This past weekend I watched the 1981 film adaptation of Doris Lessing's 1974 dystopian novel The Memoirs of a Survivor. I've always been intrigued by this book and the ways in which it reflects Lessing's interest in and understanding of the Sufi Way.
Some have complained that the nameless lead character (and narrator) of Memoirs of a Survivor is unappealing in her lack of obvious emotion in the face of societal breakdown. It's a fair enough critique, but what I think Lessing is attempting to do with this character (named "D" in the film adaptation) is depict the detachment required for the inner work necessary for both personal and social transformation. This "inner work" is represented by the realm that the main character discovers and explores through and beyond one of the walls of her flat.
One morning I stood with my after-breakfast cigarette – I allowed myself this one real cigarette a day – and through clouds of blue coiling smoke looked at how the yellowness of the sun stretched in a foreshortened oblong, making the wall itself seem higher in the middle than at the ends. I looked at the glow and the pulse of the yellow, looked as if I were listening, thinking how, as the seasons changed, so did the shape and extent and position of this patch of morning light – and then I was through the wall and I knew what was there. I did not, that first time, perceive much more than that there were a set of rooms. The rooms were disused, had been for some time. Years, perhaps. There was no furniture. Paint had flaked off the wall in places, and lay in tiny shards on the floorboards with scraps of paper and dead flies and dust. I did not go in, but stood there on the margin between the two worlds, my familiar flat and these rooms which had been quietly waiting there all this time. I stood and looked, feeding with my eyes. I felt the most vivid expectancy, a longing: this place held what I needed, knew was there, had been waiting for – oh, yes, all my life, all my life. I knew this place, recognized it, and before I had actually absorbed the information through my eyes that the walls were much higher than mine, that there were many windows and doors, and that it was a large, light, airy, delightful flat, or house. In a farther room I glimpsed a painter's ladder; and then, just as the sunlight faded out on my wall when a cloud absorbed the sun, I saw someone in white painter's overalls lifting a roller to lay white paint over the faded and stained surface.
I forgot this occurrence. I went on with the little routines of my life, conscious of the life behind the wall, but not remembering my visit there. It was not until a few days later that I again stood, cigarette in hand in the mid-morning hour, looking through drifting smoke at the sunlight laid there on the wall, and I thought, Hello! I've been through there; of course I have. How did I manage to forget? And again the wall dissolved and I was through. . . .
– Doris Lessing
The Memoirs of a Survivor
The Memoirs of a Survivor
In her book Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing, Müge Galin notes that, "Like a Sufi tale, The Memoirs is written to be read on different levels. As one peels the layers, one moves deeper along a spectrum from the political and rhetorical readings at one end, to the psychological and spiritual at the other." According to Galin, the space behind the wall is "clearly a metaphor for the narrator's inner life, which, like the infinite rooms behind the wall, daily unfolds into a rich tapestry of experience and self-discovery."
Galin also observes that "at the heart of Sufi thought is the necessity for individual and cosmic evolution and the idea that men and women do not know themselves, nor their potentials. . . . When evaluated in light of Sufism, the world behind the wall in The Memoirs emerges as the only real world, while the reality of daily life on the pavement pales in contrast." The descriptions of the rooms behind the wall as being in discord and turmoil correlates, writes Galin, with Sufi thinking that we are "incomplete and need years of hard work to complete ourselves."
I recall reading somewhere that, given this Sufic interpretation, The Memoirs of a Survivor can be more accurately read not as a dystopian novel, a story of end times, but rather as an allegorical tale of new beginnings. This is most resolutely symbolized by the salvific appearance of the mythic "Cosmic Egg" in the realm behind the wall. Notes Sharon R. Wison about the significance of this symbol:
In Lessing’s revisioned creation myth, the Cosmic Egg requires human co-construction: the narrator mirrors her creator. Without the narrator’s journey through the wall and without her work to clean and order the chaos – work that matches that of the painter and gardener – presumably this egg could not open. As well as being a witness to the death and rebirth of the world, Lessing’s unnamed narrator is an active participant in its recreation.
– Sharon R. Wilson
"The Cosmic Egg in Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor"
"The Cosmic Egg in Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor"
In an article on Sufism, mysticism and politics in Lessing's works, Ann Scott observes that "within the ending of Memoirs [there is] one of the rare points in Lessing's writing . . . when the 'classic' language of mysticism seems to be enacted. The narrator arrives at an 'inability to speak.'"
