Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer
Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

When Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared recently in Harper’s, it served to shove his Of a Fire on the Moon into the background, and even his admirers did not seem unhappy. Mailer admits he wrote it because he needed money, and his way of giving value for money was to write a book almost 500 pages long; moreover, it is about the flight of Apollo 11, about which no one has cared for some time. So it was good of Mailer to appear again quickly, and writing about women as well.

In favor of such a position it can be said that the first and third sections of Of a Fire on the Moon, the Mailer sections (he calls himself Aquarius), are quite bad, and the long middle section, on the moon flight itself, has some boring stretches. Mailer is, say, at a dull news conference in Houston, or he is hot and tired the night before the liftoff at Cape Kennedy. For years he has been assuming he can bludgeon his feelings even at his worst moments and end up with news, but it doesn’t work this time:

Aldrin gave a disconcerted smile. “I hope I don’t have a tender foot walking around the moon.” It was so bad a joke that one had to assume it was full of reference for him, perhaps some natural male anxiety at the thought of evil moon rays passing into one’s private parts.

Who could say the ride of the Indian with whisky in his veins was not some conflagration of messages derived from the silences of the moon? Now tonight were the ghosts of old Indians awakening in the prairies and the swamps?

Give Mailer a “one had to assume” or a “who could say” and, of course, he can launch into Mailerese, but the effort here seems forced and most of the launchings abort quickly. Mailer has on his hands a “hovering of machinery” and it costs almost “twenty-five billion dollars,” so he must make something of it. The machinery, thus, “is preparing to go through the funnel of an historical event whose significance might yet be next to death itself.” Which is silly, and Mailer seems to know it, so he backs off, changes the subject.

Most of the book is like that. Mailer will be content for a while to report straightforwardly, but then, as if he feels he were being paid to be Norman Mailer, he lurches off: Is the trip to the moon a fulfillment or a defiling of God’s will? Is the American Wasp God’s answer or His Curse? Does this or that malfunction in a computer or a hatch portend the long-feared moment when the machines strike back, asserting their own will? He is committed to trying to see the very big in the very little, to make all events potentially symbolic, because his whole success as a reporter has been based on his ability to do just that. But here, where he really has very little to say about what is happening, we are left, often quite embarrassed, with a technique that suddenly makes Mailer seem a driveler and a show.

In one place, though, everything seems to go right, and it is perhaps significant that it comes when Mailer is talking about questions of scale, but is not trying to make the big out of the little. The subject is the pictures taken of the dark side of the moon:

…and indeed nothing for hundreds of miles before the eyes but swellings and distensions of the terrain like a skin beneath which furies must have wrung themselves, a bewildering endlessly worked-over expanse almost without rays, a stretch of bumpy knobby pockmarked upthrown churnings equal to the view from a low boat—without horizon one could never sight a level, a direction was hopeless, a windtwisted choppy sea had been frozen on the instant to stone. So one had no sense of scale….

Mailer is free now to speculate almost at will, but interestingly, he turns to the history of art:

Aquarius had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close to thirty years to comprehend why Cézanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.

He proceeds to earn it all, both the leap to Cézanne and the assertion about him:

Before Cézanne, did a painter work a canvas properly? Then one could cut out a square inch of canvas, show it to an unfamiliar eye, and the response would be that it was a piece of lace, or a square of velvet, for the canvas had been painted to look exactly like lace or velvet.

Cézanne, however, had looked to destroy the surface. A table-cloth in any one of his still lifes, taken inch by square inch, resembled the snowfields of mountains; his apples could be the paint-stained walls of a barn, or the clay roundings of a rock; the trunks of his trees were stems, or pillars, or hairs beneath a microscope. His skies, patch by patch, could be taken for a sea as easily as a light-blue throw cloth; the skin which ran from a man’s eyes to the corner of his mouth was like the sun-beaten terrain of his hills…. Something in that vision spoke like the voice of the century to come, something in his work turned other painters out of their own directions and into a search for the logic of the abstract.

Mailer like this, free, wanton, thoughtful, makes all the rest worth it.


