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Entrusting the Past to the Present: Confessional Writing in Three Novels by William Golding

Le passé commis au présent: l’écriture confessionnelle à l’œuvre dans trois romans de William Golding
Camille Fort
p. 133-144


Cet article envisage la façon complexe dont Golding recrée l’écriture confessionnelle dans ses récits. Il réévalue cette écriture comme une performance destinée à un Autre qui lui confère sa dimension rédemptrice et approfondit son rapport à la temporalité. L’influence de saint Augustin sur Golding est sensible dans trois romans, Darkness Visible, Free Fall et Rites of Passage, dont les narrateurs cherchent eux aussi à soustraire leur expérience au temps chronologique pour en faire un témoignage spirituel dont le sens perdurera dans d’autres contextes. Ce qui différencie toutefois l’écrivain moderne de son illustre prédécesseur tient au fait que les narrateurs doivent renoncer à la certitude que, dans leur texte, le sens est cautionné a priori par un interlocuteur transcendant. Ils ne peuvent que s’en remettre à leur capacité de parvenir à la clairvoyance au moyen du langage. Leur entreprise a partie liée avec la foi et l’échec: si leur tentative pour se représenter dans le temps n’échappe ni à l’incohérence ni au leurre, elle revient à une quête morale de justice, envers autrui et envers eux-mêmes.

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1 “My darkness reaches out and fumbles at a typewriter with its tongs. Your darkness reaches out with your tongs and grasps a book” (Golding 1959, 8). This is painter Sammy Mountjoy’s pessimistic conclusion on his attempt to clarify the murky events of his life by writing about them. When recalling this quotation lately, I wrote it down without checking it first and it became “My darkness reaches out and fumbles with its tongue”. Call it a lapsus linguae or slip of the tongue, probably due to the fact that The Double Tongue, William Golding’s last novel, was also lying on my desk at the time.

  • 1 My own fumbling translation of this into English would be “confession allows man to subsist in the (...)

2Or call it an instinctive mistrust of confessional writing as an operative concept in novels where writing often results in misunderstanding, lies and deception. How can it achieve the immediacy of confession in a time when thinkers such as Jacques Derrida consider that it differs and disseminates meaning rather than ascertains the writer’s presence and sincerity? The answer of course would lie in the second part of Golding’s quotation. Confession has lost its transparency, be it spoken or written, but it can still be acknowledged, perhaps even understood, by the “You” whom it addresses. As such, Golding’s faith in the necessity of communicating one’s past errors reflects another modern thinker’s, the French philosopher Paul Ricœur who thought that man’s salvation lies in his capacity to use language so that he can reveal the extent to which his sin had alienated him: “par l’aveu, l’homme reste parole jusque dans l’expérience de l’absurdité”1 (Ricœur 245).

3Confessional writing in Golding’s novels tends towards this salvation. Dark and dubious as it may be, it remains a potentially redemptive performance. As it unfolds, a self-centered process of reminiscence escapes solipsism by reaching out towards an Other and delegating onto that Other the burden of significance. Golding partly absolves writing of the sins that have been heaped upon its head by the more pessimistic thinkers of our century because of that one redeeming feature: writing remains by definition Other-oriented. Even cryptic writing—be it the Egyptian hieroglyphs that captivated young Golding, or the intimate diary which Edmund, the hero of the Sea Trilogy, wants to “keep all locked away” because it “has become as deadly as a locked gun” (Golding 1989, 85)—cannot remain eternally self-inclosed. The crypt must open one day; the hieroglyphs will be read; even Golding’s journal, this immense testimony of so many years, will be accessible one day though perhaps not in its entirety. In Golding’s humanist perspective, the Other’s claim on my discourse does not fatally lessen the value of my words or alienate their meaning. On the contrary, it is the necessary condition for them to become pregnant with meaning. And we should remember that other modern discourses, such as Lacanian psycho- analysis, have come to the same conclusion.

4I doubt, however, that Golding had Lacan in mind when he recreated confessional writing in novels such as Free Fall, Darkness Visible or Rites of Passage. His model would rather have been Saint Augustine’s Confessions, whose author invokes God from the first lines on as the receptacle of a discourse that would be insignificant, or even senseless, if it were not addressed to Him. Let me quote some lines out of this incipit before mentioning its less spiritual counterpart in Rites of Passage: “Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; [. . .] stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not” (Book I, chapter 4).

