On Doris Lessing

Toward the end of the 1950s, Henry Kissinger paid a visit to Doris Lessing. He wanted to meet with members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament while he was in London, and in those years Lessing’s Langham Street flat served as a sort of arrivals lounge for international emissaries to the British New Left. She would later remember thinking that the “crew-cut prosperous American” with a heavy German accent seemed “too large and fresh and glistening” for her dingy apartment. He began extolling a new nuclear weapon precise enough to kill only a targeted 100,000 people. He called it a “kitten bomb.” Lessing couldn’t get past the name: “I was shocked and said that anyone who could use the word ‘kitten’ to describe such a weapon of war showed a lack of moral feeling and sensitivity and that just about summed everything which was wrong with American foreign policy.” The conversation didn’t get much further than that.

When Doris Lessing died on Sunday, we lost our strongest conduit to the international cultural aristocracy that mediated between politics and the arts for a very brief period after the Second World War. Too much was at stake then—nuclear weapons, communism, colonialism, feminism—for the arts not to have a say. As a feminist pioneer and sometime communist raised in colonial South Rhodesia, Lessing was always aware how well-positioned she was within this aristocracy. When her publisher sought a screenwriter for an adaption of her autobiographical Children of Violence series, Lessing joked that only she could write it: only she had seen enough to do the characters and the situations justice. She wrote her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, so the future would know exactly how the ideological climate of the midcentury felt at midcentury: how, when radical utopianism as a viable political force was ending, the disappointed people dressed and ate and had sex with each other. But mostly it records their language.

Lessing was at work on The Golden Notebook when she met Kissinger, and it is a book obsessed with the way defective moral feeling betrays itself through language. In what she called “the most neurotic act of my life” she had joined the communist party at the very moment it became repulsive to her, and recognized in her own neurosis the symptoms of a schizophrenia general to her leftist contemporaries, clinging to Utopia despite the death camps just discovered there. In the novel, her protagonist receives letters shortly after the death of Stalin from three different comrades, each denying recent rumors about the leader. “To amuse myself, I typed out all three letters—long ones at that, and put them side by side. In phraseology, style, tone, they were identical. You couldn’t possibly have said, this letter was written by Tom, or that one by Len.” After the Twentieth Congress and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, she receives three more letters. “All hysterical, self-accusatory, full of guilt, self-abasement.” And after the Hungarian Uprising, three more: “Purged of doubt, stern and full of purpose.” The language of politics had succumbed to a kind of hysteria; the marcher at Aldermaston who excused Stalin’s “breaking a few eggs” turned out to be the left-handed brother of the cold warrior who named his precision nuke a “kitten.”

The only way out of hysteria is in. Like Baudelaire a century before her, the failure of Lessing’s radical hopes sent her to the threshold of some interior chamber where the brighter rays of the Enlightenment did not fully penetrate. As a child on her parents’ farm outside Salisbury (now Harare), Lessing had already experimented with the fragmentation of her own personality, hiding the bookish girl she was behind an extroverted alter-ego named “Tigger” after the character in Winnie-the-Pooh, “brash, jokey, clumsy, and always ready to be a good sport.” Her early fiction, written in a Marxist milieu, was sternly realist,, admitting only perhaps a little too much Freud. By the late fifties, though, she felt she had outgrown the “God-is-dead, Science-is-king materialism” of her progressive Western inheritance. She was like the protagonist of her short story “The Temptation of Jack Orkney,” who after the death of his father finds himself interrogating his own dreams:

He had once been a man whose sleep had been — nothing, nonexistent, he had slept like a small child. Now, in spite of everything, although he knew that fear could lie in wait there, his sleep had become another country, lying just behind his daytime one. Into that country he went nightly, with an alert, even if ironical, interest — the irony was due to his habits of obedience to his past — for a gift had been made to him. Behind the face of the skeptical world was another, which no conscious decision of his could stop him exploring.

Eventually, of course, Lessing’s exploration of that other country would bring her to science fiction and the Sufism of Idries Shah. But she remained, like Orkney, delicately balanced between her old habits of skepticism and a new curiosity about her dreams.

The Golden Notebook tries to structurally mimic a mental breakdown through its narrative fragmentation into the different notebooks kept by a novelist who has decided to leave the Communist Party. Lessing often complained about the bad luck of the novel’s being published in 1962, when it was immediately received as a volley in the sex wars. Fifty years on, it would be hard to make that mistake: with its women perpetually in the kitchen and its hideous gay characters and its pleistocene attitudes toward the clitoral orgasm, it has fossilized as a work of feminism. It remains vital as a novel about a certain way of thinking, skeptical toward any easy language, and especially the easy language that structures one’s own thoughts.