Still, what Cézanne is telling him, Mailer seems not really to have learned. To take a small thing, a flower in the crannied wall, and to render it as though it might be a mud pool in a desert or a distant galaxy alone in space is to instruct and dizzy the imagination with the possibilities of a universe of visible forms torn loose from scale and context. No one who looked at the moon while Aldrin and Armstrong were on it could fail to be staggered with such or similar possibilities. But when you take that same flower and you feel endlessly obliged to say what therefore God and man is, you probably have the surest prescription for inflated rhetoric.

Two years ago Mailer was looking at Apollo 11 and trying over and over to decide whether it was the herald of sunrise or of night, whether the century was ending or beginning. Apollo 11 had to be that flower in the crannied wall—but it wasn’t. Cézanne teaches a humility that Mailer, nineteenth-century romantic that he is, simply cannot learn because neither his vision nor his ambition will let him. He knows he has very little to say here—at one point he longs for a great heavy-weight championship fight to write about because that would “sear the brain with excess of perception” while “in NASA-land the only thing open was the technology.” So technology it is, right scale or wrong scale, because Mailer has forced himself to say there is little to say and then to write a very long book trying to make that little interesting, even grand.

Not that the technology is badly done. Mailer once studied engineering, he says, and one remembers that the best parts of Why Are We in Vietnam? concerned big guns and helicopters. The descriptions of the relation of physics to engineering at various points on the trip are fine. But he will not be content with such straightforward reporting because it is his secret pride that he can fathom technology and Wasp America and show he is not simply literary and New York. About Wasp America, though, he has nothing new to say here—the vision of the spectators the night before the launching is similar and inferior to the vision of the soldiers who challenged the marchers on the Pentagon in Armies of the Night—and about science and technology he is only like other intelligent amateurs.

Which is to deny Mailer his ambition, at least for now. We must still prize him only for his occasional stunning and exhilarating passages, of which he has quite a few more elsewhere than in this book. The short essay on American fiction in Cannibals and Christians, the meditations on women’s peace groups in Armies of the Night, the passages on Lawrence and the Jews in “The Prisoner of Sex”—one can feel about these as one does about the great things in Ruskin, and the comparison holds in a number of ways.

Both Mailer and Ruskin are great and incorrigibly egotistical writers obsessed with the urge to tell us who we are and where the world is headed; both seem to have to write much too much in order to write anything good at all, and we can treasure both not for their books, but for those passages that turn, stop, explode, only to turn and explode again, and again. Giddy with contemplating their grandeur or the world’s doom, the brain of each seared with excess of perception, surely it is only in eras when we want others to tell us who we are and where we are going that such writers appear, become famous in ways mere literary types never are, feel needed, indeed, because they are.

If the metaphor for Mailer is Ruskin, mad stylists making the world the arena for their seriousness about themselves, the metaphor for Doris Lessing may be George Eliot, finger on the pulse of Everything. Unlike Ruskin and Mailer, George Eliot and Doris Lessing write real and whole books, and at least once, in The Four-Gated City, Mrs. Lessing has written a book as good as many of those of her predecessor. Like George Eliot, Doris Lessing is often thought of as ponderous, clumsy, a thinker rather than a real novelist; which is all nonsense. The style of both writers is fully answerable to their vision of our lot; neither “writes stories” and yet both can do what only the great storytellers can do, sustain intelligent interest over hundreds of pages; both manage to convey the most urgent concerns of their eras by the way they write about the domestic lives of a relatively few people.


The last section of The Four-Gated City is Doris Lessing’s vision of the ghastly future before us. At some time in the 1970s the totalitarian, bureaucratic technology collapses in an accident and the land mass occupied by the Western world becomes mostly uninhabitable. The enormous demands made by the society on the individual, for conformity, for efficiency, for cheerfulness, have led to an increase in the number of people who “hear things,” have extrasensory perceptions, who come to learn to live in “their world” as they are forced out of “ours”; they are our messengers from the life of the future.