The one person I had been looking for all this time was there. There she was. No, I am not able to say clearly what she was like. She turned her face just once to me, and all I can say is . . . nothing at all.
– Doris Lessing
The Memoirs of a Survivor
"Could we then say," speculates Scott, "that we [are] deal[ing] with three religious traditions: Sufi narrative and imagery, Christian narrative and imagery, and what could be called an agnostic or non-theistic mysticism?"
The walls dissolve indeed!
Interestingly, in the film adaption of Memories of a Survivor, the person that "D" is drawn to and briefly glimpses at the Cosmic Egg is depicted as herself – presumably her true self; that transformed and integrated state of being that, according to the great spiritual traditions, we all yearn to embody. And it is this art of being and becoming that is at the heart of the Sufi Way.
In light of these insights of Memoirs of a Survivor, I thought I'd share the following excerpt from Maureen Howard's 1975 New York Times review of Lessing's novel. It's accompanied by images from the film, one that stars Julie Christie.
. . . The narrator of [Memoirs of a Survivor] is a woman who turns a cool, faceless attention to the crumbling society around her. From her window she records the landscape of apocalypse with total control, and with a rhetoric that measures (and weights) her experience, that seeks out the phrases that will correctly answer the events of that time, "the protracted period of unease and tension before the end. . ." The city is besieged. Wandering packs of youths devastate an area and then move on. Hordes of people have already left for the country and relative safety. "While everything . . . broke up, we lived on, adjusting our lives as if nothing fundamental was happening."
Lessing's fable takes hold with tremendous force in Memoirs of a Survivor, for it is obvious from the start that her beleaguered city is only slightly more grotesque than London or New York or Rome. There is an irrelevant government that maintains an unresponsive system of justice and a remote bureaucracy, a government that could "adjust itself to events, while pretending probably even to itself, that it initiated them." Polluted air, street gangs, meaningless violence, the devaluation of language – it is all too close for comfort. The shock of recognition is more horrifying than the fantasy of Briefing for a Descent Into Hell or The Four-Gated City. The tone is even-tempered, genial as domestic gossip: the price of potatoes, the hoarding of sugar. We know this world and have indulged in the same irony that Doris Lessing uses on us. A few weeks ago umbrellas were still being rented out on the beaches of Saigon. Last year that plane crash outside Washington led to the discovery that a secret bomb shelter for top Government officials lay hidden in the Virginia hills. There is no surprise, no outrage. As Lessing predicted years ago, "The future is what happens."
The Memoirs of a Survivor is deceptively simple, as good fables tend to be. Her choice of this form is deliberate and bold, as though she has no time to give us background and motivation (her old Dreiserian amplitude) – all that apparatus of the old genre. Emily, a child of about 12, is delivered to the flat of the woman who tells us her story: the girl is her responsibility. She is a tidy, polite child without a history, defensive, loving only to Hugo, her bizarre cat-like dog, a mutation of a pet in a threatening world which suffers a shortage of morality and meat. Emily's self-involvement, her adolescent posturing is funny and touching. What unfolds is a strange coming of age: this child of our time is overly wise, sexually precocious. In blue jeans and funky costumes she seems, like Lolita, to be a pure product of her culture. She wants to be out on the street with the kids, but she is an anachronism. She is flawed with a moral sense. It may be absurd that she can't drift off with the next tribe because of her loyalty to Hugo, but her vulnerability is moving. Emily falls in love, that old catastrophe, and suffers, before she is 16, the heartbreak of a woman.
Her lover, Gerald, is a benevolent gang leader who takes over an abandoned house to care for homeless children. The society that he sets up with Emily is an earnest democracy: order is imposed on chaos – fanatical, ingenious ways of ordering life being the great lesson of survival – but it is exhausting. At any moment the children can revert to stealing, to petty jealousies and intrigue. Gerald's goodness finally leads him to fostering a pack of savages, little children of such bestiality that in hours they destroy the hard-won civility of his household. They are beyond salvation, yet he feels that in abandoning them he will give up the best of himself.
