For several months now I’ve been taking the bus to work with Doris Lessing.
Okay, let me clarify. Ever since my return to the U.S. from Australia in January, I’ve been reading the works of British writer Doris Lessing while utilizing the Minneapolis/St. Paul public transit system.
As you might recall from a previous post, I came across the first volume of Lessing’s autobiography, Under My Skin, earlier this year in a little antique/second-hand book store in the Southern Highlands of Australia. This, however, was not my first encounter with Doris. I actually first became aware of her when I happened to catch her being interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS show Now, in the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Since my return to the United States, I’ve read the second volume of Lessing’s autobiography, Walking in the Shade, as well as a great collection of her “views and reviews” entitled Time Bites, and a compilation of interviews simply called Doris Lessing: Conversations.
Lessing is a writer of exceptional talent. Val Scullion of Open University notes that Lessing’s “huge body of published work, for which she is internationally acclaimed, includes novels, stories, non-fiction, poems, plays and opera libretti. . . . Her depth and range of vision encompasses concerns about environmental disaster, the threat and consequences of warfare, the collision of race and culture, the collapse of political and social systems and the dynamics of the family. Archetypal narratives of quest and invasion (often in the form of colonization) recur throughout her writing.” (1)
Doris Lessing’s numerous works of non-fiction (which to date have been the focus of my reading) display a down-to-earth, pragmatic intelligence that stands in stark contrast to the uninformed rhetoric that passes as “teaching” from the Vatican, and with which, as a gay Catholic, I’m well familiar. Such rhetoric – born of hubris and fear – reflects neither compassion nor wisdom. In my less charitable moments, I view such “teaching” and those who concoct and support it, as confirming Lessing’s wry observation that “strong and inflexible ideas attract the stupid.” (2)
As a fledgling writer, I resonate with many of Lessing’s insights into the writing process. For instance, I agree wholeheartedly with her observation that when one is “thinking hard about a subject, information and insights on that subject seem to come in from everywhere: books arrive in your life, you hear in on the radio, in conversations, or on television.”
“This is a fact,” insists Lessing. “It’s true, you can rely on it – and there is no ‘scientific’ explanation for it.” (3)
Hey, she doesn’t have to convince me. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand – often when writing articles for The Wild Reed.
I also appreciate Lessing’s take on the “fluid” nature of experience, which she articulates when reflecting on the writing of her autobiography. “For thousands of years,” she reminds us, “we – the human race – told stories to one another in tales told, or sung. Not written down. Fluid. Biography of any kind is quite new; I suppose Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the first. Autobiography of any kind? Cellini, Casanova were the first, I think: fixed and permanent records, something you can lift from a shelf, and quote from. Extracts that appear in think-pieces and theses, and then travel to other theses and books: immutable – the Truth.”
“The reason why people feel uneasy and disturbed when their lives are put into biographies,” contends Lessing, “is precisely because something that is experienced as fluid, fleeting, evanescent, has become fixed, and therefore lifeless, without movement. You can’t appeal against the written word, except by more written words, and then you are committed to polemic. Memory isn’t fixed: it slips and slides about. It is hard to match one’s memories of one’s life with the solid fixed account of it that it written down. Virginia Woolf said that living was like being inside a kind of luminous envelope. I would add to that ‘inside a moving, flickering luminous envelope, like a candle flame in a draught.” (4)
As you can see, Lessing has a wonderful ability to write in a very natural conversational style. Many times I find myself smiling and nodding in agreement, or chuckling at some experience or insight that she’s shared. Often, too, I have to pause in my reading so as to accommodate and carefully review the insights and questions her writing has conjured within me.
This is all very appropriate given Lessing’s understanding of the role of the writer: “a writer’s job is to provoke questions,” she once said. “I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had . . . the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is.” (5)
It’s so true what Joyce Carol Oates has observed about Doris Lessing’s books: “[they] have traced an evolutionary progress of the soul, which to some extent transforms the reader as he/she reads. . . . Lessing possesses a unique sensitivity, writing out of her own intense experience, her own subjectivity, but at the same time writing out of the spirit of the times.” (6)
And what times Doris Lessing has lived through! Born in British-colonized Persia (now Iran), she spent her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in Southern Rhodesia – also a British colony. From a very young age, Lessing was a keen observer of the people, situations, and relationships – personal and social – around her. This is startlingly evident in her writings, compelling critic Joy Press of The Village Voice to declare that Lessing is “an acute observer of human interaction . . . [and has] a knack for fiction with a complex understanding of politics culled from personal experience: The Grass Is Singing, her 1950 debut, wrangled with racial tensions in the postwar South Africa she knew from her youth in Rhodesia; 1962’s The Golden Notebook, which made Lessing a reluctant feminist heroine, featured a fractured narrative about a young woman in ’50s and ’60s London buffeted by Communism and sexism and psychoanalysis.” (7)
One of the aspects of Doris Lessing’s writing that I find most inspiring is the way she fearlessly, articulately, and, at times, ruefully highlights and critiques not only the inherent injustice and racism of colonialism, but the excessive and dehumanizing traits of all forms of ideology – Communism, capitalism, feminism, political-correctness, and the various expressions of religious fundamentalism.