5It is because he feels the protection of a God who escapes the limit of time, while remaining in control of it, that Augustine can bring himself to confront his own being-in-time. He will go back in time to retrieve the being that he once was, confident that God will inspire him to produce a truthful account, one that will make him fully present to himself through verbal re-presentation. Time in Augustine’s eyes is that opaque phenomenon which flies from the future into the past and cannot be held in consciousness, not even while it is being experienced. Writing, however, if inspired by the intemporal Presence to which it is dedicated, can become a means of holding time onto fixity—the fixity of writing, but also the immutability of truth, if the memory has been faithfully recorded. Like any autobiographical writing, confessional writing commits experience to the past, if only because its grammar relies on past tenses. But it also entrusts the past to the present—that of the eternal God, encompassing Augustine’s past and future in his omniscient gaze, and the more episodic present brought along with each reading of the manuscript, when each reader is asked to resurrect Augustine’s past and makes it significant for him, in his own time.

6Confessional writing is thus viewed by Augustine as a symbolical means to fight the effects of original sin, i.e.: the Fall of man into chronological time and its disastrous effects: change, decay, oblivion. Writing stabilizes the passage of time as it commits transient events to a more enduring dimension. It endows the past with retrospective coherence and meaning, thus allowing it to connect with the present moment of writing, against the possibility of a future reading. This optimistic program can be found at the core of Darkness Visible, Free Fall and Rites of Passage though only the first narrative models itself on the Augustinian project, while the other two pastiche it. In Darkness Visible, the main character, the young mystic Matty, keeps a diary which he does not consider as a private document but as a testimony of his spiritual experience, the visions and visitations he receives. While Matty merely records the immediate past, he believes in the necessity to leave a written trace that will enlighten others after him, a belief strengthened by the spirits who visit him when they forbid him to burn his journal. The link with Augustine’s Confessions also appears in the pivotal scene where the spirits visiting Matty show him an open book with “His Name” written in shining gold. Just as Augustine became converted to Christianity when taking up and reading a book that would inspire his own textual project, Matty’s diary finds its justification in this archetypal book and its arch- writing, spelling out the all-significant name of the Lord. While the reader may question the veracity of the experience, knowing that Matty’s mysticism takes the form of fasting and sleeplessness, the narrator himself never experiences any doubt in this respect.

7This explicit pact between the confessional writer and his divine addressee, the Lord to whom he dedicates the written record of his experience, is shown in a much more dubious light in Free Fall and Rites of Passage. The narrators in these two novels also produce an account of their history—their immediate past, in the case of Edmund Talbot, and their more distant past, in that of Sammy Mountjoy—and address it to another whom they trust will acknowledge it as a truthful and meaningful testimony. Yet this Other cannot be God himself, since Talbot and Mountjoy lack Augustine’s faith in an omnipresent divinity. Talbot is content with addressing his diary to a mundane version of a protective and benign God, his aristocratic godfather. In fact, the first lines of his journal merely ape Augustine’s lenghtened-out invocation: “Honored godfather! With those words I begin the journal I engaged myself to keep for you—no words could be more suitable!” (Golding 1980, 3). Talbot’s illusion that he can recreate a proximity or complicity between his godfather and himself by inscribing his presence in the journal, addressing him over and over again in Augustine’s words, “my Lord”, is soon belied by the plot. The death of this invisible character ruins the initial project: through the rest of his journey, Talbot will constantly hesitate as to the destination of his memories. He will not clearly know whether he is writing them for himself, his future wife or the hypothetical grandchildren he addresses comically at the end of the third book. His counterpart in the story, parson Colley, who also keeps a diary, seems closer to the original model when he wonders in the course of his own confession: “Can it be that, like THY saints of old (particularly Saint Augustine) I am addressing THEE, O MOST MERCIFUL SAVIOUR?” (Golding 1980, 208). And yet the interrogative sentence makes it clear that Colley does not spontaneously trust his memories to God, but that he too thinks of God as one possible addressee among others. In either case, the confessional narrative cannot be anchored outside of chronological time, secured in the understanding of an eternal reader who will gift it with everlasting significance.

