her aristocratic family, living on the shore of the Gulf of Corinth. She is not attractive, her face a bit unbalanced, lopsided. She is also not loved, and she suffers contempt and neglect from her family because of her often weird behaviour. A heightened sense of empathy and mysterious healing skills announce Arieka’s destiny. Her psychic powers and mystical inspiration are noticed by Ionides, the Head of the college of priests of the nearby Oracle of Delphi. He proposes to her father that he take Arieka with him and educate her to become a Pythia, a priestess of Apollo.

Her parents seem to be quite happy to get rid of Arieka, more a tomboy than a petite fille modèle, who has only brought shame and scandal to the family and whose uncanny ways have jeopardized her chances for an arranged marriage. Arieka is happy too, she feels herself rescued from a future which could only bring her misery.

Ionides kindly grooms and educates her into her religious function. She is introduced into the complex ceremony of the oracle. Seated on a tripod, in the cave under the temple, inhaling fumes that induce an alternate psychic state, she has to experience a “visitation” by the God Apollo, who speaks through her voice and delivers (preferably in hexameters) a prophecy, an oracle. But the Pythia never speaks directly to the people who consult her. Ionides or other priests have to “translate” her words to the public.

Arieka really does believe in the God Apollo and often speaks true oracles. Ionides however, her mouthpiece, has a double agenda: he cheats. He does not believe in the Gods, but he uses the reputation and the political value of the Oracle in a futile attempt to free Greece from the foreign ruler.
 Not only does Ionides give his own, untrue interpretations of Arieka’s or Apollo’s words, but he even goes so far as to ask Arieka to fake her divine utterances and to manipulate her prophecies to help him attain his political aims.  But Arieka feels herself really inspired. In her prophetic trance she utters truths she has no memory of afterwards. She feels that Apollo really does speak through her - he “tears” her mouth - and she is unwilling to betray him and to soil her sacred gift.

Although Arieka and Ionides differ in opinion, they still respect each other. They age together and form an awkward couple. Ionides being a homosexual does not make any claim on her, and Arieka, who experiences every visitation of Apollo as a rape, is in no need of a man. Together they form a strange androgynous prophetic entity, speaking in a double tongue, within the oracle. Over the years, during the further decline of the Oracle’s reputation, a curious metamorphosis takes place. Ionides, whose doings are eventually found out by the Romans, believes more and more in the God inspired prophecies of Arieka, while she has growing doubts about the Olympian Gods and her inspiration by the god Apollo. In the end, when the people want to honor her with a statue, she refuses and proposes to dedicate it instead to “the unknown God” announcing by this that “on the subject of God or Gods, nothing can be known” and that the end of the Old Olympian Gods has come.

The last four words of the novel: “to the unknown God” are the mythical words announcing Christianity, picked up by Saint Paul in his proselytizing crusade. "Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD" (Acts of the Apostles 17.22-23)

The Oracle can easily be understood as a thinly veiled albeit witty metaphor for the relation between the Artist, his public, and the critics - those interpreters who have to explain a work of Art to a larger public.

Arieka represents Art, or the Artist, divinely inspired; and Ionides stands for the editors and critics, the intermediary between the Artist and the larger public. Golding, notoriously, had a life-long problem with critics and criticism. The necessity to pass through them to access the larger media was unavoidable and a good review could do wonders while a bad one, especially at the beginning of his career, could bring his growth to fame to a grinding halt.

Golding was strongly aware of the symbiotic relationship between the Artist and the Editor - Critic. So while he could become literally sick with anxiety about the possible misinterpretation and misrepresentation of his ideas, he was also aware that his reputation, especially after his death, was highly dependent on their curatorship.

Neither party can fully control or steer the other and nothing is more difficult than a good collaboration on this level, but if there are good intentions from both sides, both Artist and Critic can evolve into a unity not unlike that strange androgyny of the Delphic Oracle producing a so-called socialized text, a spontaneous collaboration between the writer and the individuals responsible for seeing his or her work into print. The Double Tongue is of course a prime example of such a redefined notion of Art, but so was Lord of the Flies.

Charles Monteith, the editor at Faber who helped Golding to get his first book published, had also been very critical about certain parts of Lord of the Flies. He persuaded Golding to take all references to the divine out and especially to scrap the Theophanic (the manifestation of a God) experience of the boy Simon. Golding agreed under pressure, eager to get his book published but he regretted it. He would, much later, explain to an audience that he felt it as a betrayal of the Divine and that he regretted it deeply. While Monteith got Golding printed, he damaged the artwork in the process.

