Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Burning Torch

William Golding's The Spire

My theatre comes out of obsession. Obsessions are always dangerous. If I wasn't obsessive about the theatre, I could be obsessive about bombs or killing people.

Steven Berkoff

This book can be read and enjoyed by everyone, but if you are an artist of any kind you will particularly relate to the themes Golding develops across twelve complex, challenging, imagistic chapters. This is a story of obsession, of single-pointed focus, and the determination, bordering on madness, to make the vision real - to render it in flesh and blood - no matter what the cost to yourself or those around you.

Fortunately, most of us involved in creative activity don't go to the extremes Dean Jocelin does with regards to his spire. But then again, no-one I know (certainly not myself) has yet felt called to erect a four-hundred foot tower and spire on top of a building without foundations. Very few, surely would possess the imaginative flair to conceive of such a thing, let alone the chutzpah and the daimonic intensity to push ever upwards, higher and higher - projecting our will into the sky - when lives are lost and our very sanity is called into question.

There are, of course, several explanations we could posit to account for Jocelin's creative mania: sexual, psychological, etc. Plausible on their own levels, none of them - together or singly - engage with the real heart of the matter - the ongoing miracle of the spire's continued existence.

Golding was, for many years, a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth's school in Salisbury Cathedral Close. The Spire is believed to be based on the actual construction of the Cathedral tower and spire in the early fourteenth-century. At that time no-one knew that the Cathedral was situated above a rare geological formation, allowing the building to bear the extra weight despite its lack of deep foundations, This, perhaps, is the most convincing rationalisation of all, yet how was Jocelin to know of it? Where did his sheer, bloody-minded, uneducated faith that the building would hold both tower and spire come from?

Golding, throughout, refuses to spare us from the appalling human cost exacted by the spire's construction. But despite, or maybe because of all this, Jocelin's inspiration still stands today:

Has it fallen yet?
Not yet, my son.

This is where we begin to engage with the questions that really matter. Where, in our lives, do we locate meaning, reality and truth? In grand imaginative visions or in our daily interactions with the men and women around us? Does one rule out the other or can there be room for both?

When Jacob wrestled with that mysterious figure at the Jabbok (Genesis: 32.22) and asked the name of his adversary, he was given his own new name instead - Israel - and with it a blessing. Through all the machinations of his ego and all the horrors his vision engenders, Jocelin learns to see at last - to see reality as it truly is - not the shadows and simulacra of his own projections. One might say that he has earned the right to it. So, all being well, will we all. In the words of Berkoff again, that bullish contemporary theatrical obsessive:

I want to keep the fire going. I haven't done anything yet - I'm still scratching the surface. The more you do, the more fire you have. Keep the torch burning. That's the obsession.


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