8In Free Fall, Sammy Mountjoy is confronted to the same dilemma as he is aware that the potential reader he is addressing is, in Baudelaire’s terms, “[s]on semblable, [s]on frère”. The reader is as finite in understanding and dependent on time as the writer is, and can merely “reach out” towards the testimony from his own blindness. Though meaning can still be put forth in writing and recovered in reading, it is no longer guaranteed by a transcendant interlocutor. Gone is Augustine’s certainty that his confession is the truth because God supervises the double process of summoning the memories and ordering them in composition. Golding’s confessional narrators can only trust in their own capacity to make sense of the past through language so as to achieve some clear-sightedness. Yet even a triumphant cry like that of the Pythia Arieka, “There! I’ve done it!” (following what she considers as a truthful enough account of her own birth), triggers off such qualifying statements as “The best I can, that is” and “as I tried to say” (Golding 1995, 3). At the very moment when Arieka tries to define “a memory before memory”, when “there was no time, not even implied”, she must acknowledge her limitations as a writer. She knows that her language is subjected to temporality: not only can she only access a limited body of words and sentences, but those words will have to follow a linear pattern of succession, the very pattern that it tries to bypass in the incipit. Like all confessional narrators in Golding, the heroine of the Double Tongue is confronted to the double, contradictory horizon of language: fixity and fluctuation.

9The same tension is at work in Rites of Passage, where Talbot tries to clarify in his journal events which prove more and more elusive as he tries to investigate them. Talbot’s journal tries to make sense of various passages: the flowing of time, the journey which takes him across the Equator, from England to Australia, the passing away of various characters, and his own transition from innocence to experience as he acknowledges his responsibility in the tragic death of Pastor Colley. As the title indicates, he hopes to constrain the fluctuation of time and being within a set pattern. “Rites of passage” refers to the ceremony that celebrates the passing of the Equator, but it could also be applied to Talbot’s daily ritual as he opens his diary and sets out to account for the main events of the day. This rite, a cyclical activity supposed to remain unchanged through time, corresponds to young Talbot’s illusion that he can retain a fixed ceremonial despite the anarchic, uncontrollable events taking place on the board. Yet just as the word “rites”, according to the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, is in fact based on the Sanskrit root “ri” meaning “to go, or to flow”, Talbot’s illusion that in writing about these events he can make them history—or “his story”—is quickly defeated. In fact, the novel denounces the traditional Western belief that memory and writing are synonymous in that they constitute what Frances Yates in The Art of Memory calls an “orderly arrangement”. According to the ancient scholars studied by Yates, the act of remembering implied a process of selection and disposition akin to that of rhetorics. Just as an orator chose his ideas and arranged them in a significant order, the person who wanted to remember things was to select the things he wanted to remember, make mental images of them and order those images in a logical sequence that he would have no trouble recalling later on. This agenda appears at the begining of Free Fall, when Sammy Mountjoy expresses his wish to achieve a clear vision of his past: “Perhaps if I write my story as it appears to me, I shall be able to go back and select” (Golding 1959, 7). Yet, as James Acheson demonstrated, “selecting” implies a form of control which, in Sammy’s case, leads him to equate confession with self-justification as the selected scenes all point to the same morale: he could not help doing, or being, what he did and who he was.

10Talbot’s writing shows the same effort to constrain the flow of experience into ordered sequences. His first entry displays an arrangement that is logical enough: “Very well. The place: on board the ship at last. The year: you know. The date: surely, what matters is that it is the first day of my passage to the other side of the world; in token whereof I have this moment inscribed the number one at the top of this page. For what I am about to write must be a record of our first day. The month or day of the week can signify little since in our long passage from the south of Old England to the Antipodes we shall pass through the geometry of all seasons!” (Golding 1980, 3).

