As always, a story to begin with.
I first read Lord of the Flies when I was maybe 11 years of age. Even though the book was a classic of English literature, it wasn’t the type of book that I would choose to read, the choice was made for me as it was part of a school English lesson. I was, and still am, drawn towards Fantasy novels, sword and sorcery, the hero’s journey, the collapse into the pit of despair to emerge out onto the other side changed, more solid, a hero.
The past couple of months have seen the spread of the horrific CoronaVirus around the world. At the time of writing on the 21st of March 2020, there are presently 1 billion people worldwide on lockdown, whilst 300,000 cases have been confirmed with 13,000 deaths whilst 96,000 people have recovered (source: worldometers.info/coronavirus. Here in the United Kingdom, there have been 5000 cases, with 233 deaths, whilst pubs, bars, clubs, universities, and schools have all been told to close and people have been told to self-isolate and stay at home.
Yet whilst in other parts of the world, there seems to have been a more methodical approach to this chaos, here in the West something different seems to have taken a hold, and it is the psychological basis for this which I am interested in touching upon this month. For example, during this period though, there has also been an incredible increase in people ‘panic buying’ seemingly essential goods. From toilet rolls, to pasta, to fruit and vegetables and meat, the shelves of most of the major stores have been scrapped bare of even the most basic of items. Prices have gone up for other items, the availability of items bought online has meant deliveries are delayed or cancelled, and there seems to have been an increased level of profiteering by those who have raised prices on other things, medicines, which people would need during this time.
The CoronaVirus is not so much the cause of the panic we are seeing around the West. It is the lack of direction from those we ask to watch over us, from those we nominate to be our political parents. Whilst in other cultures, the political systems have led to a greater sense of leadership and direction, and therefore a sense that the people know how to follow, that they are safe in the hands of their leaders (even if their leaders are malevolent in other more insidious ways. No political parent is perfect. Power always corrupts).
Returning to the book, The Lord of the Flies was first published in 1954 by the a author William Holding (Golding, 2012), and was made in to a shockingly vivid film back in 1964 and later remade by MGM (Hook, 1990). The story is based around a group of shipwrecked schoolboys on a coral island. Initially, the boys enjoy the freedom that their situation provides them, freedom from their parents, from rules, from the structures of society and their culture. Later though, the boys form gangs, and their initially idyllic paradise turns into a nightmare of conflict and death. In their interesting analysis of the book and the films, Li and Wu (2009) rightly point towards the roles of the main protagonists as being markedly different from each other. Yet it is the primal id of savagery and dictatorship represented by Jack which destroys both the goodness and saintliness of Simon, and the intellect and rationalism of Piggy. This then leaves only the civilisation an democracy represented by Ralph which is almost chased away and also destroyed, with Ralph/Democracy only being saved by the arrival finally of the adults.
This is the nature of the political system we reside within, and it is best understood through the eyes of psychology as attempt to recognise just what has happened to those of us who have descended down into the depths of primal despair, and basic Freudian psychology is extremely helpful in recognising some of the more primal aspects at play here (Freud, 2014). In this absence of the superego, the vanishing of that which would have regulated our interactions with the world beyond ourselves, then leaves nothing more than a raging Id to take command and to dominate. The Id doesn’t care about the other, it doesn’t care about the rules, it only cares about what it wants, what it can gain for itself. It is by its very nature acting out its own narcissistic fantasies of domination and eternal life.
The book therefore reflects society’s politicised distortion of Darwin’s survival of the fittest (Morehead, 1999). In its more contemporary versions, Darwin’s ideas though have formed one of the pillars for eugenics, the idea that certain races, or groups, or classes etc, are superior to others, and that this must remain so (Saini, 2019). Leaving a whole country to raid the shops, stockpile toilet paper, pasta and other seemingly unconnected items, feels just like those children left on the island to fend for themselves. There is a seeming fallacy within Capitalism that we should all be free, that we all should have the right to express ourselves how we want, go where we want, buy and have what we want, even do what we want (often even if it is illegal). This even formed the basis of the idea that post Brexit that we should be able to set our own laws and control our own borders (Boffey, 2018). This, the bare shelves, the panic and anxiety versus the seeming abject irresponsibility of those still frequenting bars and on the tubes and buses in their hundreds, are symptomatic of a capitalist system that thrives on the absence of rules. That lets a whole of the British Isles act as if it is on the same free space without parents as Jack, Piggy, Ralph, and Simon.
Yet, there is a way out. And at this point I am going to make a massive statement. Much like the Plague is an archetype of change (see the Bible for example), the Political I am increasingly aware is an archetype of self-regulation and an inner ethical authority. It is a movement away from the superego and its cultural conditioning, meaning that the more individuated we become, the more aligned with this archetype we become at the same time. This is the shift away from the collective anxiety of the West where capitalism advocates for a freedom which is not only unhealthy, but also unrealistic, towards a more personally ethical politic where there is a solidity and a security within oneself. A security sourced from within, and in line with a similarly solid sense of self as to those on the same but also different path of personal growth.
Lastly, I am a psychotherapist, and have been one since I qualified some 15 years ago. At a team meeting someone a valued colleague commented upon how calm we were given the chaos all around us, in the wider community which only mirrors that of the world beyond. Now, I can understand the anxiety, and can understand how this addictive need to self-regulate through the obtaining of things, is driven from living in a paradise with no rules. To all the therapists, psychologists, and others in the helping professions, those who have a connection to this inner regulator, to this inner ethical political parent, even if you, like myself, can feel the pull of addictive anxiety towards an acting out with pointless purchases and hording or conversely with a seeming narcissistic invulnerability in the face of the annihilating force already amongst us
I am in no way saying that I am perfect, that I am winning this initial internal struggle; at times I feel like Jack, I self-annihilate and I let myself down also. What I am saying is that I am not waiting for our invisible leaders to tell me what to do when I already know what this is. I will take responsibility for my actions, ethical actions, and I myself will calmly work towards these. I will listen to the internal rule book I already have access to. And I will trust it to guide me.
During these darkest of times I hope you will let it guide you to.
Boffey, D. (2018, November). Empire 2.0: the fantasy that’s fuelling Tory divisions on Brexit. Guardian Online, p. 1. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/nov/08/empire-fantasy-fuelling-tory-divisions-on-brexit
Freud, S. (2014). On Narcissism. London: Penguin Limited.
Golding, W. (2012). Lord of the Flies. USA: Faber & Faber.
Hook, H. (1990). Lord of the Flies. USA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Li, X., & Wu, W. (2009). English Language Teaching On Symbolic Significance of Characters in Lord of the Flies.
Morehead, D. (1999). The Psychoanalytic Quarterly Oedipus, Darwin, and Freud: One Big, Happy Family?, 68(3), 347–375. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2167-4086.1999.tb00537.x
Saini, A. (2019). Superior: the return of race science. London: Harper Collins Publishers.