How does a society fall apart? How can a small band of revolutionaries create a whole project of terror – as happened in France and Russia?
The answer provided by the greatest of all novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is that there is nothing more powerful in any given nation than sets of ideas which can take possession, like demons, of a few committed men and women, and ready them to die for a cause.
His 1872 novel, ‘Demons’, is set in a small town just outside St Petersburg, in which a small band of nihilistic terrorists attempt to spark a nationwide revolt against the Tsar, the idea of a Russian nation, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
We all live on the road between two cities – the city of God and the city of Man – between reality and a hopeful vision.
There’s a reason the Dark Knight trilogy is the only set of superhero films worth watching – they are more than comics on film – they contain and allude to a real literary mythology.
The best of them from a pure storytelling point of view, is the final film, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. What happens during times of revolution? How can true peace be achieved?
The answer is – by means of a hero.
And to tell the story, to recount a Gotham completely destroyed, the screenwriter Jonathan Nolan turned to the fourth book I think we need to read to understand the modern world, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’:
In the first part of the twentieth century, two very different men wrote parallel, yet divergent, predictions concerning the future of the western world.
In 1949, in the shadow of rampant totalitarianism, George Orwell wrote ‘1984’, in which he predicted the rise of Big Brother, the Ministry of Love, Newspeak, and thought crime – all instruments of a repressive future political order in which freedom is vanquished.
In 1932, at the outset of the consumer and permissive society, Aldous Huxley wrote the novel ‘Brave New World’, also a dystopian take on the future.
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating”: Alan Paton as South African prophet.
This is the second post in the series Five Books to Understand the Modern World. For the first installment on ‘Lord of the Flies’ go here.
It’s probably not fashionable any more to be a fan of ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. It does not call for revolution. It is primarily spiritual, rather than political. It is written by a white man.
Yet – no other book I have ever read captures so accurately the agony of South Africa and the stubborn sense of hope symbolised by our land’s beauty, and thus remains almost prophetically relevant to every passing year of our country’s fairly morbid story.
I would go so far as to say this book should be compulsory reading for every school-going child in the country. And therefore it heartily deserves its spot in my top five list of books you need to read to get a grip on what is going on all around us.
‘Lord of the Flies’ is a book so many of us read in high school, and completely misunderstood. But if we spend a little more time with it, it tells us something powerful about our society, and ourselves.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to look at my recommended list of books to read to help you understand what is going on in South Africa and the world. All of them are fiction – not because I don’t love non-fiction too, but because I think the most powerful way to understand culture is to know its stories…
‘Lord of the Flies’ was written in the aftermath of World War II and at the beginning of nuclear tension between Russia and America, and the slow fading of Britain as a world and colonial power.
We all think we know what it means: a bunch of schoolboys are stranded on an island and, without civilization, they quickly descend into savagery.
Having crashed on a deserted island full of fruit and wild pig, they begin with sensible ideas to build shelter, elect a leader, hold a parliament with the power of speaking only given to whomever holds ‘the conch’, and set a signal fire.
By the end they are a tribe of painted savages, performing human sacrifice, murder, and acts of terrorism, demonstrating that little boys without adults are evil little critters and thus need supervision to keep them in line.
That’s somewhat true, as far as it goes, but the author, William Golding, was definitely not praising the glories of adult civilization, nor is he trying to communicate some kind of idea about ‘boys being boys’.