There was already something presciently science-fictional about this premise: as Anna Freeman Wulf, the protagonist, puts it, “If a person can be invaded by a personality who isn’t theirs, why can’t people—I mean people in the mass—be invaded by alien  personalities.” Anna’s excruciating fracture into four notebooks and a novella isn’t so far from a paranoid’s attempt to self-lobotomize the extraterrestrial implant from his parietal lobe.

In Lessing’s case, though, the implant was the “mass psychosis” left to her generation by the continental trauma of the First World War. Lessing’s father lost his leg in the war, her mother lost her first love; it was Lessing’s abiding conviction that the children of parents like that, embittered against the ignorant masses who had sent them to the trenches, had inherited a strangulating self-righteousness: “Them: the stupid majority; we: the initiates into the truth—and the truth is hard, painful, bloody, and the reality is pain and suffering, and the best people know this truth, and the worst are complacent idiots who refuse to acknowledge reality.” Whether that reality meant kitten bombs or party purges, it cleaved the world and left even the most sensitive minds cleaved, receptive to communism, fascism, terrorism, and, above all, cant. As Lessing wrote in Shikasta, her UFO’s-eye-view on the twentieth century,

Nearly all political people were incapable of thinking in terms of interaction, of cross-influences, of the various sects and ‘parties’ forming together a whole, wholes — let alone of groups of nations making up a whole. No, in entering the state of mind where ‘politics’ was ruler, it was always to enter a crippling partiality, a condition of being blinded by the ‘correctness’ of a certain viewpoint.

When Harold Bloom called her 2007 Nobel Prize “pure political correctness,” it was an even nastier dig than it may have immediately seemed. “Political correctness,” which Lessing attacked in the ’90’s as the vestigial remnant of half-century-old Party bullying, was the antitype against which she defined her fiction. The politically correct could only represent a particular viewpoint, and she wanted to represent them all.

An unfortunate consequence of her Nobel is that Lessing is probably most visually familiar, now, from the misleading YouTube video of her scoffing at the news from Stockholm on her way home from the grocery store: “Oh Christ. … I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.” The batty old shut-in more concerned with her artichokes than with the world outside is a familiar type of genius, but it wasn’t Lessing’s type. Her entire project was to explode the provincialism of the personal, exposing the mind as the heterodyne meeting-place of cross-species currents. Probably every reader of The Golden Notebook finds the novel’s ending difficult: the eponymous notebook that promises to unite the Black, Red, Yellow, and Blue is the least coherent of them all, not a cure for the novel’s schizophrenia but its Laingian embodiment. That was the point. In an age when narrowness looked like sanity, totality would look insane.

One way to achieve narrative totality is to rewrite history as a conflict between galactic empires competing for psychic control over humanity. Another is to describe the universe as a kind of eternal dance animated by the vibrations of God. Lessing tried both in her “space fiction,” and to many readers these looked insane, too. But whatever the success of the various totalizing conceits she entertained in her later career, they were all efforts to literalize the individual personality’s twentieth-century subjection to forces not merely national or cultural or political, but planetary. She found a more familiar example of this in the dance music that obsessed her when she arrived in Salisbury as a young woman just off the farm: “Has anyone ever studied—but I mean really studied—the probable effects on whole generations of young people perpetually driven by the rhythms of drugging music? And—but now we enter the realms of what they call ‘the mystical’—it is surely not without relevance that the whole world was dancing to the same tunes, often at the very same time.”

In the space-opera retelling of the Book of Genesis that opens her five-volume science fiction series, Canopus in Argos, humanity’s fall is not the result of any original sin but of mistuned music. For no definite reason, the mutual vibrations between Earth and the heavenly empire Canopus go out of sync: “It was there, just audible, the faintest of discords, the beginnings of the end.” Likewise, there is a bewildered sense throughout her fiction that the psychic vibrations uniting humanity happen somehow to have fallen out of tune. Enlightened self-interest reigns, and the interlocking whole is forgotten. Lessing meant her writing as a new kind of music, inviting the fractious orchestra of the twentieth century back into some negotiated harmony.

A mission like that is out of tune with serious fiction as we recognize it now, and Lessing was often scandalously willing to be mawkish, as when she named the sustaining ectoplasm flowing from Canopus to Earth SOWF: “substance-of-we-feeling.” But what elevated even her most rambunctious novels was that, throughout her enthusiasms, she never lost her habits of skepticism when it came to language. If we weren’t constantly disassembling and reassembling our language, she believed, we were being controlled by it. We, too, might start calling bombs kittens.

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