Such visions are very common in science fiction, and, considered strictly as a vision, Mrs. Lessing’s is not as good as one it closely resembles, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But where Clarke is weakest Doris Lessing is a mastodon of strength. His is all vision while hers is the full outgrowth of 600 pages of densely imagined lives; he had an idea, and she has a great novel. Her vision of the future is mostly “what happens next” to Martha Quest and to Mark and Lynda and Francis Coldridge, and her sense of history and of the inner workings of the mind are the consequences of, and not the antecedents to, her curiosity about her characters.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell is much shorter, more programmatic, more simply satirical. The assault on the society’s treatment of the “mentally ill” is much more directly mounted. A man is picked up on the London Embankment and taken to a hospital. He is taking an extraordinary mental journey in the Atlantic, and two doctors, named X and Y, try to “control” this journey with drugs. X wants to try shock treatment and seems a monster, while Y, kindly, but narrow, wants to work with some brand-new drugs; both agree the man’s journey is simply hallucination. Both receive venomous treatment from their author, as her names for them show. The idea, thus, behind Briefing for a Descent into Hell is easy, too easy; suffice it to say it resembles the flashy insistence of R. D. Laing that the insane are the only truly sane. But there is a difference between an idea and a vision which embodies that idea, and even in this novel, where Doris Lessing is too close to carping for comfort, there is much that is convincing.

The journeying patient is washed up on the shore of an island, discovers an abandoned city, becomes crazed by the moon as he watches some lurid blood sacrifices, finds himself surrounded by hordes of dog-rats and then by monkeys. The two groups of animals fight horribly, then the man is removed by a Crystal disc come from the sky for which he has been hoping and waiting all along. Above the earth he looks down on the awful encrustation that is mankind as it asserts its ego and will to pollute and destroy, but then he soars once again:

But man-wise microbe-wise, I am before the Crash and in a cool, sweet loving air that rings with harmony, is harmony, Is, yes, and here am I, voyager, Odysseus bound for home at last, the Seeker in home waters, spiteful Neptune outwitted and Jupiter’s daughter my friend and guide.

Throughout this long vision the writing is firm and absorbed, controlled in a way that makes us know here what home is, know that the voyager is at the end of his vision but also before it, before the Crash and the pollution.

There follows a long scene, the briefing of the title, which unquestionably does not work. The vision is now in the third person, the voyager is present only implicitly, Minerva and Mercury and others in the solar system are planning a descent into the hell that is earth. The use of the celestial gods, which seems right when the voyager is made Odysseus, is jarring here, especially when the principals are called Merk Ury and Minne Erva and there is a Descent Team and a Permanent Staff. I can only say that it seems all wrong, thin in argument, nagging in tone. What becomes clear, though, is that the patient is going to descend to earth, his vision over, his drugged sleep ended, his self recovering in the eyes of the doctors, but lost in his own. But he cannot remember where he has been, or where the doctors are trying to take him from, though he knows he longs to return.

A series of letters then tells us that the patient’s name is Charles Watkins. He is a professor at Cambridge and he has never quite maintained normal relations in life, and to others he has seemed something of a brute; what we call life has never quite touched him or seemed important to him. Doctor Y has him write down something he remembers and he tells a moving story of joining a group of partisan guerrillas in Yugoslavia during the Second World War which ends when a girl with whom he is in love is fatally impaled by a doe protecting her new fawn. But we also learn that Watkins never was in Yugoslavia, that he had a long and fearfully grinding experience during the war which ended with a three month recovery in Cornwall spent with a man who was in Yugoslavia and to whom the experiences Watkins describes may or may not have happened.

Watkins’s long vision at the beginning and his story about Yugoslavia are things that are his, events in his mind, not because he is Watkins so much as because those who descend into the hell of earth have such experiences. The effect of the drugs on Watkins is that of Wordsworth’s prison house: the drugs are simply one of the world’s ways of giving the soul her earthly freight which lies heavy as frost, and deep almost as life. The suggestion is clear that something like this happens to all of us. Watkins wants terribly to be able to remember the vision he has lost, but he also wants to do as he is told, to return to “normal life.” Against his better judgment and that of an adolescent girl who becomes his only friend after he awakens, Watkins submits to shock treatment in the wan hope it will make him remember. But it doesn’t, he is instead “cured” and he goes home to his wife and children.

