Friday, November 9, 2012

The Spire, by William Golding

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds,
by John Constable
A former colleague once told me that he never reads fiction. His reason? He said that he preferred to learn facts, and fiction... well, fiction is fabrication.

It may well be a sign of my intellectual torpor, but I will never likely reach for a history of the Salisbury Cathedral, nor for any volumes discussing the feats required to erect its 401-foot spire (presently the highest cathedral spire in England). What Mr. Golding gives me, though, is an obsessed cathedral dean, Jocelin, and the master builder he has chosen to do his work, Roger Mason. As the former hauls himself up the scaffolding and ladders into the unfinished spire and sees the countryside for miles around, feeling affirmed that he is doing the work God requested, and as the latter battles his nauseating fear of heights, I realise the enormity of the Spire, in a way that I never could, even by visiting the cathedral and climbing the steps myself, alongside other tourists. Dean Jocelin heard the supporting pillars first scream, then bend. (They are still bent today, bearing the great weight of the spire, added in the 14th century.) The faithless Mason told him the task was impossible, but Jocelin believed that it was ordained by God, physics notwithstanding. These particular characters may not have existed, but someone was driven to build a colossal spire atop this 10th-century church, and it most certainly required mountains of stone, courage and ingenuity to accomplish it. Non-fiction can give us the facts, some more captivating than others, but only fiction can really elicit the emotions -- the vision, despair, fear, rage and elation -- which were all most surely part of every inch of the spire's construction, just as surely as the mortar.

When we look at the soaring spaces of ancient cathedrals and mosques today, it's all too easy to forget that their designers had no computers, and their builders had no cranes. Throughout the novel, Dean Jocelin asks himself and others, "Has it fallen yet?" Roger Mason, the master builder, repeatedly tells him that the task is impossible. As the spire rises, driven mostly by Jocelin's passion -- and his alone, as the other clerics quietly disapprove -- the human toll rises alongside it.
...and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. Father Anselm said nothing in Chapter; but he saw from the sacrist's indignant stare how this death had been added to some account that one day would be presented.

The master builder baulks more than once, first ranting then pleading to be let go from this hopeless task. Jocelin likewise pleads and then connives to hold him to the contract, and "the army" of his labourers as well. God has ordained their partnership, and although Roger Mason is an irreverent drunk, he is still the man best qualified for the job. Roger may not hear God's command, but Jocelin intends to convey it.
 "My son. When such a work is ordained, it is put into the mind of a, of a man. That's a terrible thing. I'm only learning now, how terrible it is. It's a refiner's fire. The man knows a little perhaps of the purpose, but nothing of the cost--why can't they keep quiet out there? Why don't they stand quietly and wait? No. You and I were chosen to do this thing together. It's a great glory. I see now it'll destroy us of course. What are we, after all? Only I tell you this, Roger, with the whole strength of my soul. The thing can be built and will be built, in the very teeth of Satan. You'll build it because nobody else can. They laugh at me, I think; and they'll probably laugh at you. Let them laugh. It's for them, and their children. But only you and I, my son, my friend, when we've done tormenting ourselves and each other, will know what stones and beams and lead and mortar went into it..."
The construction of course wreaks havoc in the everyday life of the cathedral. Normal services move elsewhere as the excavations below the floor of the nave burrow into ancient graves and loose noxious odours. Blocks of stone fall from above. And then, of course, there is the noise from the groaning pillars. Alone in the cathedral, Jocelin pauses to question whether those voices and songs and messages are coming from within or without.
Silence from the crossways. He thought to himself: It's not the stones singing. It's inside my head.
The original care-taker of the cathedral, a lame man, is driven away by the taunting of the pack of builders. His wife, Goody Pangall, begins an affair with Roger Mason. Jocelin takes note of this and is horrified, partially because he has been battling his own forbidden attraction to the red-haired young woman. When he realises that her husband has fled and that she is bearing Roger's child, he thinks he must do something to help her. He is, however, distracted by his own process of creation, one with divine parentage. His more human obligations take lower priority.
If she seemed about to come near, she circled him quickly, looking away and hurrying on, head down as if he were an unlucky corner, or a ghost, or the grave of a suicide. But he knew that she was only ashamed with the shame of a deserted woman; and her shame squeezed his heart. But my will has other business than to help, he thought. I have so much will, it puts all other business by. I am like a flower that is bearing fruit.
He sees flashes of Goody's red hair, whether she's actually present or not, representing the mortal temptations that might distract him from his work. As he kneels to pray, however, he feels the "warmth" of the angel at his back, an angel who appears to guide and comfort him with increasing frequency. At the end, we learn that the warmth at his back is a terminal consumption. The angel (and would the sense of a terminal disease not have the same effect?) keeps him on track, banishing the demonic distractions, driving him to complete the spire.
Often, his angel stood at his back; and this exhausted him, for the angel was a great weight of glory to bear, and bent his spine. Moreover, after a visit by the angel--as if to keep him in his humility--Satan was given leave to torment him, seizing him by the loins, so that it became indeed an unruly member.
In one of my favourite images in the novel, Jocelin climbs up into the unfinished spire on a summer night on which the workmen have all quit early. Golding makes only a veiled reference, but it was enough to remind me of the cathedral's proximity to Stonehenge. In the 14th century, it's all too plausible that the Church was still battling for souls with the old ways, and that Jocelin would view his spire as a competitor with the dolmens atop the hill.
He saw a fire on the rim and guessed it was a haystack burning; but as he moved round the rim of the cone, he saw more and more fires round the rim of the world. Then a terrible dread fell on him, for he knew these were the fires of Midsummer Night, lighted by the devil-worshippers out on the hills. Over there, in the valley of the Hanging Stones, a vast fire shuddered brightly. All at once he cried out, not in terror but in grief. For he remembered his crew of good men, and he knew why they had knocked off work and where they were gone. So he shouted aloud in anger at someone. "They are good men! I say so!" But this was only one feeling. Inside them, his mind knew what it knew. "It's another lesson. The lesson for this height. Who could have foreseen that this was part of the scheme? Who could know that at this height the thing I thought of as a stone diagram of prayer would lift up a cross and fight eye to eye with the fires of the devil?"
Mr. Golding does not tie things up neatly at the end of his novel. Roger Mason, now a crippled drunk living above a pub, fails to make peace with the dying and half-mad Jocelin. Goody Pangall has died in childbirth. The spire is unfinished. But we know it will be finished, and we know (unlike Jocelin, who dies asking if it has fallen yet) that it will stand for at least another 700 years. What this novel gives us is the knowledge that someone long ago was consumed -- by madness, piety, grandiosity, or glory -- to build an impossibility of a spire. It was something no average man or woman would have ventured. If I ever visit Salisbury and see the spire, I will see it with proper reverence, because Golding's fictional characters brought the reality of its construction to life. 

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