Fiction as evidence

Because of a debate about books with few (in this case no) female characters, we were reminded last week that Lord of the Flies has shaped the view of power enjoyed by several generations of English-speaking children. They would have got a different perspective from Ballantyne’s Coral Island had they read it. Ballantyne’s didactic expression of colonial hope would hardly get on the syllabus these days but Golding’s novel seems to have been there forever; preferred originally, I presume, because it seemed to offer a morally bracing opportunity to look at the darkness of reality.

How real is it? Very real thinks Lucy Kellaway (FT 28 May 2016); she cites it as ‘evidence” (along with “fiction” in general) against the argument of Dacher Keltner’s The Paradox of Power which argues that power goes typically to those best able to use it for the common good. Is Lord of the Flies a good source of evidence here? I don’t think that the vast body of mystery novels enjoyed over the last century and a half are evidence that murders are usually committed by fiendishly intelligent people whose crimes are detected by amateur sleuths of equally amazing capacity.

Kellaway also cites as evidence “the world as commonly observed”. I suspect that this will turn out to be, in good measure, the world understood in the light of Lord of the Flies. We can all, it is true, cite cases from real life that contradict Keltner’s thesis, but that may be because acquisitions of power by the wrong people are so much more available to memory than the unremarkable cases when things went well.

I don’t say Keltner is right. But Lord of the Flies is no better evidence than Coral Island would be.

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More money than sense?

According to the BBC “Thomas Thwaites spent six days being a goat last year as part of a research project”. Correction: he spent six days (and, apparently, some of the Wellcome Trust’s money) pretending to be a goat. These are two different things and the only one a human being can engage in is the second. Yet Mr Thwaites has written a book called GoatMan: How I Took A Holiday From Being a Human, and apparently wanted to do this at least partly because he wanted relief from the stress of human life.

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Films Noir: an occasional review

The Enforcer (1951) starts, as others have recognized, well. There’s a Hitchcockian tautness to the narration, the camera work and editing is excellent and everyone performs to order, including Bogart in a curiously muted role that gives no hint of his star-status. Some of the film was directed (uncredited) by Raoul Walsh, but I don’t know which parts; could it be like The Wizard of Oz, with its brilliant bookends from King Vidor encasing comparatively dull filming in between (enlivened by brilliant comedy from Bert Lahr and others of course). Perhaps the first twenty minutes are just too good and what follows is bound to be a let-down. It’s not clear why it’s a let down; there’s good location shooting, the occasions of violence are suitably nasty (especially for the period). But even with its flashbacks, which get quite complicated, it does not have the mood of, say, Dmytryk’s Farewell my Lovely.

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Truth and the Leopard

The Leopard - Front CoverIn Lampedusa’s delightful novel of the Sicilian Risorgimento the author describes some piece of behavior by analogy with arrival in a jet airplane: an attention-grabbing anomaly, given that the novel is set well before the jet age and is narrated, not by the Prince but certainly in a way that is oriented towards his point of view; the principle violated here seems to be “do not use concepts in narration unavailable to the focalising character” (Genette’s not very helpful term).

One way to restore harmony with the principle would be to assume that, in the story, flight by jet aircraft is available in the 1860s. But this is wholly unattractive: nothing else in the story is remotely consonant with such a suggestion, though of course such violations of history are available to an author fiction.

The reference indicates, surely, that the narrator, and not merely the author, is a mid-twentieth century person looking back one hundred years and that his (surely it is a he) focus on the Prince is a matter of moment-by-moment decision rather than consistent commitment. If the reference to jet aircraft sounds awkward (it does to me) that may be because the analogy itself is a somewhat contrived and because placing the narrator so specifically in time clashes with his omniscience.

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