All human languages have certain common characteristics, called “universals” in linguistics. All, for example, have a class of words translatable as English nouns and another class translatable as English verbs. All have a means of asking questions and making statements. The universal of interest to readers of the fifth novel in Doris Lessing’s series Canopus in Argos: Archives is “displacement”—that is, that all languages have the capacity to refer to something not physically present to the speaker and hearer. People can talk about what happened yesterday, about what may happen tomorrow, or even fantasize about what cannot possibly ever happen. Baboons, to select one example as a contrast, use verbal signals to alert the pack to the presence of food or danger; however, the baboon never gives the call for food unless it actually sees or smells food, and it never gives the call for danger simply because it is lonely or nervous. Baboons always tell the truth.
From the possibility of displacement in human speech springs the ability to lie, but from displacement also springs all verbal art, all history, all planning for the future, all science dependent on hypothesis. Indeed, a society built on a language lacking displacement seems inconceivable.
Doris Lessing’s Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire is about telling lies, specifically political lies—propaganda. Like fish in water, humans live in an atmosphere of words, seldom thinking about the nature of this surrounding element. We trust that our whole speech community shares a common understanding of the words we use—and in this trust rests the strength of propaganda. Thus, the rulers of every new nation call their state a democracy, not because they believe that the sounds that make up the word have some innate power, but because they want to take advantage of the common associations of the word in the speech community. When people discover (usually as children) that a word may mean different things to different people—that is, when children discover that some people will lie to them—they may react in many ways, and surely the least sensible way to react is to assume that because someone has lied to one, no one tells the truth. Or, to put it into the political context of The Sentimental Agents (as the work will probably always be called), the least sensible way to react is to assume that because “freedom” may mean different things to different people, that the word has no meaning at all.
Unfortunately, this reaction seems to be the lesson of The Sentimental Agents. The agents of Shammat or Puttiora, the galactic bad guys, are up to their usual nastiness, causing trouble apparently only for the evil it brings about, and their chief instrument in several spectacularly vulnerable societies is lying. Krolgul, one of Shammat’s agents, sets up an Academy of Rhetoric in which the locals are trained to respond with the utmost emotion to high-flown but empty phrases—the reaction which George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) called “duckspeak.” This particular species of lying—using the emotional appeal of words to cover an emptiness of substance—is in Lessing’s novel always referred to as “rhetoric” and described as a disease: People suffer from “undulant rhetoric” and are sent to the “Hospital for Rhetorical Diseases,” which has departments such as that of “Rhetorical Logic.” The metaphor of disease is the basis for what humor the book has to offer.
Against the flood of diseased language stand the good guys—the agents of Canopus, and chiefly Klorathy. His younger assistant, Incent, has some redeeming features in his eagerness and folly, but Klorathy’s eternal wisdom and cool benevolence after a while become suffocating. It is mainly Klorathy who supplies the remedies for rhetoric and who likewise supplies many examples of its most virulent outbreaks. (In this review, Klorathy will be referred to as “he”; it is a measure of the book’s character development that it is never specified whether Klorathy is a woman or man.) Some readers may find Klorathy’s examples of diseased rhetoric the most repellent parts of the book: Among the works held up for the reader to see through and be disgusted by are Winston Churchill’s address to the British people during the Battle of Britain (Lessing, it might be noted, moved to Britain only in...
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