11Yet the writer’s attempt to frame the “long passage” of time and journey into a logical set-up already falters as he renounces historical time for a more relative order of succession. He thus betrays the fact that his journal will be a subjective rather than a rational account of his experience, a fact confirmed by the next entry which is merely introduced by the notation “Later” (8). As the journey progresses, Talbot’s language becomes less and less precise in relation to temporal landmarks—as could be expected of a sea-traveller. The young man who announced his decision to learn all the relevant nautical words so that he could call every piece of the boat by its name is the same narrator who inserts the Greek letters “zeta” and “omega” among his journal entries because he has lost count of the days, or acknowledges that he is tempted to “describ[e] the day before yesterday rather than writing about today for you tonight” (Golding 1980, 29). As he relinquishes his rational hold on chronology, he finds himself tempted to let words and ideas flow adrift in their turn. He experiences the typical Goldingian trend to “break down any notion of clock time or chronological arrangement” emphasized by Larry L. Dickson in relation to Free Fall (Dickson 60).

12In fact, Talbot’s writing only becomes truly confessionnal when the writer acknowledges his failure to master either his words or the phenomena that they are supposed to describe. His last entry, in which he tries to make sense of Pastor Colley’s unnatural death, begins with the words “I do not know how to write this” and goes on with the metaphor of a broken chain: “The chain would seem too thin, the links individually too weak—and yet something within me insists they are links and all joined, so that I now understand what happened to pitiable, clownish Colley!” (Golding 1980, 276). The writer’s wish to make sense of the absurd by joining together the various testimonies he gathered, thus reconstituting the “logical sequence” of events that led to Colley’s death, contrasts with his final desire to leave the journal unfinished. As Talbot acknowledges his responsibility in Colley’s death and his blindness to the true events of the journey, he also renounces—temporarily, since we know that there will in fact be two sequels to this novel—his prerogatives as a diarist. His growing awareness of his fault or sin—his passive acquiescece to Colley’s shame and death—results in judgement that all further pretence on his part to repossess his experience by writing about it would be partly a lie. This failure to control the flow of time through retrospective writing echoes Sammy Mountjoy’s previous attempt and failure, in Free Fall, to pin down the exact moment when he, too, lost his innocence and agreed to corruption in his life. Like Talbot, Sammy can only acknowledge his incapacity to pin down the moment when chronos, the linear flow of time, coincided with kairo s, the all-significant moment when he made a choice that was to change his whole life: “Yet here, if I look for the moment of change, I cannot find it” (Golding 1959, 160) or the famous interrogation “Here?” followed by a question mark which ends chapter 12 of F ree Fall and is left unanswered.

13The end of Talbot’s journal, in fact, coincides with his resolution to cease commenting on the events which he records. As such, his diary can be contrasted with that of Matty in Darkness Visible. Matty, who appears throughout the novel as the modern counterpart to the ancient Prophets—a strange, pure, self-marginalized character painfully aware of sin and who tries to warn his contemporaries against it in a language that mostly escapes them—writes his diary in a totally different way from Talbot or Sammy. Indeed, Matty’s humility and his self-imposed status as God’s instrument forbids him from commenting on what he writes. Contrary to Talbot and Sammy, who keep trying to understand, decipher and comment their actions, past or present, so as to make sense of them and recording this sense along with the facts, Matty is content to chronicle the bare events of his life. He leaves exegesis to the mysterious Other who will read the content of his diary, be the Other human or divine. His confessional writing thus contradicts the diarist’s usual tendency to build an image or a representation of himself through his account of his past actions. Matty’s diary reflects his purity in that it merely reflects his helpless astonishment at what has happened to him: he refrains from using the record of his life to construct a self-aggrandizing narrative. His journal is a fictional counterproof to Golding’s slightly suspicious approach of diary-writing in the text entitled “Intimate Relations”, published with other essays in A Moving Target (1982). In it, Golding—who himself kept a diary—asks: “Why? What does it matter? Is not our limited time more precious than that we should spend it making these spidery marks on papers? What is the impulse to describe and record? Are we trying instinctively to stop time or to outwit it? Are we building ourselves a monument?” (104–5). In the case of Matty’s journal, the answer to these last two questions would be no. Matty is not writing a diary in order to stop time since he for one believes that he is living in the time of Apocalypse, an entropic time rushing towards its end and the visitation of God’s judgement on earth. Neither is he building a monument for himself—rather, he is painfully recording the circumstances which he witnesses in the hope that by juxtaposing them, he will construct a significant pattern. And this hope must finally be renounced. Here, for instance, is the entry for the eleventh of June 1966, that is five days after the sixth day of the sixth month of the year 1966—a significant date in Biblical terms since its numbers (6/6/66) mirror those of the Beast in the Book of Revelation: “I have looked for the judgement that was to be done on the sixth but cannot find it. Sara Jenkins died, may she rest in peace, and a son was born to the doctor’s wife in the cottage hospital. There was a slight accident at the bottom of Fish Hill. A boy (P. Williamson) fell off his bike and sustained a fracture of the left leg. His will be done” (Golding 1979, 89–90).