Arieka does not only stand for the Art or Artist in general, she represents Golding too! That very masculine writer, reacting to earlier criticism, chooses for the first time, tongue in cheek, a female persona as the narrator of the story. Golding recalled a childhood memory, in his journal. When he was two years old, his nursemaid gave him her hair-clip to play with. Little Golding, turning the tortoise-shell and brass thing over in his little hands, was overwhelmed by a proud happy feeling that he belonged with “the right sort of people, the females.” By identifying with a female narrator, Golding herewith, in a certain sense closes a circle, between this childhood memory and his last book.

But there is more.

Like Golding, Arieka is in her eighties when she remembers her life. The book opens with a strange recollection of her own birth: “Blazing light and warmth, undifferentiated and experiencing themselves”. Golding too claimed he remembered his birth and jotted it down in his journal as a color experience: “red mostly, but everywhere, and a sense of wind blowing, buffering and there was much light.” Both Arieka and Golding, remembering something which cannot be remembered, not only tags them as one of a kind, but sets them apart in their exceptionality. But if Golding is Arieka, who is Ionides? It is of course Charles Monteith, the man who saved Lord of the Flies from the wastepaper basket. And in that sense The Double Tongue is also Golding’s homage to his Muse.

Let’s remember the legend surrounding the publication of Lord of the Flies. Faber’s first reader had gone over the manuscript and finding it “unsatisfactory”, threw it away. Monteith, still a junior member of the firm, not only picked it up, but fought against heavy opposition from the board to get it publicized. Only his skill and persistence saved Lord of the Flies for posterity. Says Frank Kermode: “Had it been scrapped it seems possible that it would have had no successors.” Golding was uneasily aware of that key moment of luck on the road to success, international recognition and the Nobel Prize. Was it all just chance? Nothing more than coincidence? Golding, a religious man, could not but consider it a manifestation of Divine intervention.

I have always thought writing books was just work, hard work. The more an author would work on his book, the better it would become. My heroes are Joyce, Flaubert and Mann. Joyce could suffer for days looking for the right word; Flaubert would test all his sentences in le gueuloir, declaiming them aloud, checking the music, the sound and the rhythm. Mann’s very German discipline in the daily chores of his writer’s job is legendary. There was not much space (or so I thought) in the conception of a novel for the intervention of the Muse or that lightning bolt of sudden inspiration.
Golding, however, challenges this opinion. Looking back at his career as a celebrated and successful writer, he remained skeptic about where “it” all came from. The Double Tongue allowed him to express this sense of mystery that he felt was an ineluctable part of the creative process. “I practice a craft I do not understand and cannot describe,” Golding wrote earlier and he was convinced that “there is a mystery about (the trade of the novelist), a mystery in every sense of that ancient word.”

As a conclusion, what has the reader to make from this all?

If critics can be both reliable and unreliable, then we the readers are at a permanent risk. We could miss opportunities of reading worthwhile pieces of fiction, or we could miserably waste our time on junk. The commercial forces that are unleashed on us to manipulate our reading choices are huge. Advice, tips, recommendations are rammed into our brains through newspapers, magazines, shop-windows, radio, internet, billboards etc.

If we do not want to lose ourselves, we need to decide and draw our own reading path – our sendero luminoso - free from all manipulative media. We have to find ways to bypass the wall between us and the Artist, to find traces of that “divine inspiration” or to hear the Gods speaking directly to us.

This saddles us with the responsibility for the choice of our reading, for the development of our own soul. And so it should be, for Golding’s last work shows us that only we, ourselves, can decide what is good for us and decide to which Voice we should listen.

This review was included in "A fabulous Opera", Running girl press ( 2015 )

Sources :

The Artful equivocation of William Golding's The Double tongue - critical essay - Twentieth century Literature - Fall 2001 by JH Stape

"Fiction in the wild, modern manner" Metanarrative Gesture in William Goldin's To the end of the earth trilogy by JH Stape

Editing : Tomcat Murr ( thanks!)

Illustration :

Priestess of Delphi (1891) by the Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (27 January 1850 – 11 April 1934)