Although Mrs. Lessing has stiffened her ideas and is using her characters in a much more clinical way than in The Four-Gated City, she manages nonetheless to make Watkins’s story compelling. He is also an “other,” one briefed for his life on earth, so he is a case. But his author’s understanding of him is never clinical, he escapes her more mindless satirical moments, he experiences almost nothing offered by ordinary human life, yet his instance is touching and beautiful. We do not feel in reading about him that only the insane are truly sane, but rather that these terrible and wonderful events have happened to him. If he is defeated at the end, Doris Lessing is not, and we need not be.

But to say that is perhaps to deflect too soon or too easily from what she, and Norman Mailer too, are trying to see and tell us. Both have become increasingly and insistently visionary in their recent books; both feel it is not preposterous to invoke the moon as a potentially magical and mystical power; both seem certain that if we persist in seeing the moon only as the methods of modern science have taught us to see celestial bodies then we are doomed. In “The Prisoner of Sex” Mailer speaks of the Devil as having “wished to cut man off from his primitive instincts and thereby leave us marooned in a plastic maze which could shatter the balance of nature before the warnings were read.” Here is part of Charles Watkins’s vision, in a similar vein:

Some sort of divorce there has been somewhere along the path of this race of man between the “I” and the “We,” some sort of terrible falling away, and I (who am not I, but part of a whole composed of other human beings as they are of me) hovering here as if between the wings of a great white bird, feel as if I am spinning back into a vortex of terror, like a birth in reverse, and it is towards a catastrophe, yes, that was when the microbes, the little broth that is humanity, was knocked senseless, hit for six, knocked out of their true understanding, so that ever since most have said I, I, I, I, I, I, I, and cannot, save for a few, say, We.

Not since the Victorians have so many very good writers been so completely in earnest as they feel themselves become watchmen of the night.

The reasons are so familiar as to need very little rehearsal. In any era where power becomes centralized at a rate faster than anyone’s ability to comprehend, when official voices seem to insist that average citizens deny the evidence of their senses, when it seems in very truth that true wit is near allied to madness, then there must be a terrible blurring of scale and proportion. At such times the temptation is great to see what God and man are by looking at the flower on the crannied wall—any flower, any God, any definition of man just so long as it gets rid of the blurring and seems to yield proportion.

Thus: R. D. Laing, Charles Reich, Jacques Ellul, so many of Norman Mailer’s bad moments, so many similar bad moments for all of us. On the day I write the newspaper reports two events, more or less as a matter of course: the FBI issues instructions to its agents to infiltrate radical groups simply to increase the paranoia of their members; James Michener has interviewed students at Kent State and says that one quarter of them told him their parents believed the students who were killed got what they deserved and their own children deserved the same. What is one to say, what evasion or explanation can satisfy even for a moment?

Doris Lessing seems to say that trying to learn to live with the polluted flowers in our crannied walls works to defeat what is precious in us. We would be better off, perhaps, breaking down and away from the terrifying evidence, psychically shivering, rejecting, because human beings can take only so much. And she takes us there, showing us that those who do this are not simply defeated, indeed, they seem at times to expand their consciousnesses and possibilities by so doing. At the end of The Four-Gated City there is no good or understanding human gesture of which Martha Quest seems incapable, and near the end of Briefing for a Descent into Hell Charles Watkins achieves his finest moment of human contact, just before submitting to recovery and defeat. She is no Laing, no touter of the void, to use Herzog’s phrase, as though it were so much real estate. The preciousness, the terror, the rejecting, the achieving I speak of are in her work densely realized and vivid. Personally I do not see her scale or vision as being triumphantly right, yet no other writer in recent years, not Mailer or Bellow, has upset me as she has done.

This Issue

May 6, 1971