14Matty’s purity appears in the fact that his writing is exceedingly transparent at a time when he himself feels in the dark as to the deeper meaning of his life. His naive belief that the Bible gave him a clue to understand time—the all—significant day when Apocalypse was supposed to take place —yields to acceptance that this day, in fact, was entirely normal: people died, were born and endured their ordinary fate. Matty gives up on his hermeneutic quest, and his refusal to pass prophetic judgement on this day appears in the fact that he wishes old Sara Jenkin a peaceful rest and does not even try to interpret the fracture on the boy’s left leg as an ominous sign. The fact is merely recorded as potentially significant but the significance is not explicited within the record itself. Matty’s instinctive respect for all manifestations of life and death are not accompanied by a delusion that he, rather than God, can assign a meaning to them.

15Matty’s restraint from exegesis can be contrasted with Sammy Mountjoy’s desperate attempt to exhaust the meaning of his life events by commenting endlessly upon them in Free Fall. The painter’s confession reflects a trend denounced by Golding at the end of “Intimate Relations”: “in diaries people paint a careful, injudicious and often unconscious portrait of themselves”. In Sammy’s perspective, re-membering himself is precisely that—putting together the scattered elements of a symbolical body and letting a coherent image of the self (and other selves) emerge in the end. In order to do so, he selects “scene[s] [. . .] worth reconstructing” (Golding 1959, 19) and transfers onto writing the art of composition which is his legacy as a painter. While Matty carefully abstains from using metaphors and symbols in his diary, they abound in Sammy’s record. Confessional writing generates verbal pictures that call for a running commentary, and this commentary, in turn, generates new striking images. Sammy thus depicts the “sallow red” verger who comes to apologize to him after striking him in a church. This cleverly colourful description leads on to a lucid acount of the child’s incapacity to recognize the verger’s plea for forgiveness, thus missing an opportunity to experience the healing effect of forgiving. And this reflection in turn relies on new metaphors for healing: forgiveness “takes a scar not out of today but out of the future” (Golding 1959, 74–75). Sammy’s use of metaphor becomes a tool for him to achieve connection between his past deeds and their future—that is, present—consequences, an important step in a narrative based upon guilt and remorse. Imagery feeds the introspective process and the hermeneutic quest for understanding that motivated the autobiographical writing in the first place.

16The reader’s response to this creative use of self-analysis is plural. We acknowledge in Sammy’s use of imagery a response to the limit of plain words as tools of analysis: his metaphors often tell us more about the characters he remembers that his “fumbling” attempt at describing them. An obvious example would be his mother, Ma, a “round” character in all possible senses—fat, enigmatic, powerful, elusive in her refusal to reveal to her son his father’s name and the circumstances of his birth. When Sammy tries to reconstruct Ma by using predicates, he finds himself confronted to the contradictions in her nature and ends up with a neutral statement in the etymological sense of “neutral”, “ne-uter”, neither, nor: “She is the unquestionable, the not good, not bad, not kind, not bitter”. But when he describes her through imagery, the imagery takes her so to say out of the neutral characterization, into the discourse of re-presentation that makes her fully present to our eyes. Conjuring up Ma’s voice as a “jagged shape of scarlet and bronze” (Golding 1959, 21), Sammy provides a suitably ambivalent metaphor: the “jagged shape” connotes a vitality that might turn hostile or threatening, and the epithet “scarlet” may remind us of the Scarlet Woman—the wanton woman in the Bible, a reminder that Ma is anything but chaste—while its juxtaposition with “bronze” associates it to the purple of ancient Emperors. The picture of Ma that emerges from this rich metaphor is that of a woman whose strength relies on her power to intimidate those round her, yet whose energy is a spontaneous manifestation of life. As the adult narrator verbalizes the young child’s gaze, he gives us to understand what his own experience of her may have been, half way between apprehension and loving fascination.

