Doris Lessing

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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.)

Robert S. Ryf

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2033

[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...

(This entire section contains 2033 words.)

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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 through consciousness and time seems bent first toward Utopia, but, that never reached, toward perhaps a heightened vision of man. If as just noted, that vision does not hold for long, it does at least offer a momentarily intense vista of unity, in which each infinitesimal creature "struck a note, made a whole," in cosmic harmony "in the great singing dance, everything linked and moved together." Yet even in the midst of this moment, "that very ancient weight, the cold of grief" persists; it may be the weight of estrangement, the grief of aloneness. There is, we are reminded again, no Utopia, no collective Eden.

A major preoccupation of the novel is with language, not only as vehicle of meaning but as subject. Charles's journey is also a journey into meaning…. Charles,… even in his most disoriented state is sensitive to language and to its associative possibilities…. Although Charles, like Sweeney, realizes on more than one occasion that he must use words to communicate, he is, unlike Sweeney, particularly sensitive to the sounds of the words as well…. (p. 197)

Charles's journey [includes an] … assault upon our compulsive attempts to compartmentalize experience. The world of ideology and structure is an either/or world; Charles, however, inhabits, at least in part, a both/and world, a realm of existence free from the strictures of closed systems. Language is such a system; if not completely closed, at least relatively so. And Charles is conscious of its limitations as a system, its inability to get at the reality that it symbolizes. "Doctor," he says, "I can't talk to you. Do you understand that? All these words you say, they fall into a gulf, they're not me or you. Not you at all. I can see you. You are a small light. But a good one. God is in you, doctor. You aren't these words." But the doctor does not understand the import of this, and gives Charles the traditional stultifying prescription: "Rest then, Lie down and rest." (p. 198)

[Language], in Charles's experience, constitutes … [a] barrier, and the only "meanings" that can be gotten at through its use are those circumscribed half-truths permitted by the system itself.

This recurring sense of the inadequacy of language and the system of logic which undergirds it must be seen, it seems to me, as applicable to any ideology, and it is at this point that the relationship among The Golden Notebook, The Four-Gated City, and Briefing For a Descent Into Hell emerges most clearly. In each of these three novels there is a major attack upon categories and ideology, in one form or another. In The Golden Notebook, the separate notebooks, representing as they do Anna's attempts to compartmentalize her life, prove to be finally inadequate, and the Anna who tends them is sterile, blocked. It is only the golden notebook, a synthesis, which is finally operative, and the golden notebook comes into being only because Anna and the American writer, Saul Green, have experienced a kind of collapse together. As Lessing has directly pointed out in her preface to the second edition of this novel, the "breakdown" which the two characters experience is in effect a breaking down of categories, a breaking down unto each other. Each is thus able to reach out and strike through to the other, and to give the other a new start as a writer. (p. 199)

[In The Four-Gated City] Martha's whole construct of self begins to dissolve, as she merges herself with the life around her. She becomes, in effect, a secular saint, for it is her selflessness that informs her final identity. Instead of continuing the process of constructing a self and life for her own purposes, she has been used by life for its own cryptic purposes, and our final vision is not of her immobilization but of her goodness, and, it may be, of her triumph.

It is the case that in each of these three novels, the movement beyond categories or compartmentalization is involved with mental illness or emotional collapse. I think, however, that it is a gross oversimplification to conclude that Lessing's purpose is simply to follow Laing in proclaiming that in a special sense only the insane are sane, or to mistake her clear sense of the "special knowledge" apparently available to the disturbed as her main point. Nor do I think that the eloquence of her implicit plea for understanding and compassion is quite the heart of the matter. What she seems essentially to be showing is breakdown or collapse as a desperate and agonized attempt of the self to escape those very categories or ideologies that have entrapped and fragmented it. The implication, then, is that society should not only seek to increase its understanding of its victims, but of the reductive compartments it has erected which are central causes of the victimization. (p. 200)

Charles seems to have been "cured" during the course of [Briefing]; he returns at the end to his post; his concluding letters seem quite "normal." Is this, then, simply the story of the triumph of psychiatry, another ideology after all, over the person? Has Charles been shriven and bereft of his visions, and returned to the constrictive world of our customary habitation? Perhaps. And yet there is, I suggest, quite another possibility, and it is at this point that we must take into account Lessing's interest in and knowledge of Sufism. This elusive and eclectic configuration of thought and belief, communicated largely through parable and aphorism, contains a number of teachings which seem to be of direct relevance to the conclusion of Briefing. Prime among these is the exhortation to be in this world but not of it. It may be that this is Charles's final condition…. [He] might announce himself as "cured" in order to maintain his inner vision free from further assaults by society, to be operational in the "real" world while at the same time maintaining the freedom and richness of his inner life, here symbolized by his archetypal journey in all its ramifications. He might be calling into play those weapons which Stephen Dedalus proclaimed as the artist's defense against the world: silence, exile, cunning. He might, in short, be in this world but not finally of it.

This possibility gains further credibility when we recall Charles's insistence on a both/and mode of thought, rather than the either/or postulations of external reality. The both/and mode is of course more compatible with eastern than with western thought, and is thoroughly consonant with being in the world but not of it. (pp. 200-01)

In all three novels we can see an evolution beyond ideology toward existence, a recognition of the primacy of experience itself over attempts to categorize it, a conviction that abstractions ultimately give way to the on-going and inscrutable processes of life itself. Lessing is ultimately concerned with the survival of the spirit, with the hope of living compassionately in the world but not as a victim of its reductive categorizations. She affirms the possibility of maintaining untrammeled the inner life and therefore of being, even as fallible mortals in a finite world, finally, transcendently, free. (p. 201)

Robert S. Ryf, "Beyond Ideology: Doris Lessing's Mature Vision," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1975, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1975, pp. 193-201.

