Lessing, Doris 1919–
Lessing is a British novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet who was born in Persia and raised in Rhodesia. Her work is informed by an overriding concern for racial justice and autonomy for women in a white male-dominated society. Lessing began her career as a realist, and her early novels exhibit a fervent belief in communism, which she later renounced. Primarily a novelist, Lessing has also written some well-received short stories, many of which revolve around her African experiences. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Briefing For a Descent Into Hell] seems to me to be an important synthesis of central aspects of The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City and in some ways to constitute [Lessing's] most mature vision thus far of the ultimate nature of human experience. (p. 193)
To center initially on the question of mental disturbance is natural enough for both reviewer and reader; after all, Charles is a patient at a mental hospital throughout the novel. But to remain centered on this aspect of it, or on the related needs for understanding, compassion, and reform is, it seems to me, to miss the central import of the novel and the position it occupies in Lessing's major fiction.
Her own cryptic description of the book may have been misleading. In an interview while she was at work on it, she described it as "a mad, dreamlike book, completely different from anything I have done before."
Yes and no. Certainly it is different from her other novels in plot and in its use of several media through which to bring us the story. Yet as one moves through the book and, in particular, contemplates it afterward, one is aware of important resonances. For one thing, this novel, as do her other two major ones, stands squarely in the context of twentieth-century literature, and reflects, as do they, most of the principal concerns of the literary consciousness of our time, concerns shared, in various particulars, by most major modern novelists. The nature of the self and of consciousness, the gulf between inner and outer states, the emphasis on myth and archetypal patterns of experience—these are familiar enough landmarks. Additionally, the concerns Lessing has shown, elsewhere and here, with the dehumanizing aspects of society, with conditioning as a result of political structures, and with the consequent difficulties of surviving as persons, place her in the mainstream of the contemporary tradition. More particularly, her concentration, in Briefing, on the nature and problem of language itself, its use as subject as well as vehicle of communication, its inadequacies, the paradox of the use of language to get us beyond language, the attempt to communicate what is recognized to be incommunicable, these latter considerations relate her closely to such twentieth-century poets as Eliot. It is surely more than a coincidence that Charles finds himself more than once beset by Sweeney's problem: "I gotta use words when I talk to you."
But what connects Briefing importantly to her other two major novels, and what reflects her most mature vision, it seems to me, is the movement beyond ideology, which takes shape in the emerging opposition to and final rejection of categories, and the recognition of the primacy of experiential insights and values as against abstract knowledge and norms. (pp. 194-95)
[The] circularity of structure [in Briefing For a Descent Into Hell] embodies both good and bad news about human experience. The great cycles of moon, myth, and man are reassuring, but there is no escape from them. Indeed, a central portent of the book seems to me to be that there is no Utopia, no magic place. We must somehow make it where we are.
Structure also embodies central motifs. The theme of descent of course pervades the book. The descent of the gods implies the divine element of man, but it is a divinity stifled by man himself, and by his institutions. Charles, one of these descended gods, is stifled by society, here represented by the hospital. We learn much later that he has given lectures on the education of children, whose trailed clouds of glory have been quickly dissipated by schools. Whether child or man, both school and mental hospital want the same thing: docile child, tractable patient. Institutional messages to each correspond: to the child, sit still; to the man, cooperate.
Descent is also evident in Charles's archetypal journey through the forest, subtly analogous to that of Conrad's Marlow, penetrating the heart of darkness. It is a journey through consciousness, out of time, or back to the beginning of time. But time, as history, reasserts itself, and the descent becomes a deterioration as Eden-forest yields to city, and the innocence of the lone traveller to the rapaciousness of the meat-eaters whom he joins. It is a descent into the hell of the rat-dogs and monkeys, whose bestiality forms a circle of imprisonment around him. (p. 196)
Serving as a link between the circles of inner and outer worlds, the Crystal, perhaps a symbol for thought itself, gives occasion to his vision of unity and harmony. But the vision does not hold for long, and his descent from its heights is inevitable. And of course the white bird descends also, first to pick him up, but secondly and inevitably, to bring him back down again.
Closely associated with these themes is that of the quest. His entire journey...
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[The Memoirs of a Survivor] is about the future, where now the "ordinariness of the extraordinary" has taken hold. Yet in the chaos of this imagined future, in the hiatus between two eerily unspecified disasters, Lessing takes a definite, if disillusioned, stand on a number of issues she has made vital before: the lot of women, sexual relations, the problem of community, the problem of social behavior and personal morality, the price of maturity, the plight of the individual. For Lessing, this book of speculation about the years to come is an occasion for ruminating on traditional roles and assumptions. Life will go on as the world falls apart….
In Lessing's future, the group mentality has spawned bands of roving teen-agers, later joined by adults, all willing to shirk responsibility for mass action and mass destruction…. It is rule by the horde, and terrorization, an extension of perceptions articulated in Lessing's other books….
The collapse of communication is also exacerbated by the circumstances of tomorrow. Incomprehension reigns between different segments of the population, and between them and the authorities…. Language is the casualty in the game the narrator sees everyone playing, a charade against a hated power structure—and against themselves. The only thing shared is the premonition that some terminal event is at hand, a pall of anticipation. The fragmentation of the English language,...
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Complex character creation, spell-binding plot-spinning, delicate character interplay, bright dialogue—none of these has been regarded as Mrs. Lessing's forte in earlier novels, and Memoirs of a Survivor, alas, is no exception. In those earlier writings, her choice of fiction as a vehicle for her ideas seemed almost accidental and perhaps irrelevant. Her weaknesses as a novelist were beside the point since, despite them, she was an intellectually stimulating, philosophically provocative social commentator. In Memoirs of a Survivor, however, her indifference to the demands of fiction becomes both obvious and oppressive. Although Mrs. Lessing follows the same patterns she has traced before, the result here is nightmare rather than revelation. And the principal trouble with nightmares is that their terror and meaning, so real to the dreamer, diminish to the vanishing point in the telling.
Rene Kuhn Bryant, "Mrs. Lessing's Vanishing Point," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 30, 1976, p. 462.
[Stories] offers Lessing's most characteristic voices, moods, preoccupations. Stories such as "The Habit of Loving," "The Other Woman," "A Man and Two Women," "How I Finally Lost My Heart," reveal by their titles the emphasis on the remorses and dislocations of desire. The tone is never strident, often acutely ironic (though rarely humorous), as Lessing details the subtler losses attendant upon growing up, growing old, shedding the illusions of love, and confronting the limits of passion. Her "love" stories are anti-sentimental, wry vignettes that often focus on somewhat curious groupings—people who simply don't dovetail in the traditional pairings. (p. G5)
The stories in this mood yield...
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It is not Mrs. Lessing's fault that, among the many secrets she knows, her knowledge of women's anger and aggression, even more than of their sexuality, took people by surprise and categorized her. That is the fault of our times and of history. But ["Stories"] should repair any misunderstanding of her timelessness, the breadth of her sympathy and range of her interests and, above all, the pleasures of reading her. Rereading these stories is like returning to a Victorian novel one loves, and affords the same delightful feeling of self-indulgence combined with self-improvement.
Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century,...
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