It is as if some gauze or screen has been dissolved away from life, that was dulling it, and like Miranda you want to say, What a brave new world! You don’t remember feeling like this, because, younger, habit or the press of necessity prevented. You are taken, shaken, by moments when the improbability of our lives comes over you like a fever. Everything is remarkable, people, living, events present themselves to you with the immediacy of players in some barbarous and splendid drama that it seems we are part of. You have been given new eyes.
—Doris Lessing, Time Bites
Doris Lessing, who turned eighty-seven in October, is telling us what “old” feels like. Not a believer in “the golden age of youth,” she “shudders” at the very idea of living through her teens again, even her twenties. Since she left Africa for England more than half a century ago, a single mother and a high school dropout with a wardrobe full of avatars—angry young woman, mother superior, bad-news bear, bodhisattva—she has published an astonishing fifty-five books. Although Time Bites is her first collection of articles, lectures, book reviews, and broadcasts, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is her twenty-fifth novel. Nor does the fact that she’s four inches shorter than she used to be make her a shrinking violet. “Old” is as nice as she gets in Time Bites. Her default mode is usually imperious, as if ex cathedrawere the normal respiration of her intelligence.
With a muster more of adjectives than argument, she admires the great in their shallow graves (Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Bulgakov); promotes some personal favorites (Christina Stead, George Meredith, Muriel Spark); scolds us for neglecting others (Anna Kavan, Jaan Kross, Tarjei Vesaas); gets huffy about our provincial ignorance of a Sanskrit folktale cycle, The Fables of Bidpai; and chats up autobiography (Casanova, Cellini), Stone Age civilizations (Knossos, Catal Hoyuk), cults (Cromwell, the Red Guards, al-Qaeda), and Ecclesiastes (“the thundering magnificence” of the King James version). She has a genuine affection for the composer Philip Glass, who turned two of her “space fictions” into operas, and for the editor William Phillips, even if his name is twice shamefully misspelled. But for every lovely fugitive impression (“the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began”), there is a snide kick at “militant feminists,” and for every gut-wrenching account of the agony of Zimbabwe, a couple of twaddles about the “tyranny” of “Political Correctness.”
What makes Time Bites nonetheless a valuable addition to the Lessing index is its account of her finding her way to Sufi mysticism in the late 1960s. Loyal readers who have followed her out of Africa into celebrity are all too aware that a different Doris finished off the fifth and final volume of her “Children of Violence” series, The Four-Gated City (1969). It was as if Martha Quest, until then Lessing’s alter ego and doppelgänger in the series, had somehow got hold of a copy of The Golden Notebook, been desolated to discover the bankruptcy of every master narrative of Western Civ from Euclidean geometry to class war to the Oedipus complex, and then battered her way headfirst through the library wall into a prehistoric realm of memory, myth, madness, and genetic mutation. Or as if, in the yellow house in the south of France, Gauguin had turned suddenly into Van Gogh.
What happened? Her two volumes of autobiography aren’t much help, escorting her only up to The Golden Notebook in 1962. And instead of a third volume, she published a novel, The Sweetest Dream (2001), ostensibly picking up where the autobiographies left off but fictionalized so as to avoid “possible hurt to vulnerable people”—and possible libel suits. So she got to be cranky about Communists, feminists, journalists, shoplifters, progressive schools, conversion experiences, and grief therapy—but aside from the obligatory reference to yarrow stalks and the I Ching, the raptures of the deep went unmentioned.
For a while, encouraged by one of her biographers, some of us saw The Four-Gated City itself as a conversion experience, from the mystifications of Marx and a market economy to the mystagogies of R.D. Laing and mescaline. Time Bites makes it clear that we were wrong. After quitting the Communist Party and finishing The Golden Notebook, she needed to reupholster her own spacious mind. From William Butler Yeats, Saint John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich to Buddhism and the Bhagavad-Gita, she was looking for something “that mirrored certain conclusions and discoveries I had made for myself…. It could not possibly be, I decided, that I was the only person with these thoughts.” What she found, courtesy of Idries Shah, was the poets and sages of a 1,300-year-old current of Islamic thinking that sought, through otherworldliness, a strenuous spiritual calisthenics of pilgrimage, sleeplessness, fasting, and ecstatic dance, and a kick-the-can pedagogy of parables, aphorisms, fables, verses, and jokes, to see past mere appearances to the hidden reality and transcendent dimension of human life.