17Yet this shift from pictural to verbal representation remains fragile and questionable. We understand that Sammy wants his testimony to do justice to the beings he happened to misunderstand in his past life, mostly his first lover, Beatrice, whose present madness may be partly due to the fact that he left her for another woman after seducing her. Yet there is something suspiscious in Sammy’s repeated attempts to “catch her [Beatrice] [. . .] on paper”, first by drawing her picture, then in his later verbal reconstruction of this character. The verb “catch” betrays his enduring wish for control. That young Sammy tries to encompass Beatrice in his portraits, blurring the line between “representation, idolatry and destructive appropriation” (Bernard 51) is a point made long ago by Golding’s critics, but it should be noticed that the encompassing process continues even when the seduction belongs to the past, when Beatrice herself has escaped frames of all sorts by committing herself to disproportion, that is taking shelter in madness. At the very moment when Sammy confesses his guilt in deserting her, all he can write is “She was the image of a betrayed woman, of outraged and helpless innocence” (Golding 1959, 127; italics mine). Here, the image rather operates as a screen between the writing subject and the object he is attempting to depict. Why “the image” when the readers knows that Sammy has, in fact, betrayed Beatrice? Perhaps as evidence that confessional writing, dedicated though it be to the truth, remains a hostage to representation, and representation a hostage to simulacrum. Even when he confronts her at the end of the story and tries for the very first time to see her as she is, Sammy cannot help describing Beatrice in terms reminiscent of painting or sculpting: “Her face was in the shadow of her body, but a little light was reflected from the institutional wall and showed some of the moulding” (Golding 1959, 242). Confessional writing, as it struggles to distance itself from its object so as to achieve a true perspective, runs the risk of building a falsely coherent image of it. The narrative fails to deliver a true account of Beatrice’s being: to the end, it merely records an artist’s response to a potentially inspiring scene.

18Like any language, confessional language thus always threatens to become the double-edged weapon denounced by Aesop and illustrated by the Pythia’s double tongue. A language that enlightens and obscures, redeems and offends at the same time. Yet this self-centred language does not merely “translate incoherence into incoherence” (Golding 1959, 8) as Sammy states at the beginning of his quest. As Golding’s confessional narrators look for the ideal “point of consciousness” (Tiger 162) from which to consider their lives, they can but attempt to follow Augustine’s injunction at the start of his quest: “Woe is me if I speak of these things, but woe is me if I do not speak of these things.”

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Acheson, James, “Golding’s Free Fall as Confession and Parable”, Ariel 7.1 (1976), 73–83.

Augustine, Confessions, Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998.

Bernard, Catherine, “Vision in the Un-making: Free Fall”, Fingering Netsukes: Selected Papers from the First International William Golding Conference, ed. Frédéric Regard, Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’université de Saint-Étienne, 1995, 49–61.

Dickson, Larry L., The Modern Allegories of William Golding, Tampa, FL: The UP of Florida, 1990.

Golding, William, A Moving Target, London: Faber and Faber, 1982.

Golding, William, Darkness Visible, London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

Golding, William, Fire Down Below, London: Faber and Faber, 1989.

Golding, William, The Double Tongue, London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Golding, William, Free Fall, London: Faber and Faber, 1959.

Golding, William, Rites of Passage, London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

Ricœur, Paul, Finitude et culpabilité, Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1960.

Tiger, Virginia, William Golding: The Dark Fields of Discovery, London: Calders & Boyars, 1974.

Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory, Chicago: Chicago UP, 1984.

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1 My own fumbling translation of this into English would be “confession allows man to subsist in the domain of speech even when what he speaks of is his experience of the absurd”.

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Camille Fort

Université de Picardie-Jules-Verne.
Agrégée d’anglais, ancienne élève de l’École normale supérieure de la rue d’Ulm, Camille Fort est professeur à l’université de Picardie-Jules-Verne. Elle est l’auteur d’une monographie, Dérives de la parole: les romans de William Golding (2004), et d’une série d’articles consacrés aux romanciers britanniques contemporains (Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson, Vikram Seth, A.S. Byatt. . .).

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