Lessing, Doris (Vol. 15)
[Lessing] reads like a nineteenth-century novelist with a twentieth-century sensibility, exercising a generously detailed, old-fashioned realism to delineate modern types (professionals, hippies, housewives) and modern dilemmas (women's place in society, third-world diplomacy, class mobility). All this Lessing gives without the strait jacket of ideology, for although she was involved in radical politics for years, she believes above all in fidelity to the human complications of her originals….
At its best, her language has a simplicity and clarity which gives it the illusion of being a common language, without quirks of personality or special education. She wants her words to seem transparent, holding reality as if in a glass bowl, containing but not interfering with the vision of it. She creates neither endearing Dickensian eccentrics nor stock types, but aims to describe people who, however English, have universal souls….
Certainly these stories [collected in Stories], with their cats and flower gardens, have that national flavor…. Her Englishness is there in the quality of socialization: none of her characters loses control without watching with a part of themselves the effect on others…. Although there are some Lawrentian moments, involuntary stirrings of the blood, for the most part Lessing writes about movements of the intellect and reserves her mysticism for unusual psychological or spiritual states….
Sometimes her will to simplify makes her prose clumsy, but she never willfully obscures what she knows for effect…. And occasionally she realizes a situation or a character so perfectly (and surely this is a test of literature) that it lodges in the mind as experience, trusted as knowledge, and one feels, "I know him, or her," rather than, "I know that story."…
Lessing does not try for the pure uplifting strains of Tolstoy, to give epic stature to the emotions of everyday men and women. Nor does she manage the perfectly poised...
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Doris Lessing's new novel ["Shikasta"] has this in common with its predecessors: it forces us to think about first and last things, about what we are, how we got that way and where we are going. It forces us to look into the depths of the apocalyptic tide washing around us. (p. 1)
My complaint … is not that Doris Lessing's new novel (the first of a tetralogy) is a forecast of doom. She has been forecasting doom for a long time now, ever more insistently these last dozen years or so. And she has had her reasons…. My complaint, rather, is that our Grand Mistress of lumpen realism has gone religious on us. Her reasons are no longer historical but astrological. The great diagnostician of what ails us has become a symptom of it….
[This] new novel is saturated with false hopes, and the ultimate truth is a system of theosophical emanations, cosmic influences, occult powers, spiritual visitations and stellar vibrations…. [Madness] is an attunement to the real extrasensory reality, a possession of "the Capacities of contact," a receptivity to messages from outer space….
The sometime humanist, champion of responsibility, dramatist of modern humankind making and unmaking itself, the radical individualist who used to say that "what is dangerous is the inner loyalty to something felt as something greater than oneself," has become a religious totalitarian….
In this new novel the old...
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The basic myth articulated [in Shikasta], and underlying all Doris Lessing's work since The Four-Gated City, is a very old one, which can be traced back through Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought for two millennia: the myth of the consuming destruction of a corrupt and fallen world from which a brave new world will be born. As Frank Kermode has ably demonstrated, its most potent source, after the book of Revelation, has been the 12th-century monk Joachim of Flora, whose ideas turn up in the most surprising places, including such major figures of the modern literary imagination as Lawrence and Yeats. Doris Lessing quotes Yeats in Shikasta and her affinity with Lawrence has always been clear. She also draws for imagery and allusion on the Old Testament, on Virgil and Dante, Milton and Blake. But what will dismay many of her admirers is that the basic fable and machinery of Shikasta … seem to derive from much shoddier sources, like Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, the kitsch religion of Ufology, and space operas like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars….
Undoubtedly there are passages in Shikasta where Doris Lessing achieves [the] feat of surprising the reader into viewing his world as if from 'outside', and feeling a real grief and outrage at the evils, atrocities, disasters, and hideous dangers which merely numb us when we encounter...
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This extraordinarily ambitious book [Shikasta] achieves real grandeur despite attacks of silliness. Lessing builds convincingly a standard, but here necessary, indictment of Western civilisation for selfish brutal short-sightedness and then extends it to the whole of humanity…. Lessing concentrates on the West because it is after all we who will read her novel. It is perhaps surprising how comparatively perfunctory is her treatment in this novel of sexual politics; we are told that it was not thus in the beginning but it is only implied in passing that the subjection of women is part of the disorder on which Shammat feeds. The ideas of these books are hardly new ones and certainly not new ones for Lessing but they are expressed impressively and cohcrently with a cold yet apocalyptic anger.
The directly fantastic elements are particularly magnificent, all the more so because of the matter of fact extracts from Canopean history books and memoranda by which Johor's visits to the afterlife and to Earth before the fall are framed. Lessing creates a vivid translucent picture of the wastes in which those waiting for reincarnation wander, of the long happy lives of early humanity and its giant teachers and of the slow degeneration of the disobedient giants to proud mad spectres, that must be called Blakeian out of something more than courtesy or cliché. If there is something rather bizarre and cranky about some of the...
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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….
At best, Lessing's prose is solid and slow and a bit flatfooted. She is an entirely "traditional" prose writer….
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….
If this book has any recent precursor, it is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.…
Lessing is even more influenced by the Old Testament…. 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…. 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."…
It is Lessing's conceit that a benign and...
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Doris Lessing [in Shikasta] retells the story of the Bible, incorporating along the way elements from other Middle East religious traditions. The specifically modern part, and the nearest in feel to science fiction, is the description of the end of our civilization—which is indeed central. And I think it is more than mere coincidence that it is from British writers these days that we get these fantasies about history and how different it might have been—from Kingsley Amis and William Golding—and something equivalent from British critics. The main fact in modern English consciousness, though it surfaces obliquely and intermittently, is the end of the empire, and it is easy to take the imaginative step...
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URSULA K. LeGUIN
The second of the Canopus in Argos series of novels is finer-grained and stronger than Shikasta [the first]…. [The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five] may be read for the pure pleasure of reading it, a tale unencumbered by metaphysical machinery. The Canopans and Sirians, the superhuman powers of good and evil of Shikasta, stay offstage this time…. [The powers of good, the] Providers, command Al · Ith, ruler of Zone Three, and Ben Ata, ruler of Zone Four, to marry. Both obey the order not happily but unquestioningly. Theirs not to reason why (why not?). Once they meet, however, the two human beings begin to behave very humanly indeed, and what might have been a fable enacted...
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"The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five" takes place among … "concentric shells"—six of them—which, we are told in "Shikasta," surround the planet in a way reminiscent of the spheres of ancient cosmology. Each shell or Zone represents a different "level of being." Zone Six, the only one really dealt with in "Shikasta," is the innermost (or lowest), a place where disconsolate souls wander about or line up for reincarnation on the planet. Zone Three, where the action of "The Marriages" begins, is at the midpoint of the hierarchically arranged spheres; from there we descend to Zone Four and, briefly, into Zone Five. We also catch glimpses of the higher, more ethereal Zone Two. Zone One remains...
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