Not surprisingly, she has expressed quite an aversion to rhetoric: “I hate rhetoric of all kinds,” she once remarked. “I think it’s one of the things that stupefies us – the use of words to stop your thinking.” (8)
Lessing is also critical of the way people – and especially critics – incessantly attempt to categorize. “Critics tend to compartmentalize, to establish periods, to fragmentize, a tendency that university training reinforces and that seems very harmful to me,” she told Nissa Torrents in an April 1980 interview for La Calle.
With regards to this “tendency” and her own work, Lessing observes: “At first, they said that I wrote about the race problem, later about Communism, and then about women, the mystic experience, space fiction, etc., etc., but in reality I am the same person who wrote about the same themes. This tendency to fragmentize, so typical of our society, drives people to crisis, to despair, and that is what I intended to describe in The Golden Notebook.” (9)
Displacement and exile
Carol Klein, who in 2000 published a biography of Doris Lessing, suggests that Lessing’s exile from the Africa of her childhood is “both physical and a metaphor for other displacements in her life.” (10)
Although Lessing is not gay, this sense of “displacement” that Klein identifies in Lessing’s life is something with which many gay people can resonate – myself included. It’s not a displacement brought about by (in the rhetoric of the Vatican) the “intrinsically disordered” nature of our homosexuality, but rather by the inability of others within our society and, sadly, our churches to recognize and respect a particular aspect of human sexuality - one that though not procreative in the biological sense, can nevertheless be expressed and experienced in ways that bring about human flourishing, both personal and communal.
With this in mind, it’s amazing to me how much of the following reflection on Doris Lessing’s journey mirrors the experience of many gay people - and indeed anyone who, for whatever reason, finds themselves “displaced” and “exiled.” Without doubt, any one of us can, like Lessing, consciously choose to use such an experience as a vehicle to greater self-awareness, creativity, and expression.
Lessing, notes Klein, “has been exiled within her family. She is also a voluntary exile, an inner and outer expatriate. She seems to experience life at a remove, perhaps to soothe a painful sense of homelessness. Her disquiet and disaffection powerfully energize her work. When she coolly observes the world we know, she is able to render it for her readers in a new, clarifying way. Unfettered by boundaries, as a writer she has never stayed fixed within any genre, belief system, or locale – even ranging beyond our planet. Her restless imagination suggests the exile’s wanderings, but finally, it is writing itself that is Doris Lessing’s truest home.” (11)
I’m happy to have discovered this “home” and to have both it and its wandering creator accompany me on my own travels – geographical and otherwise.
As well as being an exceptional writer, Doris Lessing is also an engaging speaker and conversationalist. Following are some of her thoughts on a range of topics, excerpted from interviews contained in Doris Lessing: Conversations (Ontario Review Press, 1994). Enjoy!
I think that children who have had to struggle psychologically have a tendency to be good writers. They are constantly observing. . . . It is the habit of observing that makes a writer. For me, it was similar; as far back as I can remember, I observed, I was aware of what was going on around me, and what was not being said. It’s strange. When I talk to my brother, he remembers nothing; he has no awareness of anything from our childhood. Something must have happened to me very early, something which I don’t remember and which determined this temperament, this vocation of the observer on the lookout, this vocation of writer.
It’s very difficult for parents to have a child they do not like. My mother didn’t like me. I’m not blaming her for it. It happens that people have children with whom they cannot get along, who are unlovable. That was the situation. In retrospect, I pity my mother, stuck with this incredibly difficult child who never thought or did anything “conventional.” Whereas my father, who had a disposition to be critical, was never shocked by anything I could say or do.
World War Two
The more I look back at that war, the more I think that everyone was insane, even people not involved in it. And I’m not being rhetorical. I think that everyone was crazy round about then. And the rest of the behavior that went on was more crazy than usual. I don’t want to suggest that human beings are sane in between wars; we manifestly are not, but that was a very terrible war, you know. This is a thing I keep coming back to. We go through a terrible experience, it comes to an end, and it is as if it hasn’t happened, or simply gets pushed off into words. It becomes verbalized. The First World War degraded and demoralized us terribly and the Second World War did it more thoroughly, and we have not got over either of these wars. The children of that war were profoundly affected by it. We tend to ignore this. We get steadily more and more demoralized and barbarized, by the things we do, but we don’t like to really look at this fact.