Celia Betsky

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

[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, emblematic of the class distinctions Lessing has persistently taken to task, has exploded into open hostility and class warfare….

In the midst of a confused time lives a woman, Lessing's narrator. Afflicted with disorientation, she is anchored by the sudden presence of responsibility. A young girl, Emily, is one day brought to her apartment by a stranger and left there. In dealing with this child-woman's struggles, Lessing too achieves a bleak stability. (p. 184)

Having explored the poignancies of adolescence in so much of her autobiographical fiction, Lessing draws here a tragicomic portrait of that stage, accelerated as she thinks it will be by the disturbed tempo of the times…. [Emily] learns from life, but that life is bankrupt. For her, responsibility is a burden, not a blessing. She is an "anachronism," with her drive to save and salvage, to help and protect others. This urge restores to her guardian a sense of humanity, as it has made of Lessing a somewhat unwilling patron saint to people (especially feminists) everywhere. Caring for others can be debilitating as well as restorative; Emily is the most recent in a long line of stoically self-destructive Lessing heroines. Watching her suffer under and give into the demands of love, the narrator sees decades of feminism contradicted and finally reversed; observing the girl's forays into the outside world, she realizes that the tyranny of the majority has usurped the place of cooperation. Lessing passes sad judgment on the future of such cherished causes as feminism and socialism. (pp. 184-85)

[Lessing's] view is entirely pessimistic. The future is the nullification of all progress; even her own work has circled back on itself, for the conditions she rejected in her childhood have grown nightmarish in the future. Lessing can envision only a mystical escape from that existence—a flight into an ambiguous paradise of annihilation…. Whether she is foreseeing this world or the next, Lessing leaves the "end" vague. She forces upon us the most harrowing of apocalypses: the necessity of creating out of our fears an end that we must imagine and face on our own. (p. 185)

Celia Betsky, "Intimations of the End," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), September 6, 1975, pp. 184-85.

Rene Kuhn Bryant

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

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.

Roberta Rubenstein

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[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 insights into the social rituals that frame relationships between the sexes and the generations….

Not all of these stories are about failures of illusion or affection. Several explore important rites of passage…. The singular science-fiction story, "Report on the Threatened City," conveys—through the perspective of extraterrestrial beings visiting earth to warn of catastrophe—the author's more recent apocalyptic voice, which expresses her impatience with the myopia of human beings who ignore the signs of their culture's destruction….

Reading these stories, one can locate the themes and qualities that make Doris Lessing a central figure in this generation's fiction. Her oblique vision provides ironic, psychologically astute, and unsparing exposures of the social masks and false expectations governing human relationships; of the critical moments in the slow growth of emotional knowledge through experience; and of an essentially tragic, sometimes even weary sense of despair that life is so intractable. Her always credible characters, both male and female, are defined by longing, by the emotional compromises constructed to bridge the gap between illusion and actual experience.

The emotional pitch of the stories in this volume is understated but utterly persuasive. Lessing's fiction evokes neither laughter nor tears; instead, it makes you feel the blunt ache of knowledge paid for by loss that only occasionally yields solace. (p. G8)

Roberta Rubenstein, "Disturber of the Peace," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 14, 1978, pp. G5, G8.

Diane Johnson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

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, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov—a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types…. She has remained faithful to the difficult realist esthetic (no recourse to graphics or muddle) and also to the obligation of ethical judgment, which her fictional predecessors believed to be inarguably the writer's right and duty, but which many writers since have refused. She has never been fooled into the kind of moral determinism that characterizes the resolution of much 19th-century fiction. She never confuses what should be with what is, and that is a very forbearing thing in a moralist….

For dealing with the subtlest nuances of the human personality she has a style so plain it is almost affectation—has, it seems, something like disdain for figurative language, and her plainness includes the deceptively forthright way of telling a story from beginning to end with nothing left out, in the author's particular, somewhat chilly and omniscient voice….

The people in her stories make their own mistakes, but it is clearly Mrs. Lessing who takes responsibility for singling them out. Hers is a real authorial presence, with the welfare of real readers in mind….

Collections of stories are often praised for their variety, their range of technical effects, the versatility of the writer; and certainly Mrs. Lessing is various and versatile. But what is impressive about these stories is a cumulative coherence. They have, even as they particularize human experience, almost the gathering suspense of a novel—a novel' of sensibility, about itself as much as about the nearly arbitrary (it seems) subjects whose stories the author has chosen to tell….

To each of the small and great subjects—gardens, nameless grief—Mrs. Lessing brings that rarest of narrative gifts, the ability to fascinate. (p. 7)

On sex Mrs. Lessing has few equals in understanding not only desire, but the rest—boredom, disappointment, erotic fury. Perhaps vanity is at bottom her great subject, but on every subject there is a selfless, composed quality about her writing, a special combination of indignation and compassion. She uses her own life with the dispassionate relish of an evangelical after new converts to her world view, and in hers we recognize ours.

Of course, in the long run, it really isn't possible to anatomize genius. Mrs. Lessing is the great novelist of the unspoken thing, of the part a husband and wife cannot tell each other, of the mysteries that have no name and the little things people are simply reluctant to talk about—disapproval, grudges, vague longings, disappointments, the promptings of the self in all its guises…. [Taken] together, her work is suffused with a calm charity that reassures, heals and encourages. (pp. 7, 56)

Diane Johnson, "Equal to the World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 4, 1978, pp. 7, 56.


Lessing, Doris (Vol. 1)


Lessing, Doris (Vol. 15)