William Golding and His Egypts

Article excerpt

William Golding wrote three travel texts on Egypt in which he mixed the factual and the fictional. The texts reveal Golding's long process of negotiating theories of identity. This article argues that Golding's theory of human identity imparted fluidity to the meaning of the country with which he interacted, turning it into a multiple and ever-changing place that shifts its meaning with changes in human perceptions and experiences. The Egypt he discusses changes in each successive text, and as it changes, its meanings multiply and yet disengage from the actual to reterritorialize in the fantastic.

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From whatever place I write you will expect that part of my 'Travels' will consist of excursions in my own mind.

S. T. Coleridge

I had resisted that realization for months but now had to accept that whatever I wrote would not be about Egypt, it would be about me, or if you like, us middleclass English from a peaceful bit of England, wandering more or less at will through infinite complexity, not even looking for anything specific but hoping that the lucky thing would turn up. It was not that there was so many Egypts, it was that there were so many Egypts in me.

William Golding

Many readings of Golding's works, particularly his novels, identify him with pessimism. Several critics have even undertaken comparative studies of his pre- and post-WWII writings to demonstrate that his pessimism is a direct outcome of his war experience. Lars Gyllensten, for one, points out that as a young man, Golding

   believed that man would be able to perfect himself by improving
   society and eventually doing away with all social evil. His
   optimism was akin to that of other utopians, for instance H. G.
   Wells. The Second World War changed his outlook. He discovered what
   one human being is really able to do to another. And it was not a
   question of headhunters in New Guinea or primitive tribes in the
   Amazon region--he writes. They were atrocities committed with cold
   professional skill by well-educated and cultured people--doctors,
   lawyers and those with a long tradition of high civilization behind
   them. They carried out their crimes against their own equals. (par.
   4)

Nevertheless, it was only in 1983 that Golding broke his silence about such readings of his life and work to counter the--by then--established critical view. He starts his Nobel Lecture of 1983 by pointing out how he had been "characterized as a pessimist, though I am an optimist." He adds:

   Twenty-five years ago I accepted the label 'pessimist'
   thoughtlessly without realizing that it was going to be tied
   to my tail, as it were.... Critics have dug into my books
   until they could come up with something that looked
   hopeless. I can't think why. I don't feel hopeless myself.
   Indeed I tried to reverse the process by trying to explain
   myself. (149-50)

And explain himself, he does. Characteristically complicating the simplistic label by which he was dubbed, he explains, "I named myself a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist." The Laureate goes on to define these two terms, the "universal" and the "cosmic," which he holds in opposition to each other and which, in the popular mind, denote more similarity than difference. He argues:

   when I consider a universe which the scientist constructs
   by a set of rules which stipulate that this construct must
   be repeatable and identical, then I am a pessimist and bow
   down to the great god Entropy. I am optimistic when I
   consider the spiritual dimension which the scientist's discipline
   forces him to ignore. (150)

The point here is not to prove Golding either a pessimist or an optimist. Rather, the point is to shed light on his theoretic perception. While critics persist in dividing his life into two opposed entities with a historic event marking his shift from one opposite to the other, Golding's preoccupation was to undo divisions and deconstruct binaries: "You will get no reductive pessimism from me," he explains (150). …