Well, of course Marxism, as far as I am concerned, is a religion; it has all the same characteristics. But what Marxism at its best does is to look at the world as a whole and see the different parts of it interacting. That’s how it is as a theory, not what happens to it when it’s put into practice. And that is very appealing, I think, to young people particularly. Generation after generation falls in love with Marxism, and I think nearly always for the same reasons. It’s because looking around at what we can all see, and it doesn’t get any prettier, Marxism is presented ideologically as something that sees Man as a whole, and it takes some time, some experience to see that the theory and practice have got absolutely nothing to do with each other.
Under the influence of my second husband [Gottfried Lessing] I became a fervent Marxist. Another factor was my rage about conditions in Southern Africa and later my impressions of the workers’ district in London. It was a slow, painful process of disentangling myself. My series of Martha Quest novels, which is extremely autobiographical, depicts my own development toward Marxism and away from Marxism, a process of disillusionment. I have long recognized that the salvation of this world cannot lie in any political ideology. All ideologies are deceptive and serve only a few, not people in general.
The Women’s Movement
[This] is a very complex and, for me, rather painful subject. The Golden Notebook brought me a lot of attributes at the time – from enemy of men to hater of women. I was proclaimed the St. Joan of Women’s Lib, and then I was condemned by the feminists as a notorious despiser of women. In any case, misunderstandings swarmed around the book. Of course, I am for women’s equality; of course, I consider women inherently equal to men. However, I would never maintain that men and women are alike. They simply are not. Physically, psychologically, and intellectually, they are not – which is not to say that women must be more stupid than men. They have other gifts. No two people in the world are perfectly alike; how can men and women be alike?
What I wish is that women should be independent, neither the slaves of men nor Amazons. In my novel The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, I attempt to create a woman approaching this ideal: she is free, independent, a loving mother, compassionate but not sentimental, intelligent but not overbearing. To be sure, the book is a utopian novel and this woman is an ideal figure. And I harbor no illusions about how women can be. They are not better nor worse beings; they are human beings. That my two heroines in The Golden Notebook can be even aggressive and shrill the feminists attacked me above all, because I say that these attributes are part of their ego – not the result of long-term oppression. If the Women’s Movement has gone so far that women cannot be criticized, that the truth can no longer be spoken, then the movement is bad, then it does not serve women well, but instead harms them. Then it is senseless and dangerous.
The Future of Humanity
From childhood on, I’ve never been a pessimist, but rather I see less occasion at the moment  for any great optimism. Wherever one looks, stupidity and chaos. But perhaps a small chance exists that the ship can once again steer clear of the reefs. We have to start with the education of children, to teach them how to accept themselves as complete individuals, regardless of their group or race. Only human beings who are self-assured and do not feel inferior can discuss problems and talk with each other on the same plane. That would be the first step toward reducing aggression and hatred.
As for our politicians, I would not claim, like Plato, that we ought to be ruled by philosophers. But our politicians should be human beings who have somewhat more farsightedness than they actually have, human beings who know, respect, and understand their fellow human beings.
Hopes, nothing but hopes, I know. However, as long as the hand is not yet at midnight, I will not give up hope that the earth will last for a while.
1. Scullion, Val. The Literary Encyclopedia.
2. Lessing, D. “After 9.11,” Granta (USA edition), December 20, 2001. Republished in Lessing, D.Time Bites: Views and Reviews. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004, p. 294.
3. Lessing, D. Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of my Autobiography (1949 to 1962). Harper Perennial, 1997, p. 346.
4. Lessing, D. “Writing Autobiography” in Lessing, D., Time Bites: Views and Reviews. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004, pp. 91-92.
5. Fink, Thomas. “Caged by the Experts,” The Paris Review #106 (Spring 1988) and reprinted in Ingersoll, Earl G., Doris Lessing: Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Press, 1994, p. 164.
6. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Doris Lessing,” Southern Review, Vol 9, No. 4, October 1973.
7. Press, Joy. “Gimme Shelter,” The Village Voice, February 8, 2002.
8. Aldiss, Brian. “Living in Catastrophe” in Ingersoll, Earl G., Doris Lessing: Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1994, p. 170.
9. Torrents, Nissa. “Testimony to Mysticism” in Ingersoll, Earl G., Doris Lessing: Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1994, p. 64.
10-11. Klein, Carole. Doris Lessing: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 2000, p. 2.
Image 1: Peter Morgan.
Image 2: Stuart Heydinger—Hulton Getty/Stone.
Image 3: Chris Saunders/Harper Collins.
Update (October 2007): Doris Lessing Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!
Recommended Off-site Links:
Q & A: Doris Lessing – Harvey Blume, The Boston Globe, August 5, 2007.
A Notorious Life – The Salon Interview: Doris Lessing – Dwight Garner.
Inspired Minds: Doris Lessing - A July 2007 audio interview with Doris Lessing.
Doris Lessing: A Retrospective (Doris Lessing’s official website).