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Terry Eagleton's latest books are On Evil and Reason, Faith and Revolution (Both Yale University Press).

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Tribe of fallen overreachers

Several of William Golding's novels are concerned with what is traditionally known as original sin. Lord of the Flies, for example, is a heavily loaded fable of the "darkness of men's hearts". The schoolboys' efforts to build a civilized order on their island are inevitably undermined by violence and sectarianism. I call the fable "heavily loaded" because it is easy to prove that civilization is only skin-deep if the people you show trying to build it are only partly civilized animals in the first place (i.e., children). It is as easy as proving in the manner of George Orwell's Animal Farm that human beings cannot run their own affairs by portraying them as farmyard animals. In both cases, the form of the fable determines the moral outcome.

Another of Golding's novels, The Inheritors, actually pinpoints the moment of the Fall itself, as one "unfallen" tribe of early hominids encounters another, more dangerous and destructive culture. This second tribe, because of its greater capacity for language, has made the crucial transition to conceptual abstraction and technology. And this involves developing more deadly weapons. It is as though this more evolved community has cut its bonds with Nature and entered upon the precariousness of history proper, with all its ambiguous gains and losses. The Fall, with impeccable theological correctness, is thus portrayed as a fall up rather than down. It is a felix culpa, or fortunate fault, in which human beings "lapse" upward from the natural world and the innocence of the beasts into an exhilarating, sickeningly unstable history. It is, to adopt the title of another of Golding's novels, a free Fall – one bound up with the fatal, double-edged freedom which advanced linguistic consciousness brings in its wake.

Free Fall is the title of Golding's most subtle investigation of original sin, a condition which has nothing to do with slimy reptiles and forbidden fruit. "Original" here means "at the root", not "in the beginning". The novel perceives that being "fallen" has to do with the misery and exploitation that human freedom inevitably brings in its wake. It lies in the fact that we are self-contradictory animals, since our creative and destructive powers spring from much the same source. The philosopher Hegel considered that evil flourished the more individual freedom did. A creature equipped with language can develop far beyond the restricted scope of non-linguistic creatures. It acquires godlike powers of creation. But like most potent sources of invention, these capabilities are also deeply dangerous. Such an animal is in constant peril of developing too fast, overreaching itself and bringing itself to nothing. There is something potentially self-thwarting or self-undoing about humanity. And this is what the biblical myth of the Fall is struggling to formulate, as Adam and Eve use their creative powers to undo themselves. Man is Faustian Man, too voraciously ambitious for his own well-being, perpetually driven beyond his own limits by the lure of the infinite. This creature cold-shoulders all finite things in his hubristic love affair with the illimitable. And since infinity is a kind of nothingness, the desire for this nothingness is an expression of the Freudian death drive.

The Faustian fantasy, then, betrays a puritanical distaste for the fleshly. To achieve the infinite (a project known among other things as the American Dream), we would need to leap out of our wretchedly disabling bodies. What distinguishes capitalism from other historical forms of life is that it plugs directly into the unstable, self-contradictory nature of the human species. The infinite – the unending drive for profit, the ceaseless march of technological progress, the ever-expanding power of capital – is always at risk of crushing and overshooting the finite. Exchange-value, which, as Aristotle recognized, is potentially limitless, holds sway over use-value. Capitalism is a system which needs to be in perpetual motion simply to stay on the spot. Constant transgression is of its essence. No other historical system reveals so starkly the way in which potentially beneficent human powers are so easily perverted to baneful ends.

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