Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Miller on Olsen on Galbraith on Golding
From Nancy K. Miller’s “On Being Wrong,” Profession 2008:
[Tillie] Olsen attended a lecture given at her daughter’s high school during parents’ weekend. Inspired by his reading of The Lord of the Flies, John Kenneth Galbraith, then professor of economics at Harvard, was holding forth on the lessons of the novel, concluding that “human beings by nature are wired to be individualistic, and to crush those in the way as they strive to get to the top of the heap and to look out for themselves. At this point, Laurie Olsen described her mother rising from the audience, interrupting the speaker’s peroration to declare in a voice that echoed throughout the room, “You are wrong, sir!"
Miller then describes Olsen telling Galbraith how children comfort each other and that “to feel and respond to another’s pain is one of the deepest human impulses, wired into the human spirit” (58-59).
I agree with Olsen. The problem is that Galbraith must have as well. He was holding forth on the lessons of the novel--not, unless I’ve completely misunderstood everything I’ve ever read by him, agreeing with them.
I found a reference in an introduction to The Lord of the Flies that mentioned presidential advisor JKG’s fondness for the book, so I’m not as sure as I originally was about this. My memories of Galbraith’s reference to the thesis about human nature quoted above are mostly mocking references to the neo-classical economic view of man, but comments about this are welcome.
I’m just messing around, but what about these questions? Why do both people use “wired”? Is that a helpful metaphor? Is “individualistic” the same as “individuals”? Is “crush” overly dramatic? Might I just edge my way by on the way to the top? Do I “strive” on the way there, or am I “wired” to try to get there “by nature,” and might I not have to “strive” to do anything so natural? Must social organization be a “heap”? If people “look out for themselves,” is that easily a grammatical coordination with the notion of getting to thr “top of the heap”? If I “feel and respond to another’s pain,” have I stopped striving, or lost ambition, or ceased to be an individual or “individualistic”? How vague a concept is “the human spirit”? It’s hard to say whether I agree with Olsen, or Galbraith, or you, for that matter. I don’t, as must be clear since I formulate everything as a question, know what I am talking about, nor, I suspect, does anyone when we talk about “human beings” or the “human spirit” as if we had a referent.
I suppose that, outside of the non-well-formulatedness of the question at hand, the main thing that drew my attention to this was Galbraith being the unlikely villain, as opposed to Milton Friedman or Gary Becker. I remember Christopher Hitchens referring to The Lord of the Flies as a frighteningly reactionary book, or something similar. It was a staple of public high school reading lists for a long time in the Cold War era.
I think of Lord of the Flies (along with Waugh and Burgess in “A Clockwork Orange") as being part of a long tradition of grumpy British anti-progressive original-sin literature, stretching back through CS Lewis and Chesterton to Cardinal Newman (I think), Dr. Johnson, Swift, and so on. It hooks up to the views of the less cheerful economists (Malthus was an Anglican parson). Economists assumed sinfulness but tried to harness it, and their belief in original sin justified the cruelties of capitalism.
In other news, I went to college with Laurie Olsen but never knew her. She was memorably attractive.
I can see how it would hook up with the views of the less cheerful economists, but does it with Galbraith’s? (Who was sardonic, certainly, about the virtues of the managerial class; but is this the same thing?)
Yeah, I was talking about LOTF, etc., not Galbraith. I suspect that Olsen, God bless her heart, missed a level of Galbraithian irony.
I wasn’t sure that Tolkein belongs on my list, BtW, so I left him off. But he might. I thought he was far too quick to conclude that Beowulf was monkish and deeply Christian.
I was not assigned The Lord of the Flies in school and read it only after finishing college. I once had a discussion with a coworker (who was, incidentally, Catholic, but who may have attended public schools) who insisted the meaning of the story was Christianity. I find that idea a little odd, if not disturbing.
It’s been a long time since I read it, but . . . Presumably Piggy, who is immolated, and who as someone who wears glasses is seen as meek, “is” Jesus (in the story). But why is this the Jesus story? Why is it not the Ishtar-religion story (pigs were sacred to Ishtar)? Is it not sacrilegious to suggest an analogy between Jesus and a (non-kosher) pig, between Christianity and a pagan religion (and not just any pagan religion, but the very pagan religion the Old Testament sets itself against)?
Or is this a misunderstanding?
On the right-wing fatuity of LOTF, if anyone’s interested:
I always had the fairly strong impression that the main framework of the novel came out of evolutionist and proto-anthropological ideas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; particularly 1) the sort of Social Darwinist idea that children, women, “savages”, criminals, etc were all kind of the same, insofar as they were lower on some unilinear scale of excellence than ... well ... than the authors of works propounding these ideas (and that they could all therefore be expected to behave in the same “primitive” way); 2) some debased version of “ontology recapitulates phylogeny”, relayed, for instance, from Haeckel via Freud, according to which children could be expected to recapitulate the early history of mankind; and 3) early anthopological speculation in an evolutionary vein about about what mankind’s early history actually was, particularly its religious aspects—stuff about totemism, human sacrifice, and so forth.
Not that I have any direct evidence whatever for this—just a strong impression of resemblance as I was reading, and I suppose also the fact that the religious aspects (which were an obsession of early anthropology) seem otherwise unmotivated.