Meet the Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi, with his bouillabaisse of Persian, hermetic, and Greek ideas. And the Spanish mystic Ibn al-Arabi, with his Bezels of Wisdom and his vision of an incarnate Sophia, the divine Wisdom. And the jurist and theologian al-Ghazali, who first told the tale of the Seven Valleys the pilgrim soul must cross toward annihilation of the self. As well as poets like ‘Attar, who elaborated on this ineffable topography in his Parliament of Birds, and Rumi, who founded an Order of Whirling Dervishes, the Mawlawiyyah. From al-Muqaddasi’s Revelation of the Secrets of the Birds and Flowers and Saadi’s Rose Garden to The Exploits of the Incomparable Mullah Nasrudin, Sufi literature is associative, intuitive, witty, respectful, transparent, and transcendent, preaching harmony, immanence, and the interconnectedness of all forms of organic life. What it seemed to say to a Lessing who had given up radical hope is that nothing is permanent, but neither will anything ever really change.
After the passionate indignation and furious intelligence of the African stories, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and the first four “Children of Violence” novels, when Martha went through that wall out of politics and psychiatry into dancing atoms and blue lights, Lessing stopped playing by the old narrative rules. From the apocalyptic vision in The Four-Gated City of an ancient metropolis, a clairvoyant priesthood, and emancipating mutants, there would follow Charles Watkins’s tortured apprehension of himself in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) as a splinter of the consciousness of superior beings beamed down from Venus; the frantic efforts by the nameless narrator of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) to protect the girl-child Emily by hiding her in the patterned carpets and hanging gardens of a parallel universe; and the late-Seventies space-fiction series “Canopus in Argos,” in which earthlings were watched over and trifled with for millions of years by three separate intergalactic empires in five different evolutionary time zones.
In a preface to the first of these sci-fis, Shikasta: Re: Colonized Planet 5, Lessing suggested that “a single mind” wrote the Torah, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and the Koran, as well as the liturgies of the Dogon (a tribe in Mali) and Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Mayans). In a preface to the third, The Sirian Experiments, envious of physicists who got to play with black holes, white dwarves, and charmed quarks, she skyjacked a flying saucer: “As for UFOs,” she explained, “we may hardly disbelieve in what is so plentifully vouched for by so many sound, responsible, sensible people, scientific and secular.” It’s easy to see now that the do-good Canopeans were as much Sufi sages as they were golden Greeks.
At least temporarily, critical realism and social coherence went out the window in favor of biological mysticism, a collective unconscious, and lots of weather metaphors. The excruciating subjectivity of the modern predicament would resolve itself in a remedial reading of such sacred texts as The Cloud of Unknowing, the Book of Revelation, and the Upanishads. Thereafter, for every conventional novel like The Good Terrorist (1985), with its IRA wannabes, or Love, Again(1996), her sexy romp in the theater world, she would publish a fabulist shadow fiction like The Fifth Child (1988), about a Neanderthal baby in modern London against whom his own siblings locked their bedroom doors at night, or Mara and Dann (1999), set at the end of an ice age in a distant future of drowned cities and murderous tribes.
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
—Doris Lessing, Preface to African Stories
Nineteen pages into The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, Mara dies giving birth. So much for the resourceful heroine of Mara and Dann, the plucky Mahondi princess on the run with her crazy brother from the drought-stricken heart of Ifrik to the ice cliffs of the Middle Sea, with whom, in a future as immeasurable and remote as the prehistoric past, we had crossed half a continent of white bones, singing beetles, and burning sand, only a step ahead of famine, scorpions, slavers, and death squads. Except for poppy smoke and banshee wail, Lessing is done with her.
So much too for what Lessing called an “adventure,” but which added up, by nudge, wink, and ninja kick, to something more original. It’s not just that Mara and Dann seemed to rehearse all of immemorial Africa—savannas, gorges, femurs, shamans, soldiers, refugees, empires, necrologies, genocides, and other affidavits of atrocity—and to catalog as well volcanic cataclysms in deep readings of ice caps, carbon clouds, and fossil dumps. It seemed also to rehearse every which way we tell these stories, in chronicles, almanacs, calendars, scriptures, theses, and screed, before deciding to be a fairy tale and apologue.
Thus as the ice grip on Yerrup thawed and desert gained everywhere in Ifrik, we followed seven-year-old Mara and three-year-old Dann from the murder of their parents, their abduction by strangers, and their childhood in hiding, on a rough passage north into the traumatic experience of barracks, brothels, and prisons; of earthquakes, flash floods, fire storms, civil war, and slave labor. While competent Mara made cheese, candles, and community, bipolar Dann, between losing his sister in a game of chance and losing his mind to drugs, killed enough civilians to become a general. “Immensities” troubled their dreams, and humiliating intuitions of their own “smallness,” as well as garbled tales from ancient texts about operatically unhappy characters with names like Mam Bova and Ankrena. But when they finally got north enough—Morocco? Tunisia?—to arrive at the legendary “Centre,” they found priestly clerks awaiting their prophesied appearance, out of drought, into rainbows.
Mara and Dann fabled itself to a fare-thee-well. There was a magic cloak, a designated nemesis, gold coins, evil twins, black towers, even a labyrinth, a counterplot, and a restoration fantasy. Not that Lessing, a Sister Grimm, admits of happy endings. If her 1999 novel accused its century of specializing in refugees, in forced relocations of the outcast and anathematized, it never suggested that any other century had been nicer. If Dann’s ancestors seemed to him omniscient (“There were people once—they knew everything. They knew about the stars…they could talk to each other through the air…compared to them we are beetles”), yet these know-it-alls, staring up from drowned cities, immured like woolly mammoths in blue ice, were just as dead as their epigoni. After 12,000 years of civilization, war was still the end of every story, “the ways of war became crueller and more terrible,” and a punishing ice age was what we deserved.
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is a lesser effort, a tying up of loose ends. It has some of the fairy-tale quality of its predecessor—aromatic forests, broken-hearted beasts, red and black armies, white witches, and “more of the long, long ago, the here-we-go-again”—plus a Candide garden, where a pregnant Mara takes up farming; a gloss on Max Weber, in which charisma is a curse; a marvelous account, as if to conflate the Tower of Babel, the Library at Alexandria, and Noah’s Ark, of “sand librarians,” frantic scribes in the Centre’s bowels, trying to save a page here, a paragraph there, even a skittering phrase (“Rose thou art sick”) from rising waters and disintegrating bark; and passages that remind us of Lessing’s raw power when her interest and ire are aroused. A calving of glaciers is reported in eddas and skalds:
They were staring at the ice cliffs of Yerrup, that seemed undiminished, in spite of how they cracked and fell. As they gazed, a portion of the lower shining mass groaned and fell, and slid into the waves, leaving a dark scarred cliff which from here looked like a black gap on the white….
Now they were close, too close, to a tall shining cliff face, bare of ice, though water was bounding down, off rocks, in freshets and rivers, and the sea was rocking and rearing so badly that the boat was in danger of overturning. They were clutching the sides and calling out, while Dann was yelling with exultation, for this was what he had dreamed of, and it was what he was seeing—there were the ice cliffs of Yerrup and the sounds they made as they fell was like many voices, all at once, shouting, groaning, screaming—and then, crack, another ice face was peeling off, and Dann found that the others had turned the boat and it was rocking its way back to shore, a long, dangerous way off…. And before they reached shore and safety, a large block of ice that shone blue and green and dusky pink was coming straight for them.
But there is an impatience to this sequel, a rude rush that can’t be bothered with chapter divisions or more than a handful of line-space breaks. Mara being dead, we are stuck mostly in the head of her unhappy brother, the poppy-smoking “General” Dann, whose “authority” as a wonder-worker is as unearned as it is widespread, whose fame is an illusion, “a flicker of nothing, like marsh gas, or the greenish light that runs along the tops of sea waves,” but who has been born with the peculiar ability “to set fire to the expectations of people who had never even met him.” And when Dann retires to anguish over his sister, or to indulge his bitter envy of those “lost time” ancestors who were so much cleverer than he, the narrative chores fall to Griot, his dutiful, humorless, green-eyed aide-de-camp, a former child soldier who followed Dann all the way from Agre, who sees to the training of the army his general leads into pointless battle, and who, like all the griots before him, will sing praise-songs on the killing fields.
Also green-eyed is the snow dog saved by Dann from drowning, whose “sodden mass” and “dense wetness” he buttons into his own jacket, whose dead weight he carries overland to a stranger’s shack, whose sneezes and shakes he warms through a winter’s night against his skin, the only creature he will ever love besides his sister—but an adoring pet who must turn against his own master to protect Mara’s daughter, the girl-child Tamar, from the despair and rage of her brain-sick uncle. Surely this remarkable beast deserved a better name than Ruff?
Dann, Griot, Ruff, and an army of men wearing blankets invade the nation next door, not because anyone believes that their promises of “justice, order, fairness, kindness as a ruling idea” will work out better this time than elsewhen: “Over and over again, all the effort and the fighting and the hoping, but it ends in the Ice or in cities sinking down out of sight into the mud.” Nor is Dann under any illusion that “happily ever after” means more than “whistling in the dark.” Somewhere nearby, some other charismatic leader is already rousing another rabble. Soon there will be more children on the run. Still, this is how the story has always been written, and everyone must play his part. Sisters die, and so do civilizations, and in the rear-view mirror of the Sufi levitation the rest of us look smaller and smaller. But Doris Lessing is her own ecosystem, biocosm, Big Bang, and entropic universe. Her advice to us is chin up, and socks, too.
I was seeing a mature woman, a woman who has had her fill of everything, but is still being asked from, demanded of, persuaded into giving: such a woman is generous indeed; her coffers and wells are always full and being given out. She loves—oh, yes, but somewhere in her is a deadly weariness. She has known it all, and doesn’t want any more—but what can she do? She knows herself—the eyes of men and boys say so—as a source; if she is not this, then she is nothing. So she still thinks—she had not shed that delusion. She gives. She gives. But with this weariness held in check and concealed.
The Memoirs of a Survivor
Shake her family tree and down fall bootmakers, bank clerks, mariners, medics; a cousin to the painter Constable, a farmer who versified, a soldier who Charged with the Light Brigade, a widow who captained a barge. Doris’s father, having lost a leg in the Great War, talked about the trenches till the day he died, of diabetes. Her mother, a nurse who had once aspired to be a concert pianist, “wanted children, to make up to them what she had suffered as a child.” Follow these minor players on the British imperial stage from Kermanshah, Iran, where Doris was born in 1919, on a nightmare passage by oil tanker across the Caspian and lice-ridden train through war-torn Russia, to “wet, dirty, dark and graceless England”; by boat past sunsets, seagulls, and flying fish to Cape Town; by prairie schooner behind a team of oxen north to the flaming skies and termite heaps of Rhodesia, where the maize crop failed and so did tobacco, where gold didn’t pan out and neither did social ambition.
Did you know she spent four years in a convent school, so admiring of holy water, rosary beads, and sanctus bells that she actually converted for a minute or two to Roman Catholicism? Then her mother explained the Inquisition, and she quit religion and piano.
Imagine the novelist as Artemis, Doris as Diana: by age twelve, she already knew how to raise rabbits, worm dogs, churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer, shoot guinea fowl, and walk on stilts. Not that she wasn’t also reading—Dickens and Lewis Carroll. When at last she left the unhappy homestead where her mother loved her brother best, for the dance hall, typing pool, and Left Book Club in Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital, she added Lawrence, Proust, and Virginia Woolf to Kipling and Olive Schreiner. She also switched from The Observer to The New Statesman. The hard-drinking Young Married writing her first novel discovered the Russians “like a thunderclap”: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky. After which, as she abandoned the “spineless social democrats” for the “kaffir-loving” local Reds, she would abandon her dull husband, Frank Wisdom, and their two children for Gottfried Lessing and the Revolution.
He was a Communist, a German, an enemy alien in World War II, and lousy in bed: “It was my revolutionary duty to marry him. I wish I could believe this was just one of our jokes, but probably not.” To her children by Frank, she explained that she must leave them to make a better world; “One day they would thank me for it. I was absolutely sincere. There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.” Gottfried, the father of her third child, deserted them both after the war, for East Germany. Doris, alarmed at her habit of having children by every man she went to bed with, had her tubes tied. She moved to England in 1949, and published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, the following year.
Her second volume of autobiography, Walking in the Shade (1997), is less thrilling than her first, Under My Skin (1994), unless you count a late date with Kenneth Tynan, during which they didn’t use his bedroom whips. Briefly, she would be lumped in with England’s Angry Young Men, but seems to have preferred the company of the novelist and art critic John Berger. Other names march by, tooting their horns—Honor Tracy, Isaak Dinesen, C.P. Snow, Kenneth Kaunda, Siobhan McKenna, Paul Robeson, Brendan Behan, Bertrand Russell, Laurence Olivier—and we are none the wiser. We do meet the American Trotskyist Clancy Sigal, on his way to a nervous breakdown for which a crazy doctor (probably R.D. Laing) would prescribe LSD, who shows up as Saul Green in The Golden Notebook, and who gave Doris the gift of jazz.
We also meet Mrs. Sussman, the analyst Lessing saw for three years before conscripting her so memorably into The Golden Notebook as Mother Sugar. Mrs. Sussman, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, was a Jungian who specialized in “unblocking” artists. In Doris she found archetypal residues of Electra, Medea, and Antigone. She especially liked the giant lizard dream that Doris would inflict on Martha in two of the “Children of Violence” novels. Later, in an essay on Laurens van der Post and the literature of exile, Lessing noted that “Papa Jung” and Africa were so compatible because “vast spaces, hinterlands and the nameless can so easily be archetyped into sympathetic symbols.” There is also an obvious kinship, in folk wisdom, ritual drama, and a collective unconscious, between Jung and Sufism.
But the ritual drama of Walking in the Shade is her love-hate affair with communism, less than a marriage but more than a one-night stand. Almost perversely, she joined the Party not with her friends in Africa during the war, but in England in 1952, even then holding off for the sake of appearances until after she returned from a very guided tour of the Soviet Union—art galleries, St. Basil’s, collective farms, Yasnaya Polyana—whereupon she not only attended cocktail parties at the Soviet embassy and sold Daily Workers door-to-door, but also sat through endless stupefying meetings of the Writers’ Group in her own room, as usual the perfect hostess. When at last she did quit the Party, sometime in 1957—after Hungary; after the Twentieth Party Congress; after the Soviet news agency Tass paid her way back to Africa; after she published A Ripple in the Storm, the Martha Quest novel that made merciless fun of her erstwhile comrades in Rhodesia; after many letters to and from E.P. Thompson—she kept her lip zipped about it so as not to give right-wing butcherboys the Schadenfreudian satisfaction.
