Friday, March 08, 2013

Doris Lessing on the Challenge to Go Beyond Ideological Slogans


Here's a little something for International Women's Day . . . the transcript (with added images and links) of an interview with acclaimed writer Doris Lessing. It's from the October 24, 2001 broadcast of Foreign Correspondent, a current affairs show from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). One reason I particularly appreciate this interview is because in it Lessing shares her thoughts on war and the prospective dangers of any and every type of 'ism.'


Jennifer Byrne talked to Doris Lessing in London, and began by asking if she thought people these days understood what war really means.

Lessing: No, I don't. I think there's a new generation who's only seen war in television programs and war films, and they . . . I don't know why war always looks glamorous, but it is, so . . . they have no idea at all what they're talking about. This is a very good scenario for self-righteousness and for slogans and it makes my blood run cold because I've lived through it more than once. And it's very powerful and it takes people over. And then people stop thinking. They just chant slogans. And this is what's so frightening about it.

Byrne: You write very caustically about the power of the 'ism'. . . you know, whether it's communism, feminism, unfocused idealism, journalism. Do you think that an 'ism' is an intrinsically suspicious thing?

Lessing: Yes, I do rather. I think we're always making categories and fitting people and things into them that don't necessarily belong there at all. As for idealism . . . you know, Hitler was an idealist. Have you ever heard his plans for a thousand-year reich? Mussolini . . . and I've no doubt at all that good old Comrade Stalin had moments of idealism - not very many. But as for Lenin, of course, that old murderer.

Byrne: Well, why do we want them so much, do you think?

Lessing: Oh, you see, we love powerful people, unfortunately. We do. We do . . . we love powerful, strong men – or a lot of people do who haven't actually experienced them.

Byrne: Is it your disappointment in communism that has made you suspicious of all 'isms' and all ideologies?

Lessing: It certainly helped. In the last part of the fifties communism was beginning to . . . it was falling down like the Twin Towers in New York – before our very eyes. And that was very, very extraordinary to watch, and to live through.

Byrne: The most loathsome character, I think, in your new book is the communist, who is a very sound comrade but an absolute pig of a person.

Lessing: Well, you know, there were an awful lot of them around.

Byrne: You knew some? You knew many?

Lessing: Of course! I was married to one for a time. The communists . . . little mini commissares . . . they were everywhere. And they were all like that – they were unbelievably dogmatic.

Byrne: Did you know that at the time, or this is like looking back?

Lessing: Oh yes, I did know. You know, I had to fight my way out. You try being married to 150% communist. It really is something.




Byrne: Is it getting harder to speak your mind, or easier, do you think?

Lessing: Easier. No-one's going to put you into prison at the moment, for speaking your mind . . . or banning you. Luckily I'm not a Muslim in this country – they're having a bad time.

Byrne: Yet, when you spoke your mind about feminism, the cry that went up, the shouting. You were an evil woman, Doris Lessing.

Lessing: Yes, I know. Well, half of what I was supposed to have said, I didn't say. But people love a chance to be righteously indignant, and I gave them that.

Byrne: So what did you actually say?

Lessing: What I actually said . . . what I was on about, was this culture where men are automatically rubbished. I really hate it. We now have a culture where it's a part of the language . . . advertisements . . . radio programs . . . the putting down of men. And I said it was time this came to an end. But I don't think it was that that made people furious.

Byrne: Well, that was the thing that made the front page in Australia, I have to say.

Lessing: Really?

Byrne: Yes. It was that you had said that the most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest, most intelligent man and no-one protests.

Lessing: Exactly. I did say that.

Byrne: It is what you said?

Lessing: And I stand by it. Absolutely. You know, when I was young and I was this brash girl, I was always tackling some man, saying, "Why are you patronizing me? I'm not some stupid little woman." And they never had any idea what I was talking about. It was a part of the culture. "What's she on about?" Well, now women do it – and don't even know that they're doing it. And I don't see why we should become as bad as they were, and some of them still are. I find it shocking. The thing that . . . when it really got to me . . . I was in a school, and I saw a nine or ten years old . . . and there was this feminist teacher telling these kids that wars throughout history were because men were naturally violent. Now you can imagine the scene – the little girls, so smug and pleased with themselves, and the boys cowering and embarrassed. And I thought this is going on through our schools. No wonder the little boys are doing so badly in school, if they've got women who put them down all the time.

Byrne: Why do you think . . . what is the motive that you perceive why feminists are putting men down? Why they're treating them in a cruel inferior way?

Lessing: Well, they've been put down for so long, so they're getting they're own back . . . and it's simple revenge, a lot of it. And also I don't think they realize how very unpleasant they are. What a lot of bitches have been created by the women's movement. It really is frightening. But you know, the thing that I really was on about in Edinburgh . . . I said that the whole of the 1960's movement had been a sexual revolution. It hadn't really done the situation of women much good. It was all great fun, God knows. But when I was a girl, I said . . . I had a role model – a word that had not been created then – and she used to say to us, "Girls, go out and get yourself equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity, and good nurseries, and then you will be equal with men." Now, it is a long time in the women's movement since any of them have thought about changing laws . . . or fighting . . . boring old fighting, and committed. Well, we don't do that any more. We think it's absolutely wonderful if some girl has an exciting sexual life – and jolly good luck to her – but it doesn't change anything.

Byrne: I must say there's a lovely moment in your book, when you talk about a magazine editor who gets furious when she's told that the female is the one that transmits malaria, and she says "the shits! . . . the fascists . . . this is terrible!"

Lessing: I didn't invent that.

Byrne: That's true?

Lessing: Absolutely.

Byrne: What, she thought it was actually a slander on the gender?

Lessing: Exactly.

Byrne: Okay, so you're saying the women are winning the gender war - or have won the gender war?

Lessing: I don't know if it is a victory. It is the kids I'm concerned with. Boys, who are having a very bad time . . . you know, the men I think are having a bad time, but they can fight for themselves. But little kids can't, you know. I think women might remember that. They might have a maternal instinct here or there and try and look after the little boys.

Byrne: If you didn't have a son, would you feel it so deeply, do you think?

Lessing: I've got a feeling I would, you know. I think so, yes.

Byrne: Why is it do you think the feminists have been so keen to adopt you as one of their spokespeople anyway? Does it go right back to the . . .

Lessing: It was The Golden Notebook. That's why. That was read as a feminism tract, when it first came out.

Byrne: And it wasn't?

Lessing: Well, I didn't think it was . . . because I see it as an historical document.

Byrne: Is there an ism or an ideology that you hold to now . . . at eighty-one?

Lessing: Well, the only one I hold to is that people should think before they shout slogans.

Byrne: Whatever the slogan?

Lessing: That's all. It's a . . . and you think that might be a small demand, but it isn't. Because look how easily people start shouting slogans.

Byrne: As you get older, and one assumes wiser . . .

Lessing: Oh, don't assume that.

Byrne: No? Not so?

Lessing: No. No.

Byrne: Is it harder to be tolerant of the foolishness and the naivety of the young?

Lessing: No, it's not harder . . . it's just that you understand it so well, since you've done it all yourself. And it's a pity that they repeat our follies, but apparently that is the plan of life. God knows why nobody ever learns from the preceding generation – but they don't.

Byrne: But isn't that part of being young? Being careless of history?

Lessing: Well, we don't have to admire it, do we?

Byrne: You were quoted recently as saying "writing is something I have to do." At eighty-one, is it still?

Lessing: I'm just a storyteller. I have to . . . I have to. I'm very unhappy when I'm not writing. I need to write. I think it's possibly some kind of psychological balancing mechanism – but that's not only true for writers . . . anybody. I think that we're always just a step away from lunacy anyway, and we need something to keep us balanced.

Byrne: So this is your sanity?

Lessing: Exactly.

Byrne: Will you retain it . . . I mean, will you keep – not the sanity, the writing?

Lessing: Yes, I'll go on. As long as I can.

Byrne: You were offered a damehood – to become a dame. Why did you knock it back?

Lessing: A dame of the British Empire, right. I am a good colonial by upbringing . . . I hated all that. And also, I spent a good part of my youth trying to undo the British Empire. And there are very few more unimpressive sights than some old person licking the hand that it used to bite. So, no . . . I said no. So then they said would I like to be a Companion of Honour, which I said yes to because I'm not called anything. I mean, how would you like to be called a dame? Like a pantomime.

Byrne: Somewhat unlikely. Doris Lessing, thank you very much. Thank you.

Lessing: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.


Recommended Off-site Link:
Where Did International Women's Day Come From? – Steph Solis (Yes!, March 8, 2013).

For more of Doris Lessing at The Wild Reed, see:
My Travels with Doris
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
Doris Lessing Among The Guardian's "Top 100 Women"
The Sufi Way
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible


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