Doris Lessing engaged in a lifelong process of self-education, becoming involved with all the important intellectual and political movements of the twentieth century: Freudian and Jungian psychology, Marxism, feminism, existentialism, mysticism, sociobiology, and speculative scientific theory. All these interests appear in her fiction, which consequently serves as a record of the changing climate of the times. She has also displayed in her writing an increasing anxiety about humanity’s ability to survive.
In Doris Lessing’s short fiction, the reader meets characters remarkable for their intelligence, their unceasing analysis of their emotions, and their essential blindness to their true motivations. The people who move through her stories, while very vividly placid in the details of their lives, are in essence types. As Lessing says in her preface to The Golden Notebook, they are “so general and representative of the time that they are anonymous, you could put names to them like those in the old Morality Plays.” Those whom the reader meets most frequently in the short fiction are Mr. I-am-free-because-I-belong-nowhere, Miss I-must-have-love-and-happiness, Mrs. I-have-to-be-good-at-everything-I-do, Mr. Where-is-a-real-woman, and Ms. Where-is-a-real-man; and there is one final type Lessing names, Mrs. If-we-deal-very-well-with-this-small-problem-then-perhaps-we-can-forget-we-daren’t-look-at-the-big-ones. This last type is the character so often met at the beginning of Lessing’s stories, the character who has become uneasily aware of a discrepancy between intention and action, between the word and the deed, but who would prefer not to take the analysis too far. Lessing is inexorable, however, and in story after story characters are driven to new, usually unpleasant knowledge about themselves and their motivations. Typically, the stories end with the situation unresolved. The reader sees the awakening but not the translation of new knowledge into action. For Lessing, the jump from dealing very well with small problems to looking at the big ones is the jump from History to Vision and lies beyond the scope of short fiction.
The great obstacle facing Lessing’s characters in their movement toward self-knowledge, toward vision, is emotion—particularly romantic love. Lessing sees romantic love as essentially egocentric; people love what they wish to see in the beloved, not what is really there. They love so that they will feel loved in return. They love, in the terms of the title story of one of her collections, from “the habit of loving.” This, Lessing insists, is nothing but masochistic self-indulgence. Love robs people of their ability to reason clearly, diverts their energy into useless and potentially harmful channels, causes them to agonize over choices which make, in the end, very little real difference.
Worse, in terms of her visionary philosophy, romantic love, by keeping people focused on the particular, prohibits their making the necessary connections between the individual and the collective consciousness. In story after story, readers watch people live out the same patterns, search for love at all costs, focus on the small problems, the matter at hand: Does he love me? Readers watch them try to believe that this is fundamentally what matters, that there is meaning in the small patterns of their lives. Lessing would deny that this is so. There is meaning, she seems to say, but it lies beyond these insignificant details. One must break through them, destroy them, in order to find it.
Some of her characters, although by no means all, do so. Anna Wulf, the writer-heroine of The Golden Notebook, succeeds in first dismantling the old patterns and then in synthesizing new ones, as does the anonymous narrator of “How I Finally Lost My Heart.”
“How I Finally Lost My Heart”
An uncharacteristic story in its resemblance to fable, “How I Finally Lost My Heart” is fascinating in its diagrammatic exposition of Lessing’s views on romantic love. The story opens as the unnamed “I,” a woman, is awaiting the arrival of her escort for the evening, a man designated only as C. The narrator explains that C is the third “serious” love of her life, the first two being A and B. Earlier in the day, the speaker has had lunch with A and tea with B and is pleased that she has been able to enjoy their company with equanimity; she is, finally, “out of love” with them. Recognizing her sensation at this discovery as one of relief, the speaker begins to question her exhilaration at the thought of spending the evening with C, “because there was no doubt that both A and B had caused me unbelievable pain. Why, therefore, was I looking forward to C? I should rather be running away as fast as I could.”
Her questioning leads her to a new recognition of what lies behind the human desire to be “in love.” It is not, she concludes, that “one needs a person who, like a saucer of water, allows one to float off on him/her, like a transfer.” It is not, then, that one needs to “lose one’s heart” by blending with another. Rather, “one carries with one a sort of burning spear stuck in one’s side, that one waits for someone else to pull out; it is something painful, like a sore or a wound, that one cannot wait to share with someone else.” One needs to “lose one’s heart” literally, to get rid of it by giving it to someone else. The catch is that we are expected to take their heart in return. Lessing envisages a grotesque sort of barter, two people demanding of each other, “take my wound.”
Moving to the telephone to call C and suggest that they agree to keep their hearts to themselves, the speaker is forced to hang up the phone:For I felt the fingers of my left hand push outwards around something rather large, light and slippery—hard to describe this sensation, really. My hand is not large, and my heart was in a state of inflation after having had lunch with A, tea with B, and then looking forward to C. Anyway, my fingers were stretching out rather desperately to encompass an unknown, largish, lightish object,...
(The entire section is 2513 words.)