Doris Lessing's characters often come to self-awareness and renewal by protecting, healing and guarding others. Anna Wulf and Martha Quest are brought through madness to "inner vision" by caring for the mad themselves. In The Memoirs of a Survivor the woman narrator, who calls herself Emily's guardian, washes and irons, plans for the girl's future, and worries, like any mother of an adolescent, that she is beyond interfering. Emily, anxious and distraught, nurses a sick waif, June Ryan, back to health. But June, shallow, worthless, a perfect example of the new breed without conscience joins a group of women who are moving on. Impulse and inconsequence take the place of real feeling, and Emily is bereft. Lessing's message, recognizable from her previous work, is close to Auden's "We must love one another and die." With dogged persistence, she repeats the idea from novel to novel, qualifies it with a cold reality. We must care. We must take on responsibility, preserve what is left. We will be disillusioned, defeated, but we must.
Emily's story is one half of The Memoirs of a Survivor, an external record of events which parallel Lessing's recapitulation of another major theme: that our interior lives are rich with possibilities. We must rely on our perceptions to inform us. Like a cinematic dissolve the wall of the guardian's flat fades away: here lie rooms and gardens that change form vision to vision, another world to be set in order, and again the task is difficult. A sort of poltergeist, a marauder of her psyche, can ruin all her efforts, leaving the place in disarray. The ease with which this inner world is projected is markedly different from the elaborate justifications of the visionary in Lessing's other novels, as though she had come to terms with her own belief. The life behind the survivor's wall is more than plausible: it has the authenticity of dreams. With her we come to understand that the interior and exterior worlds are close together, imagination bred of memories.
Scenes of Emily's childhood take place beyond the wall, projections of such incisive and painful beauty that they must illuminate the "real" world. In one scene the girl's father holds her prisoner and tickles her, a dread but permissible sexual encounter between father and daughter which captures his guilt and desire. Emily, a small child, is seen in white rooms which are as cold as her complaining mother's ignorance and inattention. Red drapes, red scratches, flames score the white – one is reminded of the dimension which color takes on in [Ingmar] Bergman's Cries and Whispers. And Bergman must come to mind for this fable is closer to Persona than any work of fiction. There is such a fusion of lives and roles here, a shared past. We are told, "I knew I was seeing an incident that was repeated again and again in Emily's? her mothers? Early life." The past must become our wonderful story if we are to transcend the terrible rules and limitations of our specific lives. The overlay of a grand psychic drama on the little melodrama of Emily's love story is the real theme of The Memoirs of a Survivor. Doris Lessing speaks of this book as "an attempt at autobiography," and it is self-referential but not in the usual way. It is a synthesis of her earlier work: the scenes are from her past, perhaps her past as Emily, but surely from the past of her own novels.
How can it end – this apocalyptic vision? Lessing resorts to romance without apologies. Everything is probable as the last walls dissolve, like the final orchestrations in late Shakespeare. All the principals walk, literally, into the imagined landscape of Lessing's alternatives – the guardian, with her family as it were, Emily, Hugo translated to a noble beast, Gerald and at the last moment the savage children so that their salvation may be accomplished after all.
In her introduction to the new edition of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing speculates that in the narrowness and impermanence of the exterior world all the old values, all her words will be swept away. "So why write novels," she asks, "Indeed why! I suppose we have to go on living as if. . ." As the very title, The Memoirs of a Survivor, is meant to suggest, we endure.
To read Howard's review in its entirety, click here.
When director David Gladwell's film adaptation of Memoirs of a Survivor was shown at the 1981 San Francisco Film Festival, critic Albert Johnson noted the following.
One of the best new films presented at Cannes was David Gladwell’s Memoirs of a Survivor, based on Doris Lessing’s futuristic story of urban anarchy and disorder in England. The extraordinary sensitivity, poetic vision and overall impression of an original talent was absolutely unforgettable. . . . Memoirs of a Survivor dramatizes the inner struggles of a woman to survive as civilization falls apart, and the challenge of this role attracted Julie Christie out of a three-year absence from the screen. The film is part real, part phantasmagoria, as though a somewhat deranged Lewis Carroll merged beyond the wall, or looking-glass, into clockwork-orange land. The visions of a ravaged London are full of terror and yet, memories and instincts of another time, before “everything stopped,” still thrive in the atmosphere. One should be prepared for a cinema journey full of discovery, because that is what David Gladwell has created, quite vividly, indeed.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
My Travels with Doris
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
The Sufi Way
Clarity, Hope and Courage
A Living Twenty-First Century Tradition
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
Doris Lessing Among The Guardian's "Top 100 Women"
Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature