Currently, there are two kinds of serious-novel. The first deals with the Human Condition (often confused, in Manhattan, with marriage) while the second is a word-structure that deals only with itself. Although the Human Condition novel can be read—if not fully appreciated—by any moderately competent reader of the late Dame Agatha Christie, the second cannot be read at all. The word-structure novel is intended to be taught, rather like a gnostic text whose secrets may only be revealed by tenured adepts in sunless campus chapels. Last month, a perfect example of the genre was extravagantly praised on the ground that here, at last, was a “book” that could not, very simply, be read at all by anyone, ever.
The only thing that the two kinds of serious-novel have in common is the fact that in each case the creator has taken extraordinary risks with his talents. He has driven his art and mind to the furthest limit of prose; and beyond. He has gambled recklessly with his gifts; been deer to his own gun; been brave, brave. On the other hand, the serious-writer’s reader’s courage has gone entirely unremarked and the slopes of Parnassus are now planted thick with the shallow graves of those gallant readers who risked their all in dubious battle with serious-texts, and failed—their names known only to whatever god makes the syllabus.
Nevertheless, despite the glory of risk-taking and the applause of tens of book-chatterers, today’s serious-novelist often betrays a certain edginess whenever he feels obliged to comment publicly on his art. He is apt to admit that the word-structure novel is unsatisfying while the Human Condition novel tends to look more and more like old movies or, worse, like new movies. Needless to say, the fact that hardly anyone outside an institution wants to read a serious-novel has never been a deterrent to our serious-novelists—rather the reverse. They know that silence, cunning, exile all add up to exegesis. But is that enough? I suspect that a crisis is now at hand and that the serious-novel, as we lucky few have known it, may be drawing to a close.
At the risk of poaching on that territory where the buffalo and Leslie Fiedler roam, one might make the case that owing to some sort of perfect misunderstanding about the nature of literature, our ungifted middlebrows have taken over the serious-novel while those highbrows who tend to create an epoch’s high literature appear not to be “serious” at all. In any case, the thing is now so muddled that it will be a long time before things are sorted out. Certainly it will be a long time before anyone can ever again state with George Eliot’s serenity and confidence that “Art must be either real and concrete or ideal and eclectic. Both are good and true in their way, but my stories are of the former kind.” What, we hear our middlebrows begin to buzz, is real? concrete? ideal? eclectic? What is art? Whatever art is it is not our day’s serious-novel, whose texture so closely resembles that gelidity in which great Satan is forever mired at the center of hell’s inner ring.
Although Doris Lessing has more in common with George Eliot than she has with any contemporary serious-novelist, she is not always above solemnity, as opposed to mere seriousness. Somewhat solemnly, Lessing tells us in the preface to her new novel Shikasta that there may indeed be something wrong with the way that novels are currently being written. She appears not to be drawn to the autonomous word-structure. On the other hand, she is an old-fashioned moralist. This means that she is inclined to take very seriously the quotidian. The deep—as opposed to strip—mining of the truly moral relationship seems to me to be her territory. I say seems because I have come to Lessing’s work late. I began to read her with Memoirs of a Survivor, and now, with Shikasta, I have followed her into the realms of science fiction where she is making a continuum all her own somewhere between John Milton and L. Ron Hubbard.
Lessing tells us that, originally, she thought that she might make a single volume out of certain themes from the Old Testament (source of so much of our dreaming and bad behavior) but that she is now launched on a series of fables about interplanetary dominations and powers. “I feel as if I have been set free both to be as experimental as I like, and as traditional.” I’m not sure what she means by “experimental” and “traditional.” At best, Lessing’s prose is solid and slow and a bit flat-footed. She is an entirely “traditional” prose writer. I suspect that she did not want to use the word “imaginative,” a taboo word nowadays, and so she wrote “experimental.”
In any case, like the splendid Memoirs of a Survivor, Shikasta is the work of a formidable imagination. Lessing can make up things that appear to be real, which is what storytelling is all about. But she has been sufficiently influenced by serious-writing to feel a need to apologize. “It is by now commonplace to say that novelists everywhere are breaking the bonds of the realistic novel because what we all see around us becomes daily wilder, more fantastic, incredible…. The old ‘realistic’ novel is being changed, too, because of influences from that genre loosely described as space fiction.” Actually, I have seen no very vivid sign of this influence and I don’t suppose that she has either. But it is not unusual for a writer to regard his own new turning as a highway suddenly perceived by all, and soon to be crowded with other pilgrims en route to the City on the Hill.
If this book has any recent precursor, it is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Lessing has praised him elsewhere: “Vonnegut is moral in an old-fashioned way…he has made nonsense of the little categories, the unnatural divisions into ‘real’ literature and the rest, because he is comic and sad at once, because his painful seriousness is never solemn. Vonnegut is unique among us; and these same qualities account for the way a few academics still try to patronize him….”
Lessing is even more influenced by the Old Testament. “It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” So much for JC, doer of good and eventual scientist. But Lessing’s point is well taken. Because the Old Testament’s lurid tales of a furious god form a background to Jesus’ “good news,” to Mohammed’s “recitations,” to the Jewish ethical sense, those bloody tales still retain an extraordinary mythic power, last demonstrated in full force by Milton.
In a sense, Lessing’s Shikasta is a return more to the spirit (not, alas, the language) of Milton than to that of Genesis. But Lessing goes Milton one better, or worse. Milton was a dualist. Lucifer blazes as the son of morning; and the Godhead blazes, too. Their agon is terrific. Although Lessing deals with opposites, she tends to unitarianism. She is filled with the spirit of the Sufis, and if there is one thing that makes me more nervous than a Jungian it is a Sufi. Lessing believes that it is possible “to ‘plug in’ to an overmind, or Ur-mind, or unconscious, or what you will, and that this accounts for a great many improbabilities and ‘coincidences.”’ She does indeed plug in; and Shikasta is certainly rich with improbabilities and “coincidences.” Elsewhere (“In the World, Not of It”),1 Lessing has expressed her admiration for one Idries Shah, a busy contemporary purveyor of Sufism (from the Arab word suf, meaning wool…the costume for ascetics).
Idries Shah has been characterized in the pages of this journal2 as the author of works that are replete with “constant errors of fact, slovenly and inaccurate translations, even the misspelling of Oriental names and words. In place of scholarship we are asked to accept a muddle of platitudes, irrelevancies, and plain mumbo-jumbo.” Lessing very much admires Idries Shah and the woolly ones, and she quotes with approval from Idries Shah’s The Dermis Probe in which he quotes from M. Gauquelin’s The Cosmic Clocks. “An astonishing parallel to the Sufi insistence on the relatively greater power of subtle communication to affect man, is found in scientific work which shows that all living things, including man, are ‘incredibly sensitive to waves of extraordinarily weak energy—when more robust influences are excluded.”’ This last quotation within a quotation is the theme of Shikasta.
It is Lessing’s conceit that a benign and highly advanced galactic civilization, centered on Canopus, is sending out harmonious waves hither and yon, rather like Milton’s god before Lucifer got bored. Canopus lives in harmony with another galactic empire named Sirius. Once upon a time warp, the two fought a Great War but now all is serene between the galaxies. I can’t come up with the Old Testament parallel on that one. Is Canopus Heaven versus Sirius’s Chaos? Anyway, the evil planet Shammat in the galactic empire of Puttiora turns out to be our old friend Lucifer or Satan or Lord of the Flies, and the planet Shikasta (that’s us) is a battleground between the harmonious vibes of Canopus and the wicked vibes of Shammat which are constantly bombarding our planet. In the end, Lucifer is hurled howling into that place where he prefers to reign and all is harmony with God’s chilluns. Lessing rather lacks negative capability. Where Milton’s Lucifer is a joy to contemplate, Lessing’s Shammat is a drag whose planetary agents sound like a cross between Tolkien’s monster and Sir Lew Grade.
Lessing’s narrative devices are nothing if not elaborate. Apparently, the Canopian harmonious future resembles nothing so much as an English Department that has somehow made an accommodation to share its “facilities” with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The book’s title page is daunting: “Canopus in Argos: Archives” at the top. Then “Re: Colonised Planet 5” (as I type this, I realize that I’ve been misreading “Re: Colonised” as recolonised); then “Shikasta”; then “Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by JOHOR (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Period of the Last Days.” At the bottom of the page, one’s eye is suddenly delighted by the homely phrase “Alfred A. Knopf New York 1979.” There is not much music in Lessing spheres.
Like the Archangel Raphael, Johor travels through Shikasta’s time. The planet’s first cities were so constructed that transmitters on Canopus could send out benign waves of force; as a result, the local population (trained by kindly giants) were happy and frolicsome. “Canopus was able to feed Shikasta with a rich and vigorous air, which kept everyone safe and healthy, and above all, made them love each other…. This supply of finer air had a name. It was called SOWF—the substance-of-we-feeling—I had of course spent time and effort in working out an easily memorable syllable.” Of course. But the SOWF is cut off. The cities of the plain are blasted. The Degenerative Disease begins and the race suffers from “grandiosities and pomps,” short life spans, bad temper. The Degenerative Disease is Lessing’s equivalent for that original sin which befell man when Eve bit on the apple.
There is a certain amount of fun to be had in Johor’s tour of human history. He is busy as a bee trying to contain the evil influence of Shammat, and Lessing not only brings us up to date but beyond: the Chinese will occupy Europe fairly soon. Lessing is a master of the eschatological style and Memoirs of a Survivor is a masterpiece of that genre. But where the earlier book dealt with a very real London in a most credible terminal state, Shikasta is never quite real enough. At times the plodding style does make things believable, but then reality slips away…too little SOWF, perhaps. Nevertheless, Lessing is plainly enjoying herself and the reader can share in that enjoyment a good deal of the time. But, finally, she lacks the peculiar ability to create alternative worlds. For instance, she invents for the human dead a limbo she calls Zone 6. This shadowy place is a cross between Homer’s Hades and the Zoroastrian concept of that place where eternal souls hover about, waiting to be born. Lessing’s descriptions of the undead dead are often very fine but when one compares her invention with Ursula Le Guin’s somewhat similar land of the dead in the Earthsea trilogy, one is aware that Le Guin’s darkness is darker, her coldness colder, her shadows more dense and stranger.
Lessing’s affinity for the Old Testament combined with the woolliness of latter-day Sufism has got her into something of a philosophical muddle.Without the idea of free will, the human race is of no interest at all; certainly, without the idea of free will there can be no literature. To watch Milton’s Lucifer serenely overthrow the controlling intelligence of his writerly creator is an awesome thing. But nothing like this happens in Lessing’s work. From the moment of creation, Lessing’s Shikastans are programmed by outside forces—sometimes benign, sometimes malign. They themselves are entirely passive. There is no Prometheus; there is not even an Eve. The fact that in the course of a very long book Lessing has not managed to create a character of the slightest interest is the result not so much of any failure in her considerable art as it is a sign that she has surrendered her mind to SOWF, or to the woollies, or to the Jealous God.
Obviously, there is a case to be made for predetermination or predestination or let-us-now-praise B. F. Skinner. Lessing herself might well argue that the seemingly inexorable DNA code is a form of genetic programming that could well be equated with Canopus’s intervention and that, in either case, our puny lives are so many interchangeable tropisms, responding to outside stimuli. But I think that the human case is more interesting than that. The fact that no religion has been able to give a satisfactory reason for the existence of evil has certainly kept human beings on their toes during the brief respites that we are allowed between those ages of faith which can always be counted upon to create that we-state which seems so much to intrigue Lessing and her woollies, a condition best described by the most sinister of all Latin tags, e pluribus unum.
Ultimately, Shikasta is not so much a fable of the human will in opposition to a god who has wronged the fire-seeker as it is a fairy tale about good and bad extraterrestrial forces who take some obscure pleasure in manipulating a passive ant-like human race. Needless to say, Doris Lessing is not the first to incline to this “religion.” In fact, she has considerable competition from a living prophet whose powerful mind has envisaged a race of god-like Thetans who once lived among us; they, too, overflowed with SOWF; then they went away. But all is not lost. The living prophet has told us their story. At first he wrote a science fiction novel, and bad people scoffed. But he was not dismayed. He knew that he could save us; bring back the wisdom of the Thetans; “clear” us of badness. He created a second holy book, Dianetics. Today he is the sole proprietor of the Church of Scientology. Doris Lessing would do well to abandon the woolly Idries Shah in favor of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, who has already blazed that trail where now she trods—treads?—trods.
Reprinted in A Small Personal Voice (Knopf, 1974).↩
L. P. Elwell-Sutton, The New York Review of Books, July 2, 1970.↩
The Wisdom of the East February 21, 1980