Simultaneously, as if to stomp all over her foreign and domestic policies, there was also “the most serious love in my life”—the refugee Czech psychiatrist she calls Jack, a former Communist and current Marxist whose friends at home had been devoured by the purges. With Jack, she went to Paris and Eastern Europe. About Jack, she wrote a novel, Retreat to Innocence(1956), which she’s ever since suppressed. Why? It was “shallow,” “soft-centered and sentimental,” she says. Others suggest that it may have been embarrassingly “socialist-realist.” Or perhaps she prefers not being reminded of a time when she still believed in radical politics, social justice, and systemic change.
Odd, really. Much of this mid-Fifties period was later covered in her magnificent Golden Notebook. Although the blocked writer Anna Wulf hopes to “create a new way of seeing” and bring forth a whole healthy novel from the separate sickly parts of her fractious past and divided personality, her research notebooks—black for Africa, red for politics, blue for men, yellow for fiction—never add up. Having seen through capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, Marxism, patriarchy, and psychonanalysis to a lonely, chilly impasse, she is still a mess. No matter how many times she bathes, she can’t come clean. There are many unpleasant smells in Lessing’s autobiographies—camphor, horses, paraffin, chamber pots, dead fish, wet wool, the habits of nuns, her father’s crotch—but none so redolent as the very idea of Anna’s compulsive washings of herself in The Golden Notebook, so that she won’t smell of her own period. About an author who knows so much, you’d think there’s nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
Yet somewhere along the path to a higher wisdom, Doris Lessing has found it necessary to scorn every vestige of a younger self who might have been noble, virtuous, brave, or even sincere. All these younger selves have to be as contemptible as “Comrade Johnny” in The Sweetest Dream, a Stalinist snake-oil salesman in a Mao jacket. In Walking in the Shade she says, “The root of communism—a love of revolution—is, I believe, masochism, pleasure in pain, satisfaction in suffering, identification with the redeeming blood.” This ignores Emma Goldman, Pablo Neruda, Jessica Mitford, Victor Serge, and so many others, some of them known to her personally, that you wonder about her memory hole. Likewise, in a review in Time Bites of a memoir she likes as much as I do, Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing with Cuba, she can’t help but use the book as a stick to beat up on the naive young for their romantic inclination “towards sacrifice, pain, death” and then as a sax to blow some smoky blues:
This book will make a good number of aged people like myself wince, and laugh at youthful folly, but laughing out of the other side of our mouths we do sometimes suffer strange feelings of loss. Everywhere are the poor, the unfed, the insulted, the injured: it was nice, for a time, to think there could be an end to all this.
The loss I feel is of that left-wing secular culture whose rich texture she herself conveyed in The Golden Notebook, where Anna entertained the likes of Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, and Julia Kristeva. Instead: condescension. Such a wised-up schoolmarmy future—in which no one is ridiculous enough to think there could ever be an end to poverty, hunger, injury, and insult—may be Sufi adulthood, but it isn’t anywhere I’d want to live, nor the sort of fable I’d read to my grandchildren, nor even a reason to tie my shoes. Surely you can feel as bad as Killjoy Beckett without pretending to be the only grownup in the room.
During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman…and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice.
—Doris Lessing, Martha Quest
Except that so often she is the only grownup in the room. For a dervish, Lessing’s not exactly light on her feet. Lofty and heavy, dogged and relentless, stubborn and punitive, she wears you down. It’s as if she knows so much, and so much better, that we have to carry her around—as Dann carried the snow dog to safety—all the way to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize long overdue. She has written tens of thousands of pages, many of them slapdash, millions of words, none of them mushy, one masterwork, The Golden Notebook, and may be the twentieth century’s least ingratiating great novelist, whose fatalism is often difficult to distinguish from complacency, and who is harder on women than on men: there is “a basic female ruthlessness,” she has said, “female unregenerate, and it comes from a much older time than Christianity or any other softener of savage moralities. It is my right.”
For someone who insists that each of us evolves immediately from “me” to “we,” as if, behind the Veil of Maya or under the Sephiroth Tree, individuality were a degenerative disease, her own ego is as unyielding as the ice on Planet 8. Should you fail to see how metaphors of dervishes, from Rumi’s Persian poetry or from modern molecular physics, can heal the hurt in our history and intimacy, she will feed you to her cats. High up in some impossible balcony, she looks down as if amused to see us strut and fret on a summerstock stage, the way Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark (1973) looked down on a production of A Month in the Country:
But what a remarkable thing it was, this room full of people, animals rather, all looking in one direction, at other dressed-up animals lifted up to perform on a stage, animals covered with cloth and bits of fur, ornamented with stones, their faces and claws painted with colour.
Here are a few of the many things she has told us that we probably didn’t want to hear: “There is really nothing we can do about what we were born with.” And: “Our lives are governed by voices, caresses, threats we cannot remember.” And: “Nothing in history suggests that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, bad times, calamities, while good times are always temporary.” And, perhaps worst of all: “Where I think you may be wrong is that you seem to be thinking that if you decide not to become one thing, the other thing you become has to be better.”
These many Lessings, fifty-five volumes of her, add up to one big bill of indictment, one long history of disenchantments, and fifteen rounds with a heavyweight reality principle, after which an anchorite’s diet of cauliflower, sourdough, Mercurochrome, and scorn. If she doesn’t believe in free will, liberal humanism, historical determinism, existential psychology, the holy ghost, the Enlightenment, or victimhood (and she doesn’t), what does she believe in? Fate gets many mentions, bad luck and good looks play their part, zeitgeists are often blamed (“an era’s commanding flow”), bad boys will be bad boys, and Mother Nature never sleeps. But kinship, cats, and interconnectedness are at the top of her approved list. So is holding on, seeing it through, staying the stalwart course even as biker gangs pour through the city gates. According to this toughest of cookies, Original Sin may be hard cheese, but the real bitch is Eternal Recurrence.
Then there are mothers and daughters, as old as archetypes get. No one before or after Lessing has better anatomized the sick self-sabotaging of smart women who allow themselves to settle for indentured servitude as house mothers, group mothers, householders, hostesses, caretakers, nannies, nurses, and “neurotic nurturers.” We see this from Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, who so efficiently organized her family, her office, and the care and feeding of a whole continent that she practically abolished herself, to Alice Mellings in The Good Terrorist, a lunatic Mother Courage among bomb-throwing nihilist losers, to the unnamed middle-aged surrogate mom in Memoirs of a Survivor(1975), who surrounds a menaced Emily with ladders, clouds, nests, and eggs, to Al-Ith in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five(1980), the “cosmic mother” who must marry the brutish King Ben Ata and teach him how to think, to Frances Lennox in The Sweetest Dream, who assumes responsibility for her own two boys, their friends and schoolmates, her ex-husband’s second and third wives, and any other strays who show up in Hampstead on the run from abusive homes, hateful politics, mental wards, and African colonies, as if Frances were a convent or crash pad. Even her own sons think Frances Lennox is too promiscuous in her hospitality. At what point does Earth Mothering amount to masochism?
And yet if there is any lesson Lessing has tried to burn into our brains, in book after book on page after page, as prophecy and curse, it is that somewhere a girl-child is crying, ignored or abused or abandoned, and someone must save her, no excuses. Look at and listen to Emily, in Memoirs of a Survivor:
Emily, eyes shut, her hands on her thighs, rocked herself back and forth and from side to side, and she was weeping as a woman weeps, which is to say as if the earth were bleeding….
The blinded eyes stare through you; they are seeing some ancient enemy which is, thank heavens, not yourself. No, it is Life or Fate or Destiny, some such force which has struck that woman to the heart, and for ever will she sit, rocking in her grief, which is archaic and dreadful, and the sobs which are being torn out of her are one of the pillars on which everything has to rest. Nothing less could justify them.
This is a politics of guardian angels. Emily, you should know, was Doris Lessing’s mother’